Sexual exploitation involves an imbalance of power in favour of the abuser where coercion, intimidation, violence and/or enticement are used to sexually abuse a child. This can emerge from a seemingly consensual relationship with the child. It can also include introductions to other abusers, formal prostitution of the child and/or the production and distribution of sexual images or exposure of the child to sexual images. It can be perpetrated by both males and female adults and also peers of the child. It can affect children from all social backgrounds irrespective of gender and ethnicity.
The most recent updated definition of child sexual exploitation is by the Department of Education in 2017 which was published alongside new practice guidance. This definition is also incorporated into the most recent ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’ guidance 2019.
‘Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or a group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator. The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual. Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology’ (Department for Education, 2017).
This guidance emphasises the distinction between child sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse, it explains that child sexual exploitation involves an 'exchange' and the guidance explains an exchange as;
There is a danger that not fully understanding consent could lead to missed safeguarding opportunities. Consent can only be given if a person has a choice and also has the freedom and capacity to make a choice. Children cannot consent to sexual exploitation as they cannot consent to their own abuse. 16 and 17 year olds can consent to sex but they can still be sexually exploited. A ‘social model of consent’ refers to consent and abusive sexual activity, it explains how various social and environmental factors constrain a young person’s capacity to provide consent. It is explained in this short film by Professor Jenny Pearce from the University of Bedfordshire.
The trap of child sexual exploitation is explored further in the trauma model and CE, this explains some of the reasons why a child may not alert safe adults to their abuse and may return to the perpetrator who harmed them. This behaviour can mean some professionals may not always identify a child as being exploited.
Views of the child
Children have shared they find it difficult to access and receive support. This is because they do not consider themselves to be a victim of exploitation or at risk. They do not always accept that they need help or that they may not be able to protect themselves. They also do not easily trust professionals and feel they have failed many victims in the past. Commonly children have repeated key themes about what they want from professionals who are reaching out to help them. They want professionals to notice what could be happening and ask them questions but at their pace and to feel they genuinely care. Children do not want to feel blamed or judged and they want their personal information respected and to feel they are working together with professionals. They want to feel professionals pay attention to their strengths as well as the risks in their life, thinking about all their needs, including their family. They want a professional who will help them to make sense of what has happened and find ways to offer consistent support.