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Child Sexual Exploitation


“For children over 10, sexual exploitation is the most pressing and hidden child protection issue in this country.” Anne Marie Carrie’

Child sexual exploitation is a form of child abuse (defined as anyone under 18 years of age).

It is complex and can manifest itself in many different ways. Children and young people are given something which may be drugs, accommodation, gifts or affection. Affection is a result of them performing sexual activities, or others performing sexual activities on them.

Child sexual exploitation can occur without any physical contact, children and young people are groomed to post sexual images of themselves on the internet.

In all cases those who exploit children or young people have power over them, either by virtue of their age or physical strength.

Exploitative relationships are characterised in the main by the child’s limited availability of choice, compounding their vulnerability. This inequality often takes many forms, however the most obvious include coercion, violence, and deception.

The Barnardo’s “Puppet On A String “report defined three broad categories of child sexual exploitation.

These were described as:

• Inappropriate relationships

• ‘Boyfriend’ model of exploitation and peer exploitation

• Organised/networked sexual exploitation or trafficking

Due to the complex nature of child sexual exploitation a child or younger person may not be willing or too afraid to disclose that he or she is being exploited.

The reasons for a child not disclosing can include:

• Unaware that they are being exploited and they may feel that there are in a consensual relationship.

• Perpetrators are often older but may be of similar age to the victim.

• Afraid of retribution or that a situation could become much worse.

• Fear of violence within exploitative relationship.

• They may feel ashamed.

• Fear of not being believed.

Sometimes victims of child sexual exploitation are moved around geographically to cater for the needs of the group and they may even be trafficked into, within and out of the UK.

CEOP compiles information on the trafficking of children into and within the UK and its Child Trafficking Update published in October 2011 notes that “Overall, sexual exploitation is the most prevalent form of exploitation …”. In October 2011 the Department for Education and the Home Office jointly published updated practice guidance on safeguarding children who may have been trafficked.

Victims may be used as agents to recruit other children and young people, then instructed by offenders on the types of children they should recruit, giving rise to situations where the same young person may be seen as both the victim and the perpetrator of sexual exploitation.

These groups are usually well organised criminal gangs with strong communication networks, often staying in close contact by mobile phone.

Group associated sexual exploitation is carried out by more than one perpetrator and can involve individual or a number victims. Sexual exploitation can also occur within, or between, gangs generally consisting of young people but often of adults. Gang associated sexual exploitation can take a number of forms, including girls and young women being exploited by young men as a rite of passage or to repay gang debts.

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups which began in October 2011 will be looking closely at both categories of behaviour, including ‘peer on peer’ exploitation, where children and young people are abused by other children and young people. which is often a result of being exploited by adults.

A key difficulty in tackling child sexual exploitation is that victims often don’t recognise or acknowledge that they are being exploited.

There are a number of signs which should cause both parents and professionals to consider whether a child or young person is a victim, or potential victim, of child sexual exploitation.

Being able to recognise the signs plays an important role in raising awareness of both parents and professionals, however it’s important to remember that many children or young people will often display one or more of these behaviours without being a victim of child sexual exploitation.

If a child or young person is a victim of grooming, blackmail or sexual abuse, they may show some or all of the following signs:

​• Regularly absent from school

• Missing training, work or other activities

• Going missing for long periods of time

• Appearing at school extremely fatigued

• Being dishonest about where they’ve been and whom they’ve been with

• Having an unusually close connection with an older person

• Displaying mood changes

• Appearing hyperactive / secretive / hostile / aggressive / impatient / resentful / anxious / withdrawn / depressed

• Speaking different by using street language or copying the way a new friend may speak

• Mentioning or talking about new friends who don’t normally belong to their normal social circle

• Attending school with gifts or money given by new friends

• Having large amounts of money and which they cannot account for

• Using a new mobile phone that is possibly given to them by a new friend and excessively making calls, videos or sending text messages

• Being very secretive about their phone, internet and social media use

• Being in possession of false identification which may be a stolen passport or driver’s licence

• Being picked up by an older or new friend from school, or down the street

If you notice a combination of these worrying signs, its time to seek help and advice.

Most critically you must report suspected abuse if you:

• Feel uncomfortable about the way an adult interacts with a child/children

• Suspect that the adult may be engaging in sexual abuse of a child/children

• Suspect that an adult is grooming a child or children for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity

• Reasonably believe that an adult is at risk of engaging in sexual behaviour with a child or children.

In many cases the signs that an adult is sexually abusing or grooming a child with the intent of sexually abusing them may not be obvious.

As children grow older, risks change, so children and young people need to be supported to help them learn to understand the many dangers and the importance of making sensible decisions, not least in respect of friendship groups and first relationships, but as children grow and become more independent, parents or carers have less control over them.

It is important that all children and young people have an understanding and develop the knowledge and skills they need to make safe and healthy choices about relationships and sexual health. Making children and young people aware will help them to avoid situations that put them at risk of sexual exploitation, and if they need advice and support they’ll know what to do and who to turn to.

Schools have an important role in protecting young people by recognising the first signs of abuse and then making appropriate referrals. Schools have the opportunity to deliver age appropriate information to children and young people which will enable and help them understand, manage risks and keep them well informed for positive choices, helping to prevent sexual exploitation taking place.

The Children’s Society runs programmes working with young runaways and children at risk of sexual exploitation, all of which provide ‘prevention’ sessions to primary and secondary schools as well as to pupil referral units, youth centres and children’s homes. These sessions focus on reasons why children run away from home; the harm that they face on the streets; how they can keep themselves safe; and where to get help. The Children’s Society has also developed free Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) and citizenship resources for teachers and youth workers. Sexual exploitation can be difficult to speak about with children and young people and they may be reluctant to share information and disclose any details about the abuse.

When listening to the child or young person make a disclosure about potential abuse, including sexual exploitation, it’s important to remove to avoid asking leading or intrusive questions.

Your role is simply to listen carefully and receive all the information you can in an unbiased way which will reassure the child or young person that they no longer have to deal with the abuse alone.

It’s important to report any concerns you have about a child or young persons safety by calling 101 and informing the police. If you’re worried about a or you’re unsure, contact the NSPCC helpline to speak to one of their counsellors. Call NSPCC on 0808 800 5000, email help@nspcc.org.uk or fill in their online form.

The Details

Each year in England thousands of children and young people are raped or sexually abused. This includes children who have been abducted and trafficked, or beaten, threatened or bribed into having sex.Media coverage of police investigations into the crimes of Jimmy Savile and other prominent figures have brought child sexual abuse and exploitation to public attention.But while police work to tackle the problem, child sexual exploitation continues to happen every day. It’s important to understand what child sexual exploitation is and to be aware of warning signs that may indicate a child you know is being exploited.

What is child sexual exploitation?

Before explaining child sexual exploitation, it is helpful to understand what is meant by the age of consent (the age at which it is legal to have sex). This is 16 for everyone in the UK. Under the age of 16, any sort of sexual touching is illegal.

It is illegal to take, show or distribute indecent photographs of children, or to pay or arrange for sexual services from children.

It is also against the law if someone in a position of trust (such as a teacher) has sex with a person under 18 that they have responsibility for.

Child sexual exploitation is when people use the power they have over young people to sexually abuse them. Their power may result from a difference in age, gender, intellect, strength, money or other resources. 

People often think of child sexual exploitation in terms of serious organised crime, but it also covers abuse in relationships and may involve informal exchanges of sex for something a child wants or needs, such as accommodation, gifts, cigarettes or attention. Some children are “groomed” through “boyfriends” who then force the child or young person into having sex with friends or associates. 

Sexual abuse covers penetrative sexual acts, sexual touching, masturbation and the misuse of sexual images – such as on the internet or by mobile phone. 

Part of the challenge of tackling child sexual exploitation is that the children and young people involved may not understand that non-consensual sex (sex they haven’t agreed to) or forced sex – including oral sex – is rape.

Which children are affected?

Any child or young person can be a victim of sexual exploitation, but children are believed to be at greater risk of being sexually exploited if they:

  • are homeless
  • have feelings of low self-esteem
  • have had a recent bereavement or loss
  • are in care
  • are a young carer

However, there are many more ways that a child may be vulnerable to sexual exploitation, and these are outlined in a report by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner

The signs of child sexual exploitation may be hard to spot, particularly if a child is being threatened. To make sure that children are protected, it’s worth being aware of the signs that might suggest a child is being sexually exploited.

Signs of grooming and child sexual exploitation

Signs of child sexual exploitation include the child or young person:

  • going missing for periods of time or regularly returning home late
  • skipping school or being disruptive in class
  • appearing with unexplained gifts or possessions that can’t be accounted for
  • experiencing health problems that may indicate a sexually transmitted infection
  • having mood swings and changes in temperament
  • using drugs and/or alcohol
  • displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour, such as over-familiarity with strangers, dressing in a sexualised manner or sending sexualised images by mobile phone (“sexting”)
  • they may also show signs of unexplained physical harm, such as bruising and cigarette burns

Preventing abuse

The NSPCC offers advice on how to protect children. It advises:

  • helping children to understand their bodies and sex in a way that is appropriate for their age
  • developing an open and trusting relationship, so they feel they can talk to you about anything
  • explaining the difference between safe secrets (such as a surprise party) and unsafe secrets (things that make them unhappy or uncomfortable)
  • teaching children to respect family boundaries, such as privacy in sleeping, dressing and bathing
  • teaching them self-respect and how to say no
  • supervising internet, mobile and television use

Who is sexually exploiting children?

People of all backgrounds and ethnicities, and of many different ages, are involved in sexually exploiting children. Although most are male, women can also be involved in sexually exploiting children. For instance, women will sometimes be involved through befriending victims.

Criminals can be hard to identify because the victims are often only given nicknames, rather than the real name of the abuser.

Some children and young people are sexually exploited by criminal gangs specifically set up for child sexual exploitation.

What to do if you suspect a child is being sexually exploited

If you suspect that a child or young person has been or is being sexually exploited, the NSPCC recommends that you do not confront the alleged abuser. Confronting them may place the child in greater physical danger and may give the abuser time to confuse or threaten them into silence.

Instead, seek professional advice. Discuss your concerns with your local authority’s children’s services (safeguarding team), the police or an independent organisation, such as the NSPCC. They may be able to advise on how to prevent further abuse and how to talk to your child to get an understanding of the situation.

If you know for certain that a child has been or is being sexually exploited, report this directly to the police.

What health professionals can do to help exploited children

One of the best ways that health professionals can help a child who is at risk of sexual exploitation is to be aware of what to look out for. The Department of Health, together with Brook, has produced an online course, Combating CSE, for health professionals to help them identify children who are at risk of or have been sexually abused.

Revised guidance for professionals who come into contact with children was published by the Department for Education in March 2015, to help practitioners identify child abuse and neglect, and take appropriate action.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has updated its guidance on when to suspect child maltreatment.


Videos raising awareness of child sexual exploitation

Dealing with child sex abuse | NHS

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Marie Collins Foundation Video 2

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Our work: child sexual exploitation

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Marie Collins Foundation Video 3

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Marie Collins Foundation Video 4

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Spot the signs of child sexual exploitation | full length film | Seen and Heard

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``Hear me, see me`` Child sexual exploitation awareness

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Child Sexual Exploitation - Emma's Story

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