Sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation is a crime with devastating and long lasting consequences for its victims and their families, particularly when victims, or those at risk of abuse, do not receive appropriate, immediate and on-going support. 

'Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or 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.'

Child sexual exploitation: definition and guide for practitioners, DfE 2017

Child sexual exploitation can be difficult to identify and assess. The indicators for child sexual exploitation can sometimes be mistaken for ‘normal adolescent behaviours’. Practitioners require knowledge, skill, professional curiosity and an assessment of the risk factors and personal circumstances of individual children to ensure that the signs and symptoms are interpreted correctly and appropriate support is given.

Even where a young person is old enough to legally consent to sexual activity, the law states that consent is only valid where they make a choice and have the freedom and capacity to make that choice. If a child feels they have no other meaningful choice, are under the influence of harmful substances or fearful of what might happen if they don’t comply, consent cannot legally be given whatever the age of the child.

In most cases of child sexual exploitation there is an exchange of sexual activity in return for something, commonly known as 'grooming'. The exchange can include:

  • money, drugs or alcohol, 
  • status, protection or perceived receipt of love or affection
  • the prevention of something negative e.g. stopping a threat of harm 

There is always an unequal power dynamic within this relationship and the exchange does not make the child or young person any less of a victim. Child sexual exploitation is never the victim’s fault: all children and young people under the age of 18 have a right to be safe and should be protected from harm.

Indication of risk or experience of sexual exploitation include:

  • Changes to appearance and behaviour, disengagement from school, using vehicles driven by unknown adults, associating with other victims, inappropriate contact with older people

  • Sexually risky behaviour, infections, pregnancy, age-inappropriate clothing, seen in places used for sexual exploitation

  • Family & care relationships with history of abuse & neglect, placement breakdown, going missing, no known ‘home’, found in areas where they have no known links

  • Financial incentives, petty crime, having keys to other premises, expensive clothes, mobiles etc, expensive social activities, large amounts of money

Perpetrators often use local businesses, entertainment venues and public spaces to ‘groom’ children and young people by befriending them, providing food, alcohol, cigarettes, providing access to over-18 establishments and parties, taking advantage of drinkers with impaired judgement, offering free transport. Once the victim gas agreed the perpetrator may be taken to venues with private areas or overnight accommodation where they are abused. The perpetrator may use technology to record & threaten to or distribute images of the victim.

Premises licence holders and supervisors have a legal duty to ensure that children and young people are protected from physical, psychological and moral harm at their premises. If they allow entry to under-18s they must have systems in place to safeguard children and young people. You can put off potential abusers by displaying posters and demonstrating that your business is committed to eradicating child sexual exploitation.

  • learn what child sexual exploitation is
  • understand how abusers can exploit your business or service
  • be vigilant and recognise the signs
  • know where to go for information and how to report it 

Make sure you know who the ‘Safeguarding Lead’ is in your organisation and the procedure to follow if you have concerns about a child or young person.

If you are worried or in any doubt:

Feedback from families affected by child sexual exploitation:

SCSP fact sheets:

SCSP policy and guidance:

E-learning:

National resources:

Other relevant information can be found on this website here: Information and resources or in the index on the left side of this page.

If you are concerned about a child or young person, follow this link: Referring a safeguarding concern to Children’s Social Care

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