Child sexual exploitation is a type of child sexual abuse involving the manipulation or coercion of people under 18 into sexual activity.
Children may be promised or plied with money, gifts, favours, attention or safety and protection from violence in exchange for engaging or submitting to sexual acts or allowing sexual acts to be performed on them.
Some children are tricked into believing they are in a loving, consensual relationship with their abuser. They might be invited to parties and given alcohol or drugs. They may be groomed and exploited online by people claiming to be someone they’re not, or by people they know; as part of this they may be persuaded or forced to post pictures or films of themselves over the internet. Abusers may then threaten to share the images or videos with others unless they engage in further sexual activity.
Child sexual exploitation can be a hidden crime, because even though it is often committed in plain sight it is under-identified or not acted on by adults. Children often trust their abuser and don’t realise they are being exploited. They may depend on their abuser or be too scared to escape from them or tell anyone what’s going on.
Some young people are trafficked into the UK in order to be sexually exploited, others are trafficked within the UK; moved from place to place in order to be abused again and again.
Children, both boys and girls involved in gangs are also frequently forced into sexual activity, possibly as an initiation or where sexual favours are demanded in exchange for status or protection.
Perpetrators operate in all parts of the country, in cities, towns and rural areas, and are known to target young people in a range of locations including schools, neighbourhoods, parks, houses, hotels, takeaways, retail and entertainment outlets and online.
Sexual exploitation has profound and damaging consequences for the individuals exploited and those around them, particularly their families.
Approximately one-third of sexual exploitation is committed by other children under the age of 18 years. These young people who display harmful sexual behaviours are often victims of trauma and abuse themselves including domestic abuse, physical abuse, chronic neglect and sexual abuse.
Child sexual abuse online
When sexual exploitation happens online, young people may be persuaded, or forced, to:
send or post sexually explicit images of themselves
take part in sexual activities via a webcam or smartphone
have sexual conversations by text or online
be live streamed whilst being sexually abused
Abusers may threaten to send images, video or copies of conversations to the young person’s friends and family unless they take part in other sexual activity. Images or videos may continue to be shared long after the sexual abuse has stopped.
Young people are increasingly being exposed to sexually explicit images at a young age via smartphones (including pornography and ‘sexting’). Experts believe this is contributing to the ever-younger sexualisation of both boys and girls, distorting healthy sex and relationships, and ultimately increasing the risk of violence and abuse against children.
Research by the NSPCC has shown:
the primary technology-related threat comes from peers, not ‘stranger danger’
sexting is often coercive
girls are the most adversely affected
ever younger children are affected
sexting practices are culturally specific.
Exploitation in gangs
exert power and control over members
initiate young people into the gang
exchange sexual activity for status or protection
entrap rival gang members by exploiting girls and young women
inflict sexual assault as a weapon in conflict.
Children are frequently forced into sexual activity by gang members. Violence will usually be involved.
The majority of sexual exploitation within gangs is committed by teenage boys and men in their twenties. Younger boys can often be forced by older peers to sexually assault and harm other boys or girls.The gang model of child sexual exploitation may involve peers recruiting young people, often girls, into the gang. Peer recruiters will be male or female and will often have been exploited themselves.
Children will sometimes be internally trafficked from city to city within the UK; this may be for the purposes of criminal exploitation (county lines etc) or sexual exploitation. Exploitation within gangs can be much more organised and money-driven.
How prevalent is child sexual exploitation?
There is no specific crime in law of child sexual exploitation; offenders are generally convicted of associated crimes such as sexual activity with a child. Accordingly, there are no national figures on child sexual exploitation offences. The hidden nature of the crime also makes it difficult to find a reliable source of prevalence data. Children and young people rarely report their experiences of this type of abuse.
At the end of 2019, the Independent reported that more than 18,700 suspected victims of child sexual exploitation were identified by local authorities in 2018-19, up from 3,300 five years before.
Department for Education statistics on children referred to social care show the number of known cases dramatically increasing from 2013, when grooming was recorded as an assessment factor for the first time, to a peak of 20,000 in 2017-18.
The Department for Education statistics showed that in 2018/19, Lancashire recorded 624 child victims of grooming. Birmingham had 490, Surrey 447, Bradford 414 and Gloucestershire 409. The combined totals of Leeds and Bradford was 649.
What is being done to try to tackle child sexual exploitation?
Barnardo’s and NSPCC both provide services to support children and young people affected by sexual exploitation. Barnardo’s has worked with affected children for 20 years, and has specialist services in over 40 locations.
The government is working with local authorities to introduce rigorous taxi and private hire licensing regimes. Taxi drivers have been linked to several recent cases of child sexual exploitation, including instances where children were picked up from their homes, schools, or children’s homes and abused or exploited in return for free taxi rides.
Hotel Watch is a scheme that has been set up in many towns and cities to allow police and hotels to share information about suspected exploitation of children. Evidence suggests that hotels are often used as locations where perpetrators meet, groom and abuse children, both boys and girls. Exploited children are almost always too scared or ashamed to ask for help themselves, but hotel receptionists, staff and managers are in a unique position to notice if guests seem suspicious or something doesn’t feel right.
Spotting the signs
Because the perpetrators of child sexual exploitation exert such power over their victims, even to the point where the child does not realise he or she is being exploited, it can be hard to know if a child is in danger. Equally, it can be very difficult to separate the signs that someone is being sexually exploited from much normal teenage behaviour. However, there are certain signs to look out for that might indicate a child or young person you know is being exploited. Click here to find out what they are.
What can you do if you suspect a child is being exploited?
- If you are worried about the way a child or young person is behaving, or they are displaying some of the signs listed then call your local Children’s Social Care service or the police on 101.
- If you are concerned about online illicit images of children or online exploitation you can contact the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP).
- Or you can call the NSPCC professionals helpline on 0808 800 5000 who can explore your concern and advise you on the best course of action. You can also email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at this page.
- Stop it Now! UK and Ireland is a child sexual abuse prevention campaign and helpline run by the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. The Stop It Now! Helpline is for adults worried about the sexual behaviour of other adults or children and young people; those worried about their own sexual thoughts or behaviour towards children, including those with concerns about their online behaviour; friends and relatives of people arrested for sexual offending, including internet offending, and any other adult with a concern about child sexual abuse – including survivors and professionals. The number is 0800 1000 900.
- Call 999 if the child is at immediate risk, or call the police on 101 if you think a crime has been committed.
What can you do to prevent a child or young person becoming a victim of sexual exploitation?
Experts agree that having early conversations about healthy relationships and consent is key to stopping young people getting involved in exploitative relationships.
The Department of Education has some advice on how to have conversations with children on subjects such as consent, abuse and what constitutes a healthy relationship. Click here for advice on talking to young people about these things.
To help you raise awareness among your community about child sexual exploitation and how to spot the signs, we’ve compiled a range of free campaign materials that you can use to educate and inform people in your neighbourhood. Some of these are aimed at parents and other adults that have contact with young people; others are designed for use by children and young people themselves. Click here to access the Toolkit.