In this article
Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It occurs when 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. (www.nspcc.org.uk)
Children and young people who are in sexually exploitative situations and relationships are persuaded or forced to perform sexual activities or have sexual activities performed on them in return for gifts, drugs, money or affection.
Child sexual exploitation can take place in person, online or a combination of both, therefore it need not involve actual physical contact.
The general term of sexual abuse may involve one or more of the following:
- Assault by penetration (such as rape or oral sex)
- Non-penetrative acts such as kissing, rubbing and masturbation
- Involving children in the production of sexual images
- Forcing children to look at sexual activities or watch sexual activities
- Encouraging children to behave in a sexually inappropriate way
- Grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including abuse via the internet).
The UK Government advises that the following are key messages about child sexual exploitation:
- It can affect any child or young person under the age of 18 years including those who are aged 16 or 17 and legally consent to sexual activity.
- It can still be abuse even if the sexual activity appears to be consensual.
- It can include both contact and non-contact sexual activity.
- It can take place in person, via technology or by a combination of both.
- It can involve force or enticement methods, methods of compliance, and may or may not be accompanied by violence or threats of violence.
- It may occur without the child or young person’s immediate knowledge, for example images of the child may have been posted on social media without their awareness.
- It can be perpetrated by individuals or groups, males or females and children or adults.
- It may be a one-off occurrence or a series of incidents taking place over a longer period of time and which may be opportunistic or planned and organised.
- It is characterised by an imbalance of power in favour of those perpetrating the abuse.
- The imbalance of power will come about most likely because of age but may also be because of gender, sexual identity, cognitive ability, physical strength, status and access to resources.
How do young people become involved in child sexual exploitation?
The question of how young people become involved in child sexual exploitation is not an easy one to answer. Each child has a unique background and although there are some factors that make children more susceptible to involvement in exploitation, this is never something that can be successfully predicted with every child.
Some who may seem as though they fit into all criteria may avoid being exploited whilst some who may look as though they would never become involved may do so because of one decision or one involvement with a particular individual.
Those young people who do end up becoming involved in child sexual exploitation will often be ‘befriended’ by an older person who will exert power and control over them, sometimes because they are stronger or wealthier but sometimes because they will ‘reward’ the young person by being in a ‘relationship’ with them, which the young person believes to be genuine.
Power and control over the young person then means that they become dependent on the perpetrator, which then makes them more susceptible to being coerced into illicit or illegal activities.
In some instances, once power and control has been exerted over the young person, they may be passed through networks of other perpetrators where they will be coerced into sexual activity with multiple people or they may be ‘bought and sold’ by groups of perpetrators who are involved in serious organised crime.
Child sexual exploitation can happen quickly or may happen over a period of months or even years. Most victims may not realise what is happening to them and by the time that they do, it may be too late for them to speak up; a young person who believes that they have already broken the law is much less likely to report what is happening to them to the police because they fear that they are already in trouble.
The factors that make a young person more vulnerable to child sexual exploitation have already been discussed in the first unit but the list below serves as a reminder of what some of the factors are that make a young person more susceptible to becoming involved in child sexual exploitation:
- Age – Children aged between 12 and 15 years are those most at risk of sexual exploitation although some victims have been as young as eight.
- Gender – It may seem that girls are more at risk of sexual exploitation but boys are equally at risk. The reason why statistics indicate that girls are more at risk is related to the fact that boys are less likely than girls to disclose experience of exploitation and are less likely to be identified as being exploited.
- Bereavement or loss – Children who have recently experienced the death of a loved one are more susceptible to exploitation because of the vulnerability experienced in the aftermath of the death. It may also be the case that the child is now struggling for formal support and may be subject to a change in accommodation or a change in a main caregiver.
- Isolation – Children who are isolated, perhaps due to disability or mental health difficulties, are more susceptible to sexual exploitation as they have less opportunity to report it. Being isolated means that a child is on their own more often and this increases the opportunities for a perpetrator to be alone with them.
- Being in the local authority’s care system – A child who is in a local authority’s care system may already have been subject to abuse, making the possibility of this happening again more likely. Children who are looked after may have problems with confidence and self-esteem and may live with mental health difficulties that have been exacerbated by the reasons why they have been taken into care.
- Disability – A child who is disabled is significantly more likely to experience sexual exploitation than a child who is not. This may be because they are less able to report what is happening to them and less able to defend themselves against physical and sexual abuse. Some signs of abuse are sometimes mistaken for symptoms of the disability and, for this reason, may not be identified and acted on. Children who have learning disabilities may not understand what is happening and may be easier to convince that what is happening is not wrong; some abusers are able to convince children that what they are doing is normal.
- Lives in a household where there is domestic abuse – Witnessing any form of domestic abuse is a form of child abuse. The impact of witnessing a parent or both parents being physically and emotionally abused can mean that children are traumatised and are unable to grow up to be able to make and maintain their own relationships, leaving them more subject to isolation and therefore more susceptible to abuse themselves throughout their lifespan.
Other risk factors
- An absence of a safe environment to explore sexuality.
- Economic vulnerability.
- Homelessness or insecure accommodation status.
- Connections with other children who are being sexually exploited.
- Sexual identity.
It is very important to note that some children may have no risk factors for child sexual exploitation but go on to be exploited regardless. In contrast, some children have difficult backgrounds and have a lot of risk factors but never go on to be sexually exploited. This can never be accurately determined and so assumptions about a child’s susceptibility to sexual exploitation should never be made.
Myths about child sexual exploitation
Child sexual exploitation is subject to a lot of media exposure where the bias within the media can mean that a lot of information about it is exaggerated, sensationalised and reported in a way that may mean that only certain pieces of information are given. This means that a lot of myths exist about it which are not accurate.
Some of the most common myths about child sexual exploitation are given below and are reinterpreted to show what the actual truth is in relation to each one:
- There are only a couple of ways in which child sexual exploitation can take place: The truth is that this can take many different forms. It can be carried out by individuals, street gangs or groups and can involve various different outcomes for those perpetrators such as financial or sexual gain.
- It only happens in certain ethnic/cultural communities: The truth is that child sexual exploitation is not a crime that is only committed in Muslim communities despite ongoing media coverage of high-profile cases. Research indicates that perpetrators come from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds.
- It can only happen to children in care: The truth is that whilst children in care are certainly more susceptible to it, child sexual exploitation usually happens to children who are living in their own homes – 80% of victims are not in the care system.
- It only happens to girls and young women: The truth is that boys and young men are just as likely to be targeted for sexual exploitation but they may be less likely to disclose offences due to stigma, shame or a worry that they will not be believed.
- It is only perpetrated by men: The truth is that women can also be perpetrators of this crime as well. They may use methods of grooming that are different but are known to target both boys and girls. Women who carry out offences are more likely to have a history of being abused themselves or may have been in relationships with perpetrators of child sexual exploitation in the past.
- Only adults abuse children: The truth is that peer sexual exploitation happens as well and this can take several different forms, such as being encouraged to ‘recruit’ others either by inviting them to parties or using technology to distribute images of abuse.
- It only happens in large towns and cities: The truth is that child sexual exploitation happens in all parts of the country and does take place in rural areas and small coastal towns.
- Children are either victims or perpetrators, never both: The truth is that around 6% of victims are also identified as perpetrators.
- Parents should always know what is happening to their child and should be able to stop it: The truth is that they may genuinely have no indication that anything is taking place and even if they did, many are not in a position to stop it because of the control, threats and fear of the perpetrator(s).
- Children can consent to their own exploitation: The truth is that a child cannot consent to their own abuse. The age of consent for any sexual activity is 16 and any child under 19 cannot consent to being trafficked for the purposes of exploitation.
Indicators of child sexual exploitation
It is rare that children and young people get to a point where they are able to self-report incidents of sexual exploitation. Therefore, it is of upmost importance that those people who work with children and young people are aware of what some indicators of risk might be.
This may include one or more in any combination of the following:
- Acquisition of money or clothes, phones etc. without a reasonable explanation of where they have come from
- Gang association with individuals previously unknown
- Isolation from others
- Persistent absence from school, college or work
- Returning home late
- Excessive changes in mood or temperament
- Excessive contact on mobiles phones
- Use of drugs and/or alcohol
- Evidence of physical or sexual assault
- Repeated sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy and terminations
- Increasing secretiveness
- Self-harm and a deterioration in emotional well-being
- Concerning use of the internet
- Inappropriate sexual behaviour in relation to age
- Going missing from home or from care
- Changes in physical appearance.
It must be kept in mind, however, that although these may be indicators of child sexual exploitation, this will not be the case for all young people who experience one or more of these indicators.
Some may simply be symptomatic of transitioning through puberty, such as changes in mood and increasing secretiveness, and others may be symptomatic of another difficulty, such as being bullied or abused where indicators are similar in a lot of ways.
If there is any doubt about a child’s involvement in child sexual exploitation, concerns about this should always be reported.