Child Sexual Exploitation
Finding out your child has been sexually exploited can be distressing and you might not know what to do next. Young people often trust their abuser and don’t know that what’s happening is wrong or are unable to tell anyone due to fear, intimidation and violence. We have advice to help you keep children and young people safe from sexual exploitation.
Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a type of sexual abuse. When a child or young person is exploited they’re given things, like gifts, drugs, money, status and affection, in exchange for performing sexual activities. Children and young people are often tricked into believing they’re in a loving and consensual relationship. This is called grooming. They may trust their abuser and not understand that they’re being abused.
Children and young people can be trafficked into or within the UK to be sexually exploited. They’re moved around the country and abused by being forced to take part in sexual activities, often with more than one person. Young people in gangs can also be sexually exploited.
Sometimes abusers use violence and intimidation to frighten or force a child or young person, making them feel as if they’ve no choice. They may lend them large sums of money they know can’t be repaid or use financial abuse to control them.
Anybody can be a perpetrator of CSE, no matter their age, gender or race. The relationship could be framed as friendship, someone to look up to or romantic. Children and young people who are exploited may also be used to ‘find’ or coerce others to join groups.
CSE can happen in person or online. An abuser will gain a child’s trust or control them through violence or blackmail before moving onto sexually abusing them. This can happen in a short period of time.
When a child is sexually exploited online they might be persuaded or forced to:
- send or post sexually explicit images of themselves
- film or stream sexual activities
- have sexual conversations.
Once an abuser has images, video or copies of conversations, they might use threats and blackmail to force a young person to take part in other sexual activity. They may also share the images and videos with others or circulate them online.
Gangs use sexual exploitation:
- to exert power and control
Sexual exploitation can be difficult to spot and sometimes mistaken for “normal” teenage behaviour. Knowing the signs can help protect children and help them when they’ve no one else to turn to.
Signs of sexual abuse and grooming include:
- Unhealthy or inappropriate sexual behaviour.
- Being frightened of some people, places or situations.
- Bring secretive.
- Sharp changes in mood or character.
- Having money or things they can’t or won’t explain.
- Physical signs of abuse, like bruises or bleeding in their genital or anal area.
- Alcohol or drug misuse.
- Sexually transmitted infections.
Other things you might notice are:
- Having an older boyfriend or girlfriend.
- Staying out late or overnight.
- Having a new group of friends.
- Missing from home or care, or stopping going to school or college.
- Hanging out with older people, other vulnerable people or in antisocial groups.
- Involved in a gang.
- Involved in criminal activities like selling drugs or shoplifting.
If a child talks to you about sexual exploitation it’s important to:
- listen carefully to what they’re saying
- let them know they’ve done the right thing by telling you
- tell them it’s not their fault
- say you’ll take them seriously
- don’t confront the alleged abuser
- explain what you’ll do next
- report what the child has told you as soon as possible.
Both sexual exploitation in person and online can have long-term effects on a child or young person. They may:
- struggle with trust and be fearful of forming new relationships
- become isolated from family and friends
- fail exams or drop out of education
- become pregnant at a young age
- experience unemployment
- have mental health problems
- make suicide attempts
- abuse alcohol and drugs
- take part in criminal behaviour
- experience homelessness.
The safety and welfare of children – or child protection – is everybody’s business.
You could be a neighbour, friend, parent, relative, child-minder, teacher, doctor or working for any organisation which has contact with children and young people.
In an emergency please dial 999.
Otherwise you can contact the Child Protection Team:
Monday to Friday (9am to 5pm) – 01708 433222
Out of hours/weekends – 01708 433999
For parents and carers:
Finding out your child has been sexually exploited can be frightening and distressing. But there’s help for you and your family.
Barnardo’s can support parents through their services across the UK.
For children and young people:
The NSPCC run therapeutic services for children who have experienced, or are at risk of, sexual exploitation and abuse:
- Hear and Now
- In Ctrl
- Letting the Future In
- Protect and Respect
Find out more about all of the NSPCC services for children, including how to get in touch with ones in your area.
Children and young people can contact:
- Fearless to report crime anonymously
- Gangsline for free advice and support from ex-gang members
- Victim Support if they’ve experienced crime.
How Childline can help
We understand how difficult it is for children to talk about sexual exploitation and abuse. Whether it’s happening now or happened in the past, Childline can be contacted 24/7. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and confidential. Children can also contact Childline online.
Childline has information and advice for children and young people about:
- sexual abuse
- rape and sexual assault
- online grooming
- keeping safe online
- remove a nude image shared online.
If you are concerned about your own behaviour
If you’re worried about your behaviour, help is available.
If you are, or think you might, sexually exploit or abuse a child or young person, contact Stop it now!, a free helpline offering information, guidance and support.
- Call Stop it now!
People living in the UK and Ireland can call for free on 0808 1000 900 (Monday – Thursday 9am-9pm and Friday 9am-5pm).