33.39 Sexual Exploitation

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The following definition appears in the Department for Education guidance Child sexual exploitation: Definition and a guide for practitioners, local leaders and decision makers working to protect children from child sexual exploitation (February 2017).


"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."


Sexual exploitation is used to describe a broader range of abusive situations than children involved in prostitution. This enables greater awareness and understanding of the issue and lower thresholds for intervention. Where 'children involved in prostitution' is the basis for a protocol, the threshold for intervention is going to be much higher. A wider definition protects children and young people at risk of being sexually exploited, not just those in entrenched exploitative relationships.


The majority of sexually exploited children are hidden from public view. They are unlikely to be loitering or soliciting on the streets. Research and practice has helped to move the understanding away from a narrow view of seeing sexual exploitation as a young person standing on a street corner selling sex.


There is also often a presumption that children are sexually exploited by people they do not know. However evidence shows that this is often not the case and children are often sexually exploited by people with whom they feel they have a relationship, e.g. a boyfriend/girlfriend.



Under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 young people under the age of 18 are deemed to be children and would be considered Children in Need if being sexually exploited.


Children involved in any form of sexual exploitation should be treated primarily as the victims of abuse and their needs carefully assessed; the aim should be to protect them from further harm and they should not be treated as criminals. The primary law enforcement response should be directed at perpetrators who groom children for sexual exploitation.


Due to the nature of the grooming methods used by their abusers, it is very common for children and young people who are sexually exploited not to recognise that they are being abused. Practitioners should be aware that particularly young people aged 17 and 18 may believe themselves to be acting voluntarily and will need practitioners to work with them so they can recognise that they are being sexually exploited.


Preventing child abuse requires a collaborative response and is a shared responsibility. All children thought to be sexually exploited will be the subject of a joint investigation and there is a need for effective joint working between all agencies and professionals.


The prevention of sexual exploitation and intervention with children thought to be at risk of sexual exploitation will be treated with equal importance.


As much as possible it is important that the young person is involved in decisions that are made in respect of them.

Legal Position


Children under the age of 16 cannot lawfully consent to sexual activity.  Anyone engaging in sexual activity with a child under 16 is committing a criminal offence.  Specific serious offences, including rape, apply to anyone engaging in sexual activity with a child under the age of 13 as the child is presumed incapable of consent.


Sections 47 - 50 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 make the following serious criminal offences:

  • Paying for a sexual act involving a child (under 18);
  • Causing or inciting sexual exploitation of a child;
  • Facilitating, buying, possessing or exchanging abusive images of children;
  • Trafficking a child into, out of or around the UK for the purpose of committing a sexual offence. These can even be from one street to the next;
  • Meeting a child following grooming (making contact with the purpose of facilitating a meeting);
  • Administering a substance in the knowledge that the victim does not consent with the intention of stupefying/overpowering so that sexual activity can take place;
  • Kidnapping with the intention of committing a sexual offence.

In exceptional circumstances the use of criminal action can be considered for 16 and 17 year olds involved in sexual exploitation, under the Street Offences Act 1959.


  • To help the child understand the risks involved in certain activities;
  • To gather evidence and build a prosecution case against those involved in abusing the child;
  • To protect children from further abuse and support them to find ways out of exploitative situations and relationships.

Important Information About Sexual Exploitation


Sexual exploitation can take many forms from the seemingly 'consensual' relationship where sex is exchanged for attention, accommodation or gifts, to serious organised crime and child trafficking.


What marks out exploitation is an imbalance of power within the relationship. The perpetrator always holds some kind of power over the victim, increasing the dependence of the victim as the exploitative relationship develops.


Technology can play a part in sexual abuse, for example, through its use to record abuse and share it with other like-minded individuals or as a medium to access children and young people in order to groom them. A common factor in all cases is the lack of free economic or moral choice.


Sexual exploitation has strong links with other forms of 'crime', for example, domestic violence, online and offline grooming, the distribution of abusive images of children and child trafficking. Many adults involved in prostitution describe difficult childhood experiences that include domestic violence, neglect, emotional abuse, disrupted schooling and low educational attainment.


The perpetrators of sexual exploitation are often well organised and use sophisticated tactics. They are known to target areas where children and young people gather without much adult supervision, e.g. parks or shopping centres or sites on the Internet.



Sexual exploitation results in children and young people suffering harm, and causes significant damage to their physical and mental health. It can also have profound and damaging consequences for the child's family. Parents and carers are often traumatised and under severe stress. Siblings can feel alienated and their self-esteem affected. Family members can themselves suffer serious threats of abuse, intimidation and assault at the hands of perpetrators.


Children and young people are more vulnerable to abuse through sexual exploitation if they have experience of:

  • Childhood sexual abuse;
  • Domestic abuse within the family;
  • Family breakdown;
  • Physical and emotional deprivation;
  • Bullying in or out of school;
  • Parents with high level of vulnerabilities (e.g. mental health issues, drug/alcohol misuse);
  • Being looked after in residential care;
  • Unsuitable/inappropriate accommodation/homelessness;
  • Frequently going missing;
  • Isolation from peers/social networks;
  • Lack of positive relationship with protective/nurturing adult.

All agencies, parents and carers must be aware of the following indicative behaviours associated with a child who is experiencing sexual exploitation; however they are not conclusive signs in themselves:

  • Physical symptoms (Sexually Transmitted Infections, chronic fatigue, bruising suggesting assault, pregnancy and/or seeking a termination);
  • Truanting from school/disengagement from education;
  • Acquisition of money, possessions or accounts of social activity with no plausible explanation;
  • Expressions of despair (self-harm, overdose, eating disorder, challenging and/or volatile behaviour, aggression);
  • Drug and alcohol misuse;
  • Reports from reliable sources that a child is being sexually exploited or frequenting known areas of concern;
  • Relationship with a controlling adult/older 'boyfriend', who encourages emotional dependency and controls through violence or threats;
  • Having contact with unknown adults outside the usual range of child's social contacts;
  • Getting into/out of vehicles driven by unknown adults;
  • An adult loitering outside home with the intention of meeting up with the child;
  • Use of mobile phones/emails/internet that causes concern;
  • Missing from home, or persistently leaving home or returning late without permission and no plausible explanation;
  • Returning from being missing looking well-cared for in spite of having no known base;
  • Contact with other young people known to be involved in sexual exploitation.



If you suspect that a child or young person is experiencing sexual exploitation or they have made a disclosure to you, your organisation's child protection procedures must be followed and you should make a referral to Children's Social Care - see Making a Referrals Procedure.


Consideration should also be given to referring the child or young person to local services.


Children’s Social Care should involve professionals with specialist experience in sexual exploitation as part of the assessment of the child/young person and in the Strategy Discussion. Where there is a concern regarding a child or young person’s level of risk of involvement in sexual exploitation, professionals should consider using the sexual exploitation risk assessment framework to determine a level of intervention.

Immediate Protection


Where immediate action to safeguard a child or young person is required, it may involve removing the child from the home of a person who is exploiting them to a safe place. However, those working with children in these circumstances must never underestimate the power of perpetrators to find where the child is.


Such children will need placements with carers who have experience of building trusting relationships and skills at containing young people.

Intervention and Support


Agencies should recognise that there may be a strong relationship between the child and the coercer/abuser and it may be difficult for the child to break this relationship.


A strategy should therefore be developed, with the child and family wherever possible, to address the child's needs and help him or her to move on from the exploitative situation. It could include specialist therapeutic support, mentoring to assist a return to education or employment, outreach work, help to secure appropriate health services, and assistance to develop a positive network of friends and relatives.

The particular circumstances of the child should be taken into account in developing the multi -agency response and the plan for services should be tailored to meet their specific needs, e.g. whether they are Looked After and/or preparing to leave care, not receiving a suitable education, often missing from home or care, may have been trafficked and/or may be affected by gang activity.

Identifying and Prosecuting Perpetrators


Identifying, disrupting and prosecuting perpetrators are key parts of work to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people from sexual exploitation.


While the police and criminal justice agencies lead on this, the support of all partners in gathering and recording information/evidence is vital. All those involved in caring for a child who is suspected to be at risk of sexual exploitation should continually gather, record and share information, as appropriate, to this end. Parents and carers should be encouraged and supported to do so, ensuring that information is recorded in such a way that it can be used by the Crown Prosecution Service and accepted in Court.


Where a young person wants and is able to be part of a prosecution, it is essential that they are supported through this process and after the prosecution has taken place. Many of the issues facing young victims and witnesses are addressed in aCPS 2006 Policy DFocument on Prosecuting Cases Involving Children and Young People as Victims and Witnesses.

The Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme


The Child Sex Offender Review (CSOR) Disclosure Scheme is designed to provide members of the public with a formal mechanism to ask for disclosure about people they are concerned about, who have unsupervised access to children and may therefore pose a risk. This scheme builds on existing, well established third-party disclosures that operate under the Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA).


Police will reveal details confidentially to the person most able to protect the child (usually parents, carers or guardians) if they think it is in the child’s interests.


The scheme has been operating in all 43 Police areas in England and Wales since 2010. The scheme is managed by the Police and information can only be accessed through direct application to them.


If a disclosure is made, the information must be kept confidential and only used to keep the child in question safe. Legal action may be taken if confidentiality is breached. A disclosure is delivered in person (as opposed to in writing) with the following warning:

  • That the information must only be used for the purpose for which it has been shared i.e. in order to safeguard children;
  • The person to whom the disclosure is made will be asked to sign an undertaking that they agree that the information is confidential and they will not disclose this information further;
  • A warning should be given that legal proceedings could result if this confidentiality is breached. This should be explained to the person and they must sign the undertaking’ (Home Office, 2011, p16).

If the person is unwilling to sign the undertaking, the police must consider whether the disclosure should still take place.

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