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Child exploitation

Child sexual exploitation: an ever-evolving crime

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What is child sexual exploitation?

The Department for Education defines child sexual exploitation (CSE) as:

“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.”

This could be in exchange for something the victim wants or needs and/or for financial advantage, similar to child criminal exploitation. Child sexual exploitation doesn’t always happen physically and can occur online such as through social media and chatrooms.

The scope of child sexual exploitation experiences is ever-changing and it is why we are calling for a national exploitation strategy, covering child sexual exploitation, child criminal exploitation and the risk for children going missing.

Where and how does child sexual exploitation take place?

One of the ways child sexual exploitation can happen is online. In 2019, the Home Office found that in the UK alone, there are 80,000 people who present a sexual threat to children online. It’s why we are currently conducting research into children and young people’s experiences online.

Young people can be coerced into sending sexually explicit images of themselves or others, taking part in sexual activities via webcam or smartphone and having sexual conversations by text or online. Social media apps can be used as a dangerous tool to groom children into sexual exploitation as perpetrators can lie about their age, gender and location. If inappropriate content has been shared, this can lead to victims being blackmailed into more abuse or being forced to meet.

Child sexual exploitation can take place in gangs or organised crime groups. Sexual exploitation can be used to exert power and control over members, initiate young people into the gang and to exchange sexual activity for status and protection. Sexual exploitation can also occur in organised networks, where young people are passed through the networks for sexual and criminal exploitation, this is often linked to trafficking.

In inappropriate relationships, CSE can happen due to the imbalance of control over the child physically, emotionally and financially. The boyfriend/girlfriend model is exploited as a “loving” relationship, where the offender grooms a young person to form this relationship. The love and trust they have for the perpetrator are used to coerce them into sexual activity.

Young people can also be coerced through the use of substances. This could be through the relationships they build in person, online or through other young people which can lead them to be invited to parties where they often don’t know the people attending. With the use of alcohol and drugs, young people are then forced into engaging in sexual acts often with multiple individuals.

These are just a few ways in which child sexual exploitation can occur, but the crime is ever-evolving.

Myths about child sexual exploitation

There are many misconceptions about child sexual exploitation.

Girls are four times more likely to be victims, but it is a myth that child sexual exploitation only happens to girls and that the perpetrators of child sexual exploitation can only be male.

Believing that to be a victim of child sexual exploitation, you must have been groomed is false; this isn’t always the case and can happen immediately, for example, a person under 18 can receive an inappropriate image online without any grooming. Sending an image or ‘sext’ is child sexual exploitation if the recipient is under 18.

Victims of child sexual exploitation come from all backgrounds and ethnicities, and any suggestions otherwise risk missing those who are at risk.

Victims of child sexual exploitation choosing such a lifestyle is another misunderstanding, that dismisses the experience of young victims. Often they are groomed into it or don’t know they are a victim at such a young age – this is similar to the false narrative that child sexual exploitation only happens in gangs because of the criminal lifestyle.

Spot the signs

From our frontline professionals, Tamara and Angela, at Beacon Victim Care and our wide range of Young People and Families services, which focus on child exploitation and missing incidents, some of the key signs to look out for that may indicate a victim of child sexual exploitation include:

  • a change in appearance, overt sexualised dress or new designer clothes,
  • becoming secretive or telling lies,
  • skipping school, coming home late or staying out overnight,
  • going missing for any length of time,
  • unexplained money, gifts including mobile phones,
  • drug and alcohol misuse,
  • changing peer groups, and/or
  • self-harm or suicidal thoughts.