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How to spot child sexual exploitation

Each year in England thousands of children and young people are raped or sexually abused. This includes children who have been abducted and trafficked, or beaten, threatened or bribed into having sex.

Media coverage of police investigations into the crimes of Jimmy Savile and other prominent figures have brought child sexual abuse and exploitation to public attention.

But while police work to tackle the problem, child sexual exploitation continues to happen every day. It's important to understand what child sexual exploitation is and to be aware of warning signs that may indicate a child you know is being exploited.

What is child sexual exploitation?

Before explaining child sexual exploitation, it is helpful to understand what is meant by the age of consent (the age at which it is legal to have sex). This is 16 for everyone in the UK. Under the age of 16, any sort of sexual touching is illegal.

It is illegal to take, show or distribute indecent photographs of children, or to pay or arrange for sexual services from children.

It is also against the law if someone in a position of trust (such as a teacher) has sex with a person under 18 that they have responsibility for.

Child sexual exploitation is when people use the power they have over young people to sexually abuse them. Their power may result from a difference in age, gender, intellect, strength, money or other resources. 

People often think of child sexual exploitation in terms of serious organised crime, but it also covers domestic violence and abuse and may involve informal exchanges of sex for something a child wants or needs, such as accommodation, gifts, cigarettes or attention. Some children are "groomed" through "boyfriends" who then force the child or young person into having sex with friends or associates. 

Sexual abuse covers penetrative sexual acts, sexual touching, masturbation and the misuse of sexual images – such as on the internet or by mobile phone. 

Part of the challenge of tackling child sexual exploitation is that the children and young people involved may not understand that non-consensual sex (sex they haven't agreed to) or forced sex – including oral sex – is rape.

Which children are affected?

Any child or young person can be a victim of sexual exploitation, but children are believed to be at greater risk of being sexually exploited if they:

  • are homeless
  • have feelings of low self-esteem
  • have had a recent bereavement or loss
  • are in care
  • are a young carer

However, there are many more ways that a child may be vulnerable to sexual exploitation. These are outlined in a report by the Office of the Children's Commissioner for England, called "Childhood vulnerability in England 2019"

The signs of child sexual exploitation may be hard to spot, particularly if a child is being threatened. To make sure that children are protected, it's worth being aware of the signs that might suggest a child is being sexually exploited.

Signs of grooming and child sexual exploitation

Signs of child sexual exploitation include the child or young person:

  • going missing for periods of time or regularly returning home late
  • skipping school or being disruptive in class
  • appearing with unexplained gifts or possessions that can’t be accounted for
  • experiencing health problems that may indicate a sexually transmitted infection
  • having mood swings and changes in temperament
  • using drugs and/or alcohol
  • displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour, such as over-familiarity with strangers, dressing in a sexualised manner or sending sexualised images by mobile phone ("sexting")
  • increasing their screen time or showing unusual use of online platforms, such as websites, social media, apps or games
  • they may also show signs of unexplained physical harm, such as bruising and cigarette burns

Preventing abuse

The NSPCC offers advice on how to protect children. It advises:

  • helping children to understand their bodies and sex in a way that is appropriate for their age
  • developing an open and trusting relationship, so they feel they can talk to you about anything
  • explaining the difference between safe secrets (such as a surprise party) and unsafe secrets (things that make them unhappy or uncomfortable)
  • teaching children to respect family boundaries, such as privacy in sleeping, dressing and bathing
  • teaching them self-respect and how to say no
  • supervising internet, mobile and television use

Who is sexually exploiting children?

People of all backgrounds and ethnicities, and of many different ages, are involved in sexually exploiting children. Although most are male, women can also be involved in sexually exploiting children. For instance, women will sometimes be involved through befriending victims.

Criminals can be hard to identify because the victims are often only given nicknames, rather than the real name of the abuser.

Some children and young people are sexually exploited by criminal gangs specifically set up for child sexual exploitation.

What to do if you suspect a child is being sexually exploited

If you suspect that a child or young person has been or is being sexually exploited, the NSPCC recommends that you do not confront the alleged abuser. Confronting them may place the child in greater physical danger and may give the abuser time to confuse or threaten them into silence.

Instead, seek professional advice. Discuss your concerns with your local authority's children's services (safeguarding team), the police or an independent organisation, such as the NSPCC. They may be able to advise on how to prevent further abuse and how to talk to your child to get an understanding of the situation.

If you know for certain that a child has been or is being sexually exploited, report this directly to the police.

What health professionals can do to help exploited children

One of the best ways that health professionals can help a child who is at risk of sexual exploitation is to be aware of what to look out for.

The Department of Health and Social Care, together with young people's charity Brook, has produced an online course called Combating CSE, to help health professionals identify children who are at risk of sexual abuse or who have been sexually abused.

Revised guidance for professionals who come into contact with children, “Child abuse concerns: guide for practitioners”, on GOV.UK, was published by the Department for Education in March 2015, to help practitioners identify child abuse and neglect, and take appropriate action.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) last updated its guidance "Child maltreatment: when to suspect maltreatment in under 18s" in October 2017.

Video: dealing with child sex abuse

Watch this video to get expert advice on what you should do, and how to discuss the subject of abuse with a child.

Media last reviewed: 1 June 2022
Media review due: 1 June 2025

Page last reviewed: 14 September 2021
Next review due: 14 September 2024