What is child sexual exploitation?
Sexual exploitation is a form of sexual abuse, in which a child or young person is manipulated, or forced into taking part in sexually based activities. This could be as part of a seemingly consensual relationship, or in return for attention, affection, money, drugs, alcohol or somewhere to stay.
The young person may be convinced into thinking that their abuser is their friend, or a boyfriend or girlfriend. But their abuser will put them into dangerous situations, forcing the young person to do things they don’t want to do or convincing them that such actions and activities are okay. They will control and manipulate them, and try to isolate them from friends and family. The abuser may physically or verbally threaten the young person or be violent towards them.
However the abuse happens, the victims are not at fault. Abusers are very clever in the way they manipulate and take advantage of the children and young people they abuse.
Who is at risk?
This type of abuse can happen to any young person from any background, and to boys and young men as well as girls and young women. However, some young people have vulnerabilities which put them at greater risk. For example, they may have a history of running away or going missing from home. They may be disengaged from education. They may be in care, or leaving care, be abusing drugs or alcohol, or be involved in a gang, or simply feel their families don’t really care about them.
What are the signs?
Children and young people who are the victims of sexual exploitation often do not recognise that they are being exploited. However, there are a number of signs that could suggest a child is being groomed and is at risk. They may:
- go missing for periods of time, or regularly return home late
- miss a lot of school
- appear with unexplained gifts or new possessions
- have older boyfriends or girlfriends
- suffer from sexually transmitted infections
- have mood swings or changes in emotional well-being, or physical signs of abuse such as bruising
- display inappropriate sexualised behaviour
What can I do as a parent or a carer?
Discuss with children the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Stay alert for the signs listed above. Be cautious around older friends your child may have, or relationships with other young people where there appears to be a power imbalance. And make sure you understand and minimise the risks associated with your child being online.
You can find much more information, advice and sources of help and support on Barnardo’s website.
What to do if you suspect a child is at risk of sexual exploitation?
If you are concerned about a child or a young person please contact your local council's Social Services Safeguarding Team to talk about your concerns.
You do not have to give your name but, if you don’t, it may make it more difficult to investigate and protect you or the person being abused. If you’re nervous, you could ask someone you trust to ring on your behalf.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, you should ring 999.
If you think a crime might have taken place, such as rape, assault or theft, please ring the police and be careful not to remove or destroy any evidence.
Please don't assume that someone else will report the concern and don't worry if you think you might be wrong - it is still important for someone with experience and responsibility to look into it.