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. Often this is in return for somewhere to stay, money, drugs and alcohol.
Sometimes, the abuser will pretend to be the child’s friend. Or the young person might be tricked and groomed into believing the abuser is their boyfriend or girlfriend and that they are in a loving and consensual relationship.
These young people are victims of child sexual exploitation, even if they do not realise it.
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.
No matter how the sexual exploitation begins or evolves, the victims must not think they are not at fault. Abusers are very clever in the way they manipulate and take advantage of the children and young people they sexually exploit and abuse.
Online sexual exploitation
The internet has made it much easier for abusers to reach their young victims, who may be persuaded or forced to:
- send or post sexually explicit images of themselves
- take part in sexual activities via a webcam or smartphone
- have sexual conversations by text or online.
The images or videos may then be used by the abuser to blackmail the victim, e.g. by threatening to send them to the young person’s friends, family or school.
These images may continue to be shared online long after the abuse has stopped.
So-called ‘sexting’ is illegal if the images are of a child, even when the person doing it is a child.
Who is at risk?
Child sexual exploitation can happen to someone from any ethnicity or religious background.
Disabled young people are around three times more likely to become victims. Young people in care or leaving care, or with a history of going missing from home are also vulnerable.
Who are the offenders?
There is a danger of stereotyping potential child sex offenders, e.g. thinking they are all creepy older men; however, this perception is misleading and allows other abusers to avoid detection.
A third of child sexual abuse involves other children and young people; women can and do sexually offend. Gangs often exploit young people.
What are the signs?
It’s not always easy to tell when a child or young person is being sexually exploited or groomed); however, things to look out for include:
What can I do as a parent/carer?
Stay alert to the signs of sexual exploitation. Ask questions and reassure yourself if your child has new relationships with older friends or with same-age friends where there appears to be a power imbalance.
Internet Matters shares information to help parents/carers keep their children safe. It talks about parental controls and has information about the apps, games and websites your child might visit. It also has tips on talking to your child about online safety.
Reporting sexual exploitation
Gathering intelligence on sexual exploitation is crucial in order to safeguard children and young people.
Whether it’s your own child or another young person, if you see or hear something that doesn’t feel right, it’s important to share your suspicions with the police on 101 – don't worry you might be wrong, it’s still important for someone with experience and responsibility to look into the matter.
Always ring 999 if a child or young person is in immediate danger.
You can also report your concerns online to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command (CEOP).
Stop It Now! has a free confidential helpline (0808 1000 900) available to:
- adults who are concerned about the sexual behaviour of other adults or children and young people
- anyone who is worried about their own sexual thoughts or behaviour towards children, including online behaviour
- the friends and relatives of people who have been arrested for sexual offending, including online offending
- any other adult with a concern about child sexual abuse - including survivors and professionals.