Child Sexual Exploitation


Local Guidance in relation to this chapter can be found in: Safeguarding Children at Risk due to their behaviour or vulnerability.

Also see: Further Information at the end of this chapter.


In January 2023, this chapter was updated as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 has extended the definition of Position of Trust within the Sexual Offences Act 2003 section 22A to include anyone who coaches, teaches, trains, supervises or instructs a child under 18, on a regular basis, in a sport or a religion.

1. Definition

Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse:

Sexual abuse involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, not necessarily involving a high level of violence, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (for example, rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing. They may also include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse. Sexual abuse can take place online, and technology can be used to facilitate offline abuse. Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children (Working Together to Safeguard Children).

Child sexual exploitation takes many different forms. It can include contact and non-contact sexual activities and can occur online or in person, or a combination of each. 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 child that demonstrates harmful sexual behaviour 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 (Working Together to Safeguard Children).

What marks out sexual exploitation from other forms of child sexual abuse is the presence of some form of exchange, for the victim and/or child that demonstrates harmful sexual behaviour or facilitator. It is critical to remember the unequal power dynamic within which this exchange occurs and to remember that the receipt of something by a child/young person does not make them any less of a victim. It is also important to note that the prevention of something negative happening can also fulfil the requirement for exchange.

The child that demonstrates harmful sexual behaviour always holds some kind of power over the victim, increasing the dependence of the victim as the exploitative relationship develops. Whilst age may be the most obvious, this power imbalance can also be due to a range of other factors including gender, sexual identity, intellect, physical strength, status and access to economic or other resources.

Child sexual exploitation is never the victim's fault, even if there is some form of exchange: all children and young people under the age of 18 have a right to be safe and should be protected from harm.

2. Who is at Risk?

Any child or young person may be at risk of sexual exploitation, regardless of their family background or other circumstances. Child sexual exploitation can occur in all communities and amongst all social groups and can affect girls and boys. Young people can also be sexually exploited by other young people. All practitioners should work on the basis that it is happening in their area.

Sexual exploitation causes harm to children and young people, including significant damage to their physical and mental health. It can also have profound and damaging consequences for their family, including siblings (who may also be at risk of abuse).

Sexual exploitation has links with other forms of crime, for example, domestic abuse, online and offline grooming, the distribution of abusive images of children, criminal exploitation and child trafficking. The children that demonstrate harmful sexual behaviour are often well organised and use sophisticated tactics. They may target areas where children and young people gather, use parties to create networks for abuse or use technology to organise both online and offline abuse.

Children and young people can be moved from one place to another to be sexually exploited. They can also be sexually exploited by people with whom they feel they have a relationship, e.g. a boyfriend / girlfriend. In these circumstances there may be an overlap with other forms of abuse (trafficking and slavery), and practitioners should decide on the best way to work with the child to keep them safe.

When working with children who are being sexually exploited, it is important to consider who else in their circle of contacts (including siblings) may also be at risk.

When children experience, or are at risk of, sexual exploitation the relationship between their needs and vulnerabilities, the harm they are experiencing and the risk posed by the abuser(s) can create a dynamic and complex situation for the child and the practitioner. It is important that practitioners receive the supervision, support and training required to work with the child and that leaders and managers provide effective oversight and supervision of frontline practice.

3. Indicators

Anyone who has regular contact with children is in a good position to notice the changes in behaviour and physical signs that may indicate involvement in sexual exploitation. It is important to try and identify children at risk of harm from sexual exploitation at the earliest opportunity.

Some children may be more vulnerable, for example, children with special needs, those in residential or foster care, those leaving care, migrant children, unaccompanied asylum seeking children, victims of forced marriage and those involved in gangs, but all children are potentially at risk and practitioners should be careful about making assumptions as to who the victims or child that demonstrates harmful sexual behaviour may be.

Identifying cases of child sexual exploitation is a difficult task, children rarely self report that they are being sexually exploited, and due to the nature of the grooming methods used by their abusers, often do not recognise that they are being abused. Once they are being sexually exploited, threats from their abusers and fear of repercussions or being partly blamed for their own abuse can make it difficult for young people to seek help.

There is a risk that well-publicised criminal trials can lead to stereotyping of people who may be at risk of child sexual exploitation and prevent the identification of victims. All children are at risk, and for some children there may be additional barriers to them disclosing abuse or seeking help, including young people who identify as LGBTQ+, boys and young men, children and young people with a disability or those from BME communities.

Practitioners should be aware of the key indicators of child sexual exploitation. More importantly, they should also remain open to the fact that child sexual exploitation can occur without any of the following risk indicators being obviously present:

  • Unexplained money or gifts;
  • Going missing (for short or long periods), or during the course of the school day;
  • Being distressed or withdrawn on return;
  • Disengaging from existing social networks;
  • Secrecy around new associations;
  • Additional mobile phones or concerning use of technology;
  • Sexual health problems/ unplanned pregnancies;
  • Disclosure of rape/sexual assault (and reluctance to report);
  • Changes in temperament/emotional wellbeing;
  • Drug or alcohol misuse;
  • Involvement in criminal activity;
  • Secretive behaviour;
  • Unexplained physical injuries.

These indicators are not exclusive to child sexual exploitation. Some may be explained by normal adolescent development and associated changes in behaviour; some might be explained by other types of abuse including that the child is being criminally exploited.

While the presence of a number of these indicators should prompt questions around the possibility of child sexual exploitation, practitioners should remain open to the potential for other explanations and be curious about what is happening in the child's world. Children will often demonstrate their distress through external behaviours as a way of communicating to the outside world that something is wrong.

Sometimes, particularly with boys, this distress may be displayed through aggressive, harmful or challenging behaviour in school or at home including, running away, misusing substances or displaying harmful sexual behaviour. Young people's offending behaviour should be understood in the context of wider issues and experiences, such as previous abuse or trauma, which may include experiences of being subject to child sexual exploitation and/or exploiting other children.

Many children and young people are groomed into sexually exploitative relationships. Some young people may be sexually exploited through informal economies that involve the exchange of sex for rewards such as drugs, alcohol, money, gifts or accommodation. Often young people are bullied, coerced and threatened into sexual activities by peers or gang members and this is then used against them as a form of extortion and to keep them compliant.

The College of Policing identifies a number of methods which are used by abusers to coerce a child:

  • Giving presents – especially during the grooming phase;
  • Offering food treats;
  • Giving rewards such as mobile phone top-ups / credit;
  • Giving the child or young person attention;
  • Offering false promises of love and/or affection;
  • Offering false promises of opportunities – e.g. modelling, photography, acting;
  • Supplying alcohol;
  • Drugs – either supplying drugs to facilitate exploitation, and/or young person being sexually exploited as a means of paying off drug debt;
  • Constructing situations whereby a young person must pay off debt;
  • Mental manipulation;
  • Blackmail;
  • Fear;
  • Physical violence.

Grooming is rarely a linear process, and the methods used by abusers will vary considerably both in the time they take to groom children and in the tactics they use in order facilitate the abuse. Some of these methods are also used in other forms of child exploitation.

Due to the nature of the grooming methods used by abusers, it is very common for children and young people who are sexually exploited not to recognise that they are being abused.

A child cannot consent to their own abuse. It is important to bear in mind that:

  • A child under the age of 13 is not legally capable of consenting to sex (it is statutory rape) or any other type of sexual touching;
  • Sexual activity with a child under 16 is an offence;
  • It is an offence for a person to have a sexual relationship with a 16 or 17 year old if they hold a position of trust or authority in relation to them. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 has extended the definition of Position of Trust within the Sexual Offences Act 2003 section 22A to include anyone who coaches, teaches, trains, supervises or instructs a child under 18, on a regular basis, in a sport or a religion. It is against the law for someone in a position of trust to engage in sexual activity with a child in their care, even if that child is over the age of consent (16 or over);
  • Where sexual activity with a 16 or 17 year old does not result in an offence being committed, it may still result in harm, or the likelihood of harm being suffered;
  • Non-consensual sex is rape whatever the age of the victim;
  • If the victim is incapacitated through drink or drugs, or the victim or their family has been subject to violence or the threat of it, they cannot be considered to have given true consent; therefore offences may have been committed;
  • Child sexual exploitation is therefore potentially a child protection issue for all children under the age of 18 years and not just those in a specific age group.

Practitioners must also consider other factors which might influence the ability of the person to give consent, e.g. learning disability / mental ill health.

Although they may sometimes appear to be making an informed choice, young people cannot and do not 'choose' abuse or exploitation. Recognising the underlying factors that can exacerbate risk will help practitioners understand and interpret apparent 'choices' and avoid the danger of apportioning blame.

5. Online Child Sexual Exploitation

Online child sexual exploitation can be particularly challenging to identify and respond to. Technology allows a child that demonstrates harmful sexual behaviour to be in contact with multiple potential victims at any one time. It also offers a perception of anonymity, for both children and young people and children that demonstrate sexual behaviour, making it easier to say and do things online that they wouldn't do offline. This eases the grooming process and facilitates more rapid sexualisation of children that demonstrate harmful sexual behaviour and approaches to potential victims.

Where exploitation does occur online (through the exchange of sexual communication or images, for example) these can be quickly and easily shared with others. This makes it difficult to contain the potential for further abuse and presents significant challenges around content removal. Online abuse is further complicated by the fact that it can transcend national borders.

See Online Safety - Children Exposed to Abuse through the Digital Media Procedure or contact CEOP for more information. Follow the Referral Procedure if you are concerned a child is at risk of harm.

With effect from 29 June 2021, section 69 Domestic Abuse Act 2021 expanded so-called ‘revenge porn’ to include threats to disclose private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress.

6. Peer on Peer Abuse

"Peer-on-peer abuse is any form of physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse, and coercive control exercised between children, and within children's relationships (both intimate and non-intimate), friendships, and wider peer associations.

Peer-on-peer abuse can take various forms, including (but not limited to): serious bullying (including cyber- bullying), relationship abuse, domestic abuse, child sexual exploitation, youth and serious youth violence, harmful sexual behaviour and/or prejudice-based violence including, but not limited to, gender-based violence.

Online peer-on-peer abuse is any form of peer-on-peer abuse with a digital element, for example, sexting, online abuse, coercion and exploitation, peer-on-peer grooming, threatening language delivered via online means, the distribution of sexualised content, and harassment."
(Peer on Peer Abuse Toolkit - Farrer & Co).

It is important to consider the context in which any peer-on-peer abuse is taking place, as this will inform the best to approach working with and supporting the child. You may need to refer to guidance on other forms of abuse such as domestic abuse, harmful sexual behaviour, involvement in gangs and criminal exploitation.

The Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges (Ofsted) identified substantial levels of sexual harassment and online sexual abuse for both girls (90%) and boys (nearly 50%). Significantly, this did not always appear to be recognised by the school or college. Sometimes sexual bullying in schools and other social settings can lead to the sexual exploitation of young people by their peers, or young people women and young men who have themselves been exploited can be coerced into recruiting other young people to be abused.

Sexual exploitation also occurs within and between street gangs, where sex is used in exchange for safety, protection, drugs and simply belonging. This can result in children both experiencing child sexual exploitation and perpetrating it at the same time. Children who perpetrate child sexual exploitation require a different response to adults that demonstrate harmful sexual behaviour. They should be referred to Children's Social Care Services and a multi agency Strategy Meeting convened to consider both their involvement as a potential child that demonstrates harmful sexual behaviour but also any abuse and unmet needs they may have experienced themselves (see Harmful Sexual Behaviour Procedure).

7. Children and Young People who go Missing

A significant number of children and young people who are being sexually exploited may go missing from care, home, and education. Some go missing frequently; the more often children go missing the more vulnerable they are to being sexually exploited or other forms of exploitation including criminal exploitation.

If a child does go missing, the Children Missing from Care, Home and Education Procedure should be followed.

8. Protection and Action to be Taken

A Pan-Dorset Strategy to tackle exploitation sets out the approaches that will be taken by partners working with children.

Whenever a practitioner has concerns that a child or young person is being sexually exploited, or is at risk of sexual exploitation, they should use the CE Screening Tool and Pan-Dorset Guidance to inform their next steps.

Remember that early sharing of information is key to providing effective help for children and young people. Where possible, practitioners should share confidential personal information with Children's Social Care with consent. However, where there are concerns that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, practitioners should share information without consent where the public interest served by protecting the child from harm outweighs the duty of where the public interest served by protecting the child from harm outweighs the duty of confidentiality.

Early Help and Social Care Assessments should adopt a 'whole child' approach, not only looking at vulnerabilities and risk factors but also considering the wider needs, strengths and resources of the child or young person when planning support and services.

The most effective assessments will involve the young people concerned and all the practitioners working with them and incorporate risks and protective factors that also take into account their wider network in schools, peer groups and local neighbourhoods. Assessments need to be regularly updated as children's circumstances and the risks they face can change rapidly. Assessments need to use words that do not blame or label children and a guide to support practitioners in thinking about the language they use is available in Local Resources.

The young person's voice must be central to the assessment, and this should capture the lived experiences of the child, and take account of their context, their gender, ethnicity and culture.

Support put in place should aim to reduce the immediate risk of harm to children, as well as including longer term strategies to support their recovery and promote meaningful change. There is a difficult balance to strike between protecting the child from harm and supporting and empowering the child.

Working with sexually exploited children is a complex issue, which can involve serious crime and investigations over a wide geographical area. It is important that agencies work together and cross-reference and share information effectively when there are emerging concerns. The prosecution and disruption of children that demonstrate sexual behaviour is an essential part of the process to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people from sexual exploitation. Information gathering and sharing is essential in this process to understand local patterns in order to disrupt and deter children that demonstrate sexual behaviour and to identify, help and protect children.

The Home Office has published a Child Exploitation Disruption Toolkit which sets out many of the tools useful for police and other safeguarding professionals to disrupt the sexual and criminal exploitation of children and young people and sets out best practice in information sharing and multi-agency working as well as intelligence and evidence gathering.

Effective early information sharing and intelligence gathering can:

  • Help build a coherent picture of risk sources and potential targets for abuse;
  • Identify and support a child's needs at the earliest opportunity; reducing the duration of harm and escalation to more serious abuse;
  • Help identify and understand the links between different forms of exploitation and hidden, or related, crimes;
  • Identify locations being used for the purposes of exploitation;
  • Identify networks or individuals who pose a risk to children;
  • Provide evidence in applications to the court for civil and criminal orders;
  • Enable quicker risk assessment of a potential victim of trafficking; and
  • Assist in the development of effective safety plans.

Raising awareness of child sexual exploitation with the wider community including parents and carers as well as public services such as transport and recreation and the business community is important and helps in developing an understanding of the local risks and patterns of offending. Schools have a crucial role in prevention by educating young people to understand the risks especially when young people are involve in developing prevention and awareness resources.

9. Supporting Children and their Families

Help should be provided in a timely, flexible and ongoing manner. Children and their parents / carers should feel part of the solution and confident they will be believed. Practitioners need to be child focused and adopt a strengths-based, outcomes-focused approach when working with the family.

The Child

When specific concerns are identified about child sexual exploitation, it is vital that children and young people receive the services they need, delivered in a way that recognises the complexity of their situation and maximises the likelihood of engagement.

The support / interventions needed will vary according to the individual child/young person, and could encompass preventative / resilience building work or recovery-based interventions.

Work with children and young people who are at risk of or have experienced child sexual exploitation needs to be handled in a sensitive and understanding way.

Where possible children and young people should be involved in decisions about their care, protection and on-going support and be kept informed on any issues that affect them.

Some children and young people will not see themselves as victims, nor want support or intervention. If this is not approached with sensitivity and understanding of the victim's viewpoint, they may be further isolated from the help they need.

Building positive relationships and trust with victims is an essential part of helping to reduce the risk of harm and creating safe spaces for disclosure. Many victims are only able to disclose after the provision of support, months or even years down the line.

Support services should offer young people persistent, consistent and assertive support that reaches out to them. Young people need to know and experience the tenacity of someone who is genuinely concerned for them. This means continuing to try to engage them even if they turn support down or display negative behaviours to practitioners trying to support them.

If the child continues to have contact with the child that demonstrates harmful sexual behaviour, this should not be misinterpreted as an informed choice or an indication of absence of harm or rejection of support but recognised as part of the complex power dynamic of the abusive relationship, similar to that in some situations of domestic abuse.

Services should be non judgemental, and it is important to avoid language or actions that inadvertently contribute to children being ascribed responsibility or blame. Child sexual exploitation is caused by abusers not by the behaviours of children. Abuse does not occur because of a child or young person's vulnerability or actions. It occurs because there is someone who is willing to take advantage of this vulnerability.

Support and services put in place need to be coordinated across all agencies, and it can be helpful to ask the child to identify a key professional who is known and trusted by them and who can be the main point of contact. All support plans must build upon the resources and strengths available to a young person including an understanding of the risks and protective factors in schools, peer groups and local neighbourhoods.

It is important to understand the impact of abuse and trauma on children and young people and the need to work at their pace. Children need to feel confident that they can be protected from harm and that there is a future for them beyond the abuse. There are no quick fixes. Avoid making assumptions about the child and their needs. They may not be ready yet to engage with therapeutic or educational interventions.

Where criminal proceedings are ongoing, special consideration needs to be given to managing the support required for a victim and their family before and during the court process. A victim care strategy should be developed to meet their needs.

Parents and Carers

In cases of child sexual exploitation, the risk of harm to children is generally external or in the community. Parents and carers are often traumatised and under severe stress. Siblings can feel alienated and their self-esteem can be affected.

Family members (including siblings) can themselves suffer serious threats of abuse, intimidation and assault at the hands of children that demonstrate sexual behaviour.

Where assessment shows it is safe and appropriate to do so, parents and families should be regarded as a part of the solution. As long as they are not a source of risk, parents and carers (and children and young people's wider support networks) offer a very important protective resource.

Parents and carers are usually the people who spend most time with their children, know them best, love them and are invested in their well-being.

Practitioners should adopt a strengths based approach and seek to engage parents as safeguarding partners, empowering them about how to support and protect their child and working with them to enhance protective factors around the child or young person. This might include:

  • Helping parents to strengthen their relationships with their children, particularly in understanding teenage development and what makes their child vulnerable;
  • Helping parents to obtain a better understanding of child sexual exploitation including the different forms abuse, the grooming process, online abuse etc.);
  • Helping parents to understand how their children may respond to trauma and the behaviours they display;
  • Being non-judgemental and respectful;
  • Giving parents and carers enough information to help them to protect their children;
  • Enabling and empowering parents (for example, let them know what type of information to record about suspects and how to share this with the police and Children's Social Care);
  • Consider whether there are any barriers to prevent parents accessing support;
  • Be mindful when organising the logistics of meetings and explain to them the processes and possible outcomes. This also applies to police investigations.

Further Information

Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and Guide for Practitioners (DfE, February 2017) - definition and a guide for practitioners, local leaders and decision makers working to protect children from child sexual exploitation.

Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy (GOV.UK 2021)

Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse

Barnardo's - Child Sexual Exploitation - resources and research on Child Sexual Exploitation.

Child Sexual Exploitation: Practice Tool (2017) (open access) - further background information about child sexual exploitation and additional commentary around some of the complexities of practically responding to the issue.

NSPCC Report Remove Tool - The tool enables young people under the age of 18 to report a nude image or video of themselves which has appeared online. The Internet Watch Foundation will review these reports and work to remove any content which breaks the law.

Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation - Policing and Prevention has a number of resources that may be useful for professionals when working with children and young people, their families and communities including more in depth views of some particular themes and issues identifies in this chapter.

Child Exploitation Disruption Toolkit – GOV.UK. The toolkit sets out many of the tools useful for police and other safeguarding professionals to disrupt the sexual and criminal exploitation of children and young people and sets out best practice in information sharing and multi-agency working as well as intelligence and evidence gathering.

Modern Slavery Human Trafficking Centre (MSHTU)

Responding to Child Sexual Exploitation – College of Policing

Child Sexual Abuse – The Children's Commissioner

PACE - PACE works alongside parent, carers of children who are - or at risk of being - sexually exploited by perpetrators external to the family.

Tackling Child Exploitation: Resources Pack (Local Government Association)