Sexual exploitation in gangs and groups

Young people subjected to a grooming process are usually tricked into believing that they are in a loving consensual relationship. They come to trust their abuser, without understanding that all along this is leading to their being abused. Former headteacher Michael Evans considers the links between child sexual exploitation and gangs.


Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a type of sexual abuse. Exploitation occurs when a child or young person receives gifts, drugs, money, status, affection, or even threats, in exchange for performing sexual activities.

Abusers will often traffic children and young people into or within the UK in order to sexually exploit them. They can be moved around the country, not knowing where they are going, before being abused by being forced to take part in sexual activities, often with more than one person.

Sometimes violence and intimidation are used to frighten or force a child or young person to take part in such activities. They may have initially received large sums of money that they have no means of repaying and are then persuaded that the only way that they can meet their debts is to comply with the wishes of the abuser.

It is a fact that anybody can be a perpetrator of CSE, regardless of age, gender or race. Children and young people who are exploited may also be used to “find” or coerce others to join groups.

Peer-on-peer Gangs

Many young people are sexually abused within a gang environment. Essentially, there are two kinds of gang. The first could be classed as a peer-on-peer gang where members tend to be in their teens or early 20s. They are usually urban-based and are also very territorial. Very often in these gangs, girls and young women are pressured or coerced into sexual activity. This can include sex in return for status or protection, sex as payment for drugs or alcohol, or for the clearance of a debt. There have also been numerous reports of multiple rape in these gangs.

Girls are commonly used to “get back” at rival gang members by being forced to offer them sex in order to set them up for assault. Another popular way of getting back at a rival gang member is to show him “disrespect” by forcing sex on one of his female relatives.

Many young women are expected to have sex with a number of gang members as part of a membership initiation to gain admittance. This practice is so common that when questioned, many young people saw rape and sexual assault as perfectly “normal” behaviour, with no conception that it was actually an offence or, indeed, wrong.

Young people get swept up into gang membership for a variety of reasons. For young men it is usually seen as a route to gain status, power and respect within the community. Carrying a weapon, such as a knife, is often a big status symbol. Tragically, this has resulted many cases of stabbings and pointless loss of life.

For young women, being a gang member is usually more about the status gained by association with a male member of a gang: “you gain respect by being someone’s girl”.

Within these gangs, women are usually regarded just as objects and are not usually treated as women. To male gang members girls are just commodities, rather like a pair of shoes. They are not special, but they are necessary to have around.

There are many different forms of sexual victimisation within the gang environment, where young women are pressured or coerced into sexual activity, but essentially there are three basic reasons for gangs to use sexual exploitation:

  • to exert power and control over its members

  • as a form of initiation for new members

  • as a weapon of violence or revenge against members of rival gangs.

According to the Children’s Society, 46,000 children across England are believed to have been swept up into gangs, with 4,000 teenagers thought to be criminally exploited in London alone, but there is strong reason to believe that these numbers could be significantly higher.

County Line Gangs

Another type of gang that exploits children and young people is the County Line gang. These gangs are different from peer-on-peer gangs because they are run by adults who use children and young people to transport illegal drugs or cash across different counties in the UK.

County Line gangs are relatively recent and are another dark side to the crime of CSE. Vulnerable children, who might be street children or children from dysfunctional families, are particularly targeted. To begin with, gifts of money, clothing, or anything that the young person would not normally be able to have or afford are lavished upon them. In many cases the victims are completely unaware that grooming is taking place.

Sexual abuse often takes place under the guise of affection. Relationships are built up and young girls are frequently groomed by male gang members and made to believe that they are in a meaningful relationship. Research has indicated that within County Lines, girls are more likely than boys to be sexually exploited, although the Children’s Society has highlighted evidence of boys being forced into submission by sexual humiliation and blackmail.

Initially the victims are treated with kindness, but once they have been properly hooked by the drug dealers, a mixture of coercion, intimidation and violence ensures that they are kept working for the gang.

Mobile phones are often used to order drugs. Children will then deliver these, before returning with the cash. Often quite young children are used, since they can more easily operate under the radar of law enforcement, while the drug dealers can remain detached from the crime.

Closing the gaps in child protection

There is a raft of legislation designed to protect children and young people from sexual exploitation, but sadly, many children still fall through the net. Far too often there is still a tendency in some cases to put the blame on children for “putting themselves at risk”, rather than placing blame on the perpetrators for being a serious risk to children.

It is important for there to be strong multi-agency responses from local authority departments such as children’s social care and community safety teams, schools and police to prevent child exploitation of any kind.

Agencies must work to safeguard children and young people who may be vulnerable and at high risk of being groomed by gangs.

A whole-school approach to safeguarding should address all forms of sexual violence and exploitation, including sexualised bullying and coercive behaviour. This should be delivered to both young men and young women in a form appropriate to their age and gender.

Children who have been groomed often do not realise what is happening, so it is important for them to be taught about healthy relationships and to recognise the signs of grooming and exploitation.

Multi-agency training opportunities should be facilitated to enable staff from different professions to meet to consider their shared responsibilities in identifying and working with gang-affected young men and women who are at risk of sexual exploitation or violence.

No simple answer

There is no simple long-term answer to problems associated with gangs but, in the short term, it is important for schools to be proactive and vigilant in identifying the victims of CSE to ensure that these troubled children receive the appropriate support.


  • Child sexual exploitation is a form of sexual abuse that usually follows a period of grooming.

  • Peer-on-peer gang members are usually in their teens or early 20s. They are usually urban and territorial. They are invariably male orientated, with the role of girls generally limited to being a status symbol for male members, or to provide sexual favours.

  • County Line gangs are run by drug dealers who groom vulnerable children and young people and use them for transporting drugs and money across different counties in the UK.

  • Schools should address all forms of sexual exploitation and children should be taught about healthy relationships and how to recognise signs of grooming and exploitation.