Last reviewed 27 October 2023
Recent disclosures and allegations of historical sexual abuse have led to calls for changes in the law regarding the age of sexual consent and restrictions on older adults having sexual relationships with those under the age of 18. This is due to the potential imbalance of power between participants, where the young person may be more vulnerable to coercion or control, especially where the adult is in a position of power, such as a celebrity or teacher.
This idea of imbalance of power in a relationship is a characteristic of both child sexual and criminal exploitation.
Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a form of child sexual abuse that 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 perpetrator 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.”
Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) occurs:
“where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into any criminal activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial or other advantage of the perpetrator or facilitator and/or (c) through violence or the threat of violence. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child criminal exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology.”
The descriptions of exploitation above, taken from Working Together to Safeguard Children (2018), DfE show that these are not the only similarities. In both cases children under 18 are manipulated into engaging in sexual and/or criminal behaviours as part of an exchange. They make clear that where these characteristics are present, exploitation has occurred even if the victims believe they have been willing participants, including where contact has been via use of digital technology rather than physical contact.
Some of these behaviours can also be a feature of domestic abuse, which can include controlling and coercive behaviour in isolation, or in conjunction with threatening behaviour and actual physical violence.
Targeting and grooming
Children are drawn into exploitation through a process of grooming, where perpetrators identify a potential victim’s unmet needs and capitalise on their vulnerabilities. They gain trust and make an emotional connection with their victims, and also in some cases, the victim’s friends and family. Groomers will seek to gradually isolate their victim from existing support, such as family and friends, with the intention of transferring this reliance to the perpetrator. Gang leaders and organisers may use other children within their network to recruit potential victims and begin the grooming process.
Unmet needs may include: a desire for status, respect or feeling of belonging; a need for affection; wanting money or financial gain; accommodation needs; or to obtain drugs and/or alcohol.
Children who may be at particular risk include:
being from an unstable or unsafe home environment (including where domestic abuse, alcohol and/or substance abuse are present)
poor mental health (child or someone in the home)
substance and/or alcohol misuse
disability and/or learning difficulty/additional needs (child or someone in the home)
being in care or care leaver
homeless or migrant
experiencing discrimination, bullying, homophobia, etc
history of prior abuse and/or neglect
poor educational engagement/school exclusion
gang or prior criminal involvement, or a sibling/relative involved.
It is thought that children most at risk of criminal exploitation are white, British boys, aged between 14 and 17 years old, but children from different ethnic groups are also affected and there have been instances involving children as young as 10. The reason for targeting younger and mainly white children appears to be that these children are less likely to be identified as potential suspects by police.
Sexual exploitation appears to affect children from all groups, predominantly girls, but boys are also involved, with children aged 12–15 years old being the main targets. However, children as young as eight have been identified as victims of sexual exploitation, with younger children being especially vulnerable to online contact.
Perpetrators befriend children in person or via digital technology, by offering to meet their needs in exchange for “favours”. Initially this process may be tangible, through the giving of gifts, such as food and drink; cigarettes or vapes; drugs; mobile phones; jewellery; and expensive or designer clothing; taking them on outings or “dates”. The method may also involve offering intangible gifts such as affection and attention, including sexual attention, pretending they want to be in a romantic relationship with them.
As the “relationship” develops, its nature changes. The victims are made aware that having accepted their gifts, they are now “indebted” to the perpetrator. In some cases, this is engineered, such as through fake robberies, where drugs or money are stolen from the victim by gang members. The victim is then convinced into thinking they must work for free to repay the debt, referred to as “debt bondage”. Similarly, children may be tricked into engaging in minor criminal activity, such as shop lifting, or passing on a package containing drugs or stolen goods, without their knowledge of the contents, or sharing explicit images of themselves. This gives the perpetrators further leverage to threaten or blackmail them into engaging in more serious, risky criminal and/or sexual activities.
Some children may appear to take part willingly, maybe to please their perpetrator, or in the belief that this makes them “one of the gang” or they may be glad to “repay the favour”. This has led such children to be seen as having made an informed choice to engage in criminal behaviour, rather than as victims of abuse and so treated as suspects and criminals. This attitude was evident in the approach taken in Rochdale in 2008/09, when concerns about girls being sexually exploited were disregarded, with the view that they had made a lifestyle choice and were therefore complicit. However, just because a child does not view themselves as a victim, it doesn't mean they aren't, or that their decisions were consensual. These children have still been exploited, as their behaviour has been manipulated through the grooming process, and they may have experienced a range of abuses, including physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
Children can be groomed for the purposes of abuse and exploitation by adults and also by other children. Peer grooming can take place in schools, via social media and other digital platforms and any other environment or situation where children meet. Perpetrators may be from within the family, friends or local community, in person or online, known to the child or a stranger.
Exploitation involves an imbalance of power in a relationship, where the perpetrator creates the impression of authority over their target in some form. This could be due to many reasons, including age difference, intelligence, physical strength, gender, financial situation and/or because they are in a position of perceived authority, such as a teacher, religious or political figure, celebrity, mentor, coach, gang leader or member or romantic attachment.
Criminal exploitation and county lines
Criminal exploitation is a primary feature of county lines. In county lines children are recruited and then exploited to prepare and sell drugs moved from big cities or hubs, into suburban areas, smaller towns and coastal resorts. The name comes from the use of mobile phone networks, called deal lines, using “burner” phones to organise orders and distribution of drugs.
The drugs are often prepared in and distributed from homes of vulnerable people that have been taken over by the gangs in a process know as cuckooing. These so-called “trap houses” act as operational bases and may serve as accommodation for those involved in distribution. It is not uncommon for children who have been trafficked and are victims of modern slavery to be used as part of county lines and other forms of exploitation, including sexual exploitation, and enforced work in car washes, nail bars or agriculture.
Indicators of exploitation
Repeated absence from school or home and/or being found out-of-area.
Decline in school engagement and/or academic performance.
Often leaving home without explanation and staying out overnight, maybe returning with unexplained injuries, including signs of sexual abuse, such as bleeding in their genital or anal area.
Unexplained money, clothes or other possessions including mobile phones and/or having multiple handsets.
Excessive texts and/or phone calls and/or secretive conversations.
Secretive behaviour, including closing laptops or devices, or stopping phone conversations.
Changes in behaviour: fearful, withdrawn, erratic mood, angry, self-harm.
Becoming isolated from family, peers or social networks.
Being associated with known gang associations.
Being frightened of some people, places or situations.
Having relationships with older individuals or groups; referring to an older adult as their boyfriend or girlfriend.
Displaying inappropriate, unhealthy or risky behaviours, including alcohol and/or drug misuse, sexual behaviour.
Sexually transmitted infections.
Impact of exploitation
The effects of exploitation are profound and long-lasting.
Depending on the nature of the exploitation it can impact on both physical and mental health, including low self-esteem; PTSD; depression; self-harm; and suicidal thoughts and attempts. It can affect making and sustaining relationships, fertility and sexual health, academic achievement, employment and economic prospects. Children who have been exploited may have long-term problems with alcohol and substance misuse and may continue to engage in risky and/or criminal behaviours, potentially resulting in custodial prison sentences and ongoing risks to health.
Action to take
If you have concerns that a child or young person under the age of 18 associated with your organisation may be being criminally or sexually exploited, you must follow your organisation’s safeguarding policy and procedures. Write down your concerns and report these to your designated safeguarding lead, who will make the appropriate referral for your area.
If your concerns are about a young person outside your setting, you can also contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or the NSPCC helpline by calling 0808 800 5000 or emailing help@NSPCC.org.uk, or your local police on 101.
If you believe a child to be at immediate risk of harm, you should call 999.
Useful links and resources
Child Sexual Exploitation, NSPCC
Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and Practitioner Briefing Paper, Scottish Government