We #StandWithUkraine, find out how to help here.
Last updated: 19.02.20

Understanding Child Sexual Exploitation

As a society, we all share the responsibility of safeguarding vulnerable children from harm and being taken advantage of by others. This means understanding the different ways that young adults and children can be exploited, and what can be done to combat this.

Sadly, an NSPCC study estimated that roughly 1 in 20 children in the UK have been sexually abused, with children between the ages of 11 and 17 reporting experiences matching the legal definition of sexual abuse at some point within their childhood. This statistic highlights the frequency that sexual abuse can occur, and the unfortunate truth is that in some cases this isn’t an isolated incident.

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is the methodical and systematic sexual abuse of minors and is one of the most extreme instances of child abuse which can occur. Anyone who works with children or interacts with children on a professional basis has a responsibility to help prevent this from happening and minimise this statistic with the goal of eradicating CSE. Within this piece, we’ve broken down the forms of child sexual exploitation which can occur and how you can act against it.

Types of Child Sexual Exploitation

Child Sexual Exploitation can happen both in person or online, with abusers gaining the trust of a child or controlling them through blackmail or threats of violence. This can then lead to sexual abuse within a short amount of time, depending on the abuser and their intentions.

There can also be multiple abusers, such as gangs who exploit multiple children using a shared pool of resources and will circulate any sexually explicit content between them. Instances of this have occurred across the country, from Rochdale back in 2017 to more recent cases in Oxford and Huddersfield. Gangs frequently use sexual exploitation to control victims through degradation and humiliation, with drugs and alcohol being tools to make victims compliant.

The online element should not be underestimated, with 16% of child sexual offences on record between October 2017 and September 2018 involving an online component. If a child is sexually exploited online, they can be pressured to send sexually explicit images or videos of themselves to an abuser or have sexual conversations about topics that no child should be exposed to. These pieces of explicit media are then potentially used to further blackmail a victim and gain more control over them, leading to threats if the victim doesn’t take part in other sexual activities.

How to spot signs of Child Sexual Exploitation

Knowing what to keep an eye out for can help uncover instances of CSE early on and get victims the support they need, but it can be difficult to spot – especially if victims are actively trying to prevent people from finding out. Remaining honest and open will help vulnerable children to potentially confide in you, especially if they feel they have no one to turn to.

Some signs of sexual abuse or grooming can be:

  • Being scared or frightened of certain people, places or situations
  • Dramatic mood shifts or changes
  • Inappropriate behaviour, specifically overtly sexual
  • Misuse of alcohol or drugs
  • Physical signs such as bruising or bleeding, specifically around genital areas
  • Pregnancy or symptoms of pregnancy
  • Secretive behaviour
  • Symptoms of a sexually transmitted diseases
  • Unexplained money or gifts which they won’t discuss

Child sexual abuse isn’t limited by age or gender, although the NSPCC study highlighted that girls do typically experience a higher rate of sexual abuse, with the 15-17 age group suffering the worst level of abuse. Additional points you might notice could include:

  • Drastic change in appearance, e.g. weight-loss
  • Involvement with older groups of friends
  • Hanging out with other vulnerable people or antisocial groups
  • Taking part in criminal activities (drug dealing, stealing, etc.)
  • Staying out late or unexplained absences
  • Self-harm indicators, e.g. marks and scars
  • Having a much older romantic partner

None of these signs in isolation necessarily means that a child is being sexually exploited, but it is always worth noting a single point of behaviour in case further signs arise. The earlier you can recognise sexual exploitation, the sooner you can help put a stop to it.

The Importance of Understanding CSE

Having a better understanding of child sexual exploitation means that you are better positioned to help those who may be experiencing it. Some victims are likely to know they’re being exploited but may have been isolated from trusted adults by their abusers, so if you spot definite signs of abuse it is worth raising concerns. The NSPCC study also highlighted that 90% of young people who had experienced sexual abuse were abused by someone they knew, which can be a key factor in preventing a child from raising concerns.

Undertaking proper safeguarding training will allow you to get a full grasp of your role in relation to safeguarding vulnerable children and young adults, including your responsibilities around raising concerns, intervening and contacting the relevant authorities.

If a child does talk to you about sexual exploitation they’re experiencing, then it’s vital that you listen to them carefully and highlight that they’ve done the right thing by telling you. By taking anything they say seriously and explaining what you’ll do next, you will make them to feel heard and potentially help them to reveal further details which could help your report to the proper authorities.

There are many safeguarding courses you can take to help train yourself or staff members within your team on proper safeguarding practices. Our online safeguarding courses can be delivered instantly and cover all the information you need to know in order to provide vulnerable children with the right safeguarding measures.