What is child sexual exploitation?


Some people form relationships with children or young people to use them for sex.They pretend to be the young person’s friend, or a boyfriend / girlfriend and manipulate them with bribes, threats, humiliation and even violence.

They use that power to force them to have sex, or do sexual things, with them and sometimes with other people.

This is sexual exploitation and it’s a crime.

Child sexual exploitation can happen to any child, or young person under the age of 18, from any background. It happens to boys and young men as well as girls and young women.

Will a child tell me this is happening to them?

Most parents find it hard to believe this kind of thing could happen to their child. And if your child was dealing with something this awful, you’d know about it, wouldn’t you?

Here’s why it’s unlikely your child would tell you or others:

  • The grooming process – perpetrators gain control over children by grooming them – it’s an incredibly powerful process and many children don’t stand a chance against it. Once a child does something – even something really small – that they know they might get ‘in trouble’ for, they become vulnerable to threats and coercion. So they get in deeper. The child comes to believe they are in a loving relationship with their exploiter – and is convinced that they are not loved or understood at home
  • Shame and guilt – children often believe the abuse is their own fault (especially if it occurred when they were using drugs or alcohol) and fear they will be blamed or punished for what has happened. They are frightened they could get into trouble from the police for accepting or handling drugs, or may even have developed a dependency on them. They will also feel ashamed of the sexual acts they have been coerced to participate in
  • Fear and blackmail – Exploited children are too frightened to tell anyone what is happening. Threats of violence are made not just to themselves, but towards their family members. They may be blackmailed by indecent images taken during the sexual exploitation. They think they still ‘owe’ the abuser/s for any gifts or substances they have received. They may fear for the perpetrators and what to protect them.

Spot the signs

Tackling CSE is everyone’s business. Children who may be at risk of exploitation might show some of the following signs:

  • Becomes especially secretive; stops seeing their usual friends; has really sharp, severe mood swings
  • Develops relationships with older men and/or women (although not all perpetrators are older)
  • Goes missing from home and is reluctant to say where they have been or what they have been doing. Stays out all night
  • Receives calls and messages from outside their normal circle of friends
  • Has new, expensive items that they couldn’t afford, such as mobile phones, iPods or jewellery – as well as ‘invisible’ or ‘virtual’ gifts such as phone credit and online gaming credits
  • Suddenly changes their taste in dress or music
  • Looks tired or unwell and sleeps at unusual hours
  • Has marks or scars on their body, which they try to hide
  • Regularly missing school
  • Displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour

Child sexual exploitation online

When sexual exploitation happens online, young people 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.

Help and support

Children’s charity Barnardo’s support children and families affected by issues such as sexual exploitation and domestic abuse. BASE (Barnardo’s Against Sexual Exploitation) is a Barnardo’s project in Bristol which supports young people affected by child sexual exploitation.
Barnardos website

The NSPCC provide a wide range of services for both children and adults, including national helplines staffed by trained helpline counsellors for 24/7 help and advice.
0800 1111 (ChildLine)
0808 800 5000 (Support for parents and carers)
NSPCC website

A website for children and young people. Gives honest and frank advice on topics including sex and relationships, and the internet.
Thinkuknow website

Understanding Child Exploitation – A parent and carers guide.

Download here