3.5.4 Child Sexual Exploitation


The sexual exploitation of children is child sexual abuse and is completely unacceptable; effective multi-agency and partnership working within a contextual safeguarding approach is recognized as good practice. Child sexual exploitation is complex and brings many challenges that cannot be dealt with quickly by a single agency and is why we have adopted a partnership approach.


This chapter was amended in March 2022 to include information on sexual harassment and violence and to note the Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges (Ofsted). This Report, together with Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy (GOV.UK), can be found in Further Information. A link was added in the Further Information section to Tackling Child Exploitation: Resources Pack (Local Government Association).

1. Definition

Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. 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 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. (DFE, 2017) GOV.uk Guidance for Definition and guidance for Practitioners

Like all forms of child sexual abuse, child sexual exploitation:

  • Can affect any child or young person (male or female) under the age of 18 years, including 16 and 17 year olds who can legally consent to have sex;
  • Can still be abuse even if the sexual activity appears consensual;
  • Can include both contact (penetrative and non-penetrative acts) and non-contact sexual activity;
  • Can take place in person or via technology, or a combination of both;
  • Can involve force and/or enticement-based methods of compliance and may, or may not, be accompanied by violence or threats of violence;
  • May occur without the child or young person’s immediate knowledge (through others copying videos or images they have created and posting on social media, for example);
  • Can be perpetrated by individuals or groups, males or females, and children or adults. The abuse can be a one-off occurrence or a series of incidents over time, and range from opportunistic to complex organised abuse;
  • Is typified by some form of power imbalance in favour of those perpetrating the abuse. Whilst age may be the most obvious, this power imbalance can also be due to a range of other factors including gender, sexual identity, cognitive ability, physical strength, status, and access to economic or other resources.

Sexual exploitation is child abuse which can take a number of forms. Harper and Scott (2005) define it as the following:

  • Situations where children and young people are exploited by family members;
  • The involvement of children and young people in sexually exploitative relationships with older men or peers;
  • The informal exchange of sex for favours, money, drugs, accommodation or other commodities;
  • More 'formal' forms of sexual exploitation; Organised abuse;
  • Trafficking.

Sexual exploitation occurs in a social context of abuse towards women. However, it is not just girls and young women who are sexually exploited; boys and young men may be victims too. Abusers and coercers - who are predominantly, but not always, men - often physically, sexually and emotionally abuse children and young people and in some situations, may effectively imprison them.

Children and young people make constrained choices against a background of social, economic and emotional vulnerability; it is not a 'free choice'. Because of either their age or their needs, they are unable to give truly informed consent to this activity.

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.


There are two different types of trafficking of children and young people for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Firstly, there is trafficking from abroad into the United Kingdom (see Children from Abroad, including Victims of Modern Slavery, Trafficking and Exploitation Procedure for further information). The second category is internal trafficking, where children and young people are moved from one place to another in the UK for the purposes of sexual exploitation. This may be from one street to a neighbouring street, from one area of a town or city to another area, or across county borders. It is not the distance that is relevant in the definition of internal trafficking, but the movement of a child or young person for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

The National Referral Mechanism

Click here to view the National Referral Mechanism.

Some victims who have been trafficked from abroad may be particularly vulnerable, and there are often barriers to them seeking help and reporting a crime. There is therefore an onus on front-line agencies to identify potential victims and help them access services. Front line practitioners should refer individuals who they think may have been trafficked to designated 'Competent Authorities' who will work with partners to make an assessment. These are based within the UK Visas and Immigration service.

Front line staff should refer possible victims of trafficking to the Competent Authority (see Local Contacts) Where The UK Visas and Immigration service identify a potential victim the case will be assessed by designated specialist staff within a Competent Authority, which will also work with other relevant partners.


The principles underpinning SCSP multi-agency response to the sexual exploitation of children and young people are as follows.

  • Sexual exploitation includes sexual, physical and emotional abuse, and, in some cases, neglect;
  • Children and young people do not make informed choices to enter or remain in sexual exploitation, but do so due to coercion, enticement, manipulation or desperation;
  • Young people under 16 cannot consent to sexual activity: sexual activity with children under the age of 13 is statutory rape - see Working with Sexually Active Young People Procedure;
  • Sexually exploited children and young people should be treated as victims of abuse, not as offenders;
  • Many sexually exploited young people have difficulty distinguishing between their own choices about sex and sexuality, and the sexual activities they are coerced into. This potential confusion should be handled with care and sensitivity by practitioners;
  • The primary law enforcement effort must be made against the coercers and adults who sexually exploit young people. In some cases young people themselves may exploit other young people, and in these cases law enforcement action may also be necessary.

2. Risks

CSE can manifest itself in different ways. It can involve an older perpetrator exercising financial, emotional or physical control over a young person. It can involve peers manipulating or forcing victims into sexual activity, sometimes within gangs and in gang-affected neighbourhoods, but not always. Exploitation can also involve opportunistic or organised networks of perpetrators who may profit financially from trafficking young victims between different locations to engage in sexual activity with multiple men.

Technology is widely used by perpetrators as a method of grooming and coercing victims, often through social networking sites and mobile devices (Jage et al, 2011). This form of abuse usually occurs in private, or in semi-public places such as parks, cinemas, cafes and hotels. It is increasingly occurring at ‘parties’ organised by perpetrators for the purposes of giving victims drugs and alcohol before sexually abusing them.It is important to note that once the perpetrator has gained the child or young person's trust and affection they will change how they act around them. They will ask for sexual favours for themselves, and other men, in return for alcohol, drugs, presents, money etc.; all the things they previously gave them for free. They stop being nice and can become threatening and violent. Their aim is to draw children or young people into swapping or selling sex. They are not their friends and they do not care about them. The child or young person is purely a commodity.

For more detail, please refer to the following government guidance documents:

The Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges (Ofsted, June 2021) 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.

Other Methods

As has been stated, children and young people can be groomed into sexually exploitative relationships but other forms of entry exist. Some young people are engaged in informal economies that incorporate the exchange of sex for rewards such as drugs, alcohol, money or gifts. Others exchange sex for accommodation or money as a result of homelessness and experiences of poverty. Some young people have been bullied and threatened into sexual activities by peers or gangs which is then used against them as a form of extortion and to keep them compliant. They may also be coerced into criminal activities.

Sometimes perpetrators do not attempt to form a relationship with the child or young person. They may rape them or commit other sexual acts without using the grooming process. They may, or may not, previously be known to the child or young person. The offences may first involve the child or young person being abducted.

3. Indicators of Sexual Exploitation

Children and young people involved in any form of sexual exploitation face immense risks to their physical, emotional and psychological health. The environment in which sexual exploitation is located tends to have close links with criminal behaviour, drug and alcohol misuse and violence. Children and young people drawn into this kind of sexual abuse therefore become exposed to these risks. There has been a higher incidence of murder associated with commercial sexual exploitation than is the case in the general population, and they are also more vulnerable to other violent acts such as rape, physical and sexual assaults and coercion into pornography.

The earlier that sexual exploitation, or a risk of sexual exploitation, can be identified, the more likely it is that harm to a child or young person can be minimised or prevented. Practitioners, therefore, should be aware of the indicators of sexual exploitation as detailed below. It should not be read as a definitive list and the indicators should not be taken, in themselves, as proof of involvement or predictive of future involvement. They are intended as a guide, which could be included in a wider assessment of the child or young person's needs and circumstances. In effective practice, the facts for each child or young person should be considered separately.

Anyone who has regular contact with children and young people is in a good position to notice changes in behaviour and physical signs which may indicate involvement in sexual exploitation. However, parents, carers, teachers, doctors and youth workers are particularly well placed to do so. They should also be able to recognise where children and young people are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and may need targeted measures to prevent such abuse. The primary concern of anyone who comes into contact with a child or young person who is vulnerable to being sexually exploited must be to safeguard and promote their welfare.

  • An unsubstantiated allegation that a child or young person has established associations, or who may be on the periphery of sexual exploitation or sex work should be considered carefully. None of the following indicators, whether singly or in combination, should be viewed as conclusive proof of involvement in sexual exploitation, but a combination of them may be taken as suggestive of the possibility. The following indicators are for both girls / boys, and young women / men;
  • History of abuse (including familial child sexual abuse, risk of forced marriage, risk of honour based violence, physical and emotional abuse and neglect);
  • Recent bereavement or loss;
  • Gang-association either through relatives, peers or intimate relationships (in cases of gang associated CSE only).

Attending school with children and young people who are already sexually:

  • Typical vulnerabilities in children prior to abuse;
  • Living in a chaotic or dysfunctional household (including parental substance use, domestic violence, parental mental health issues, parental criminality) exploited;
  • Learning disabilities;
  • Unsure about their sexual orientation or unable to disclose sexual orientation to their families;
  • Friends with young people who are sexually exploited;
  • Homeless;
  • Lacking friends from the same age group;
  • Living in a gang neighbourhood;
  • Living in residential care;
  • Living in hostel, bed and breakfast accommodation or a foyer;
  • Low self-esteem or self-confidence;
  • Young carer.

Signs and behaviour generally seen in children who are already being sexually exploited:

  • Missing from home or care;
  • Physical injuries;
  • Drug or alcohol misuse;
  • Involvement in offending;
  • Repeat sexually-transmitted infections, pregnancy and terminations;
  • Absent from school;
  • Change in physical appearance;
  • Evidence of sexual bullying and/or vulnerability through the internet and/or social networking sites;
  • Estranged from their family;
  • Receipt of gifts from unknown sources;
  • Recruiting others into exploitative situations;
  • Poor mental health;
  • Self-harm;
  • Thoughts of or attempts at suicide.

The fact that a young person is aged 16 or 17 and, therefore has reached the legal age of being able to consent to sex should not be taken as a sign that they are no longer at risk of sexual exploitation. They are still defined as children under the Children Act 1989 and 2004 respectively. They can still suffer Significant Harm as a result of sexual exploitation and their right to support and protection from harm should not be ignored or de-prioritised by services because they are over the age of 16, or are no longer in mainstream education or training. They may be additionally vulnerable if they are not living in stable accommodation.

4. Protection and Action to be Taken

It is important that practitioners are open to the fact that children and young people do not always recognise that they are being sexually exploited. They will often not wish to disclose information relating to their exploitation due to fear of repercussions and also the fear of losing the relationship or group they belong to and identify with. If any practitioner believes that a child or young person is at risk of, or is being sexually exploited, the Sheffield Child Exploitation Screening Tool needs to be completed. The screening tool is designed to be used by all professionals working with children and their parents or carers. A child is defined as a person who is under 18 years of age.

The Sheffield Child Exploitation Screening Tool does not replace existing multi-agency safeguarding arrangements that are in place in Sheffield. If you have safeguarding and child protection concerns about a child’s welfare then you should contact the Sheffield Safeguarding Hub to discuss.

This tool will help you to make an initial judgement regarding the risk of child exploitation; it is neither a specialist assessment or referral form. The tool will help practitioners to focus on the specific child exploitation (CE) evidence, indicators, existing safety and vulnerabilities, and determine whether further investigations are needed by Children’s Social Care or referral to another prevention and early intervention service.

When you are considering a referral to the Sheffield Safeguarding Hub (Children's Social Care) or sharing your concerns with the child’s allocated social worker, this screening tool should form the basis of those discussions and your professional analysis.

Practitioners need to exercise their professional judgement when using this tool because factors such as the child’s age, additional vulnerabilities, their history, may mean that the child is more vulnerable to CE. Professional judgement also includes concerns that you can evidence as well as concerns based ‘gut feeling’. It is important that you differentiate between the two and provide explanation and rationale. It is important to include the child’s strengths and existing safety so that this can be considered

Practitioners should also consider if the child or young person has been trafficked and consider a referral to the National Referral Mechanism.

Evidence Gathering and Recording and Sharing Information

If any professional involved has concerns that the child or young person is being exploited they should take positive action, seek support to clarify their concerns and record their suspicions. Every effort should be made to safeguard the child and try to minimise their involvement in exploitation. It is important that any relevant information is recorded and shared appropriately. This may include the following:

  • Adults or other children and / or young people who are involved in the exploitation - names, street names, descriptions, addresses and other information;
  • Cars - colour, models, registration numbers;
  • Telephone calls - to and from whom, with numbers if possible;

This information should be recorded in the screening tool and used in discussions with the Sheffield Safeguarding Hub.

Sexual Exploitation Boys and Young Men

Sexual exploitation is not just an issue for girls and young women, but also a reality for some boys and young men. But this is much more of a hidden problem for boys, due to stigma, prejudice and, sometimes, the assumption that boys involved in selling sex are more in control of their situation and, therefore, are less likely to be seen as victims.

Research suggests that much of this form of sexual exploitation happens behind closed doors, so it can be difficult to get a true picture of the extent of this problem: not only in Sheffield, but in the rest of the UK.

The commercial exploitation of boys is perhaps the most hidden form of child abuse in Britain and the one that is least known about (Nottinghamshire Police Authority, 2001).

Possible Routes into Sexual Exploitation

There are many ways that boys and young men may become involved in sexually exploitative relations with adults. Some of the possible routes into sexual exploitation are:

  • Abuse - Particularly sexual abuse, but physical abuse and neglect can be a major factor in a young person becoming involved in sexual exploitation, including prostitution. 'If I have to have sex with men I may as well get paid for it';
  • Survival - Selling sex to survive due to homelessness, threats of violence, etc;
  • Drugs - To support substance misuse. The direct exchange of sex for drugs or cash;
  • Homophobia - There are very few safe places for young men to explore their sexuality. Sexuality itself is not a risk indicator of child sexual exploitation, the lack of a safe space to explore can create risk;
  • Association - Contact with other young men who are being sexually exploited or living in residential care that is being 'targeted' by paedophiles;
  • Opportunistic - Simply being in the wrong place at wrong time. Being approached in public toilets, parks, amusement.

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)

UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS) Digital Passport – A communication tool to support children and young people with care experience to talk with their carers about their online lives.