Child Sex Exploitation – The Invisible Emergency

Over recent weeks we have been exploring the problem of child sex exploitation. You can see a list of study references here.
Clearly, child sex exploitation is a very complicated issue and we have only just skimmed the surface, but here we will bring together some of the points raised and key issues facing children suffering this kind of abuse.
  • What is child sex exploitation and are there different types of sex exploitation?
  • How prevalent is the problem?
  • Who sexually exploits children?
  • Are some groups of children at more risk than others? If so who and why?
  • What are signs that a child may be being sexually exploited?
  • What are possible effects of this type of abuse?
  • What should i do if i suspect a child is at risk of being sexually exploited?
  • How do i keep my children safe?
  • What is the ‘cost’ to society?
  •  HOW CAN I TAKE ACTION TO HELP? And further information.

What is child sex exploitation and are there different types of sex exploitation?

‘Child sex exploitation’ describes a broad spectrum of activity, but all forms of child sex exploitation involve the abuse of trust and power by an adult to enable them to sexually abuse a child or young person.

It can take many forms, including the guise of a ‘consensual’ relationship, or the casual exchange of gifts/attention/other commodities for sexual favours or organised forced prostitution. It usually involves some form of ‘grooming‘, whereby an adult befriends a young person, in order to lower their defenses and gain their trust.

How prevalent is the problem?

One of the factors that makes child sex exploitation so dangerous is the ‘behind-closed-doors’, hidden and secretive nature of it. It is a growing problem and is rarely reported, as children are intimidated and often to afraid of not being believed to come forward. All these things mean it is hard to get an exact idea of how common the problem is.

Following a high profile case in Rochdale where nine men were jailed for up to 19 years for plying five victims with drink and drugs and “passing them around” for sex at takeaway restaurants in June, Sue Berelowitz, Deputy Children’s Commissioner warned MP’s that ‘children are being sexually exploited in every town, village and hamlet across the UK‘. When asked how many children are suffering, she answered;

“We’re talking about thousands. We are talking about a big problem. People need to lay aside their denial and face up to the fact that some truly terrible things are being done.”

Last year, the charity Barnardos worked with over 1,200 children who had been victims of sexual exploitation. They expect this is only a small fraction of the number of children who actually suffered this kind of abuse.

It is estimated that approximately 1.2 million children are trafficked domestically or across borders each year.

Who sexually exploits children?

Following her research, Sue Berolowitz advised the government:

“What I am finding, I regret to say, is that there are parts of every single community – white, Pakistani, Afghan, Gypsy and Romany traveller, you name it – who are seeing children as easy access in terms of sexual exploitation. In terms of victims, we are seeing the same kind of profile.”

Abusers can work as part of sex-gangs, where victims are lured into a false sense of security, to another part of town, and then raped by many men, some who text or use social net-working sites to ‘summon’ other abusers to abuse the victim. Sometimes victims are taken around the country to be used by other gangs. Other paedophiles work alone, often using social networking sites to trick vulnerable young people.

Recent arrests following police-busts of these types of gangs have included teachers, police officers, scout leaders as well as unemployed people. People with criminal histories, and people with no previous convictions. People of all races, creeds, religious orientations, sexual orientations, status, class and age can potentially abuse childrenIt’s important to put this in context; the majority of people would never dream of doing such things, as fostering a fear-culture is not helpful. It is necessary to expel the myths that sex abusers are a particular look or type of person, as these myths are dangerous.

In cases where children sexually abuse other children, over-exposure to very graphic, violent and extreme Internet pornography is often cited as a contributing factor.

Are some groups of children at more risk than others? If so who and why?

Yes! There is no question that certain groups of children are at more risk of being sexually exploited than others, though all children are exposed to some level of risk, given the prevalence of the problem. Generally speaking, children who are more vulnerable and therefore easier to control and manipulate, tend to be at higher risk. High risk groups include:

  • Children in care. These children are among the most frightened, alone children in our society. They have no parents watching over them, making sure they are doing well in school, making the right friends etc etc. They have often suffered terrible abuse or neglect to be in care in the first place, and as a result they ofter are already suffering from low self-esteem, learned destructive behaviours/thought patterns and in some cases developmental delay. Some children would have been passed from pillar to post, foster-family to foster-family, never making lasting friendships or forming a support network. Almost all will be craving attention. Children in care, and particularly in care homes where resources are stretched and training is limited, are often not monitored and protected a fraction of the amount they would be if they were living in a stable family environment, in fact, they are often ‘invisible’. These factors combined make children in the care system ‘easy’ for predators to victimise.
  • There is a link between children who run away and sex exploitation. Children who run away, especially those who go missing regularly, are much more likely to be sexually exploited. Some 100,000 children went missing last year, 1 in 6 of these slept rough, and 1 in 12 came to some kind of harm, according to a report by Barnardos. The more time a child spends missing and away from home, the more likely they are to find themselves in risky situations. They are easily flattered by attention and susceptible to offers of food/shelter, which makes them incredibly vulnerable.
  • Children who are in family situations where they are neglected, or where the parent/child relationship has broken down, or where there is another distraction, for instance a marriage breakdown, parental drug/alcohol abuse or children who are young carers, are at higher risk.
  • Social networking sites are often used by abusers to lure victims. Children who have unmonitored access to the Internet are more susceptible to the grooming tactics employed by abusers. Of the 23,000 young people were asked by EU Kids On-line  1 in 12 said they had met a stranger in real life after ‘meeting’ them on-line.

What are signs that a child may be being sexually exploited? 

This is by no means meant as a definitive guide, some children may display none of these signs, others will display them all. Some children will occasionally exhibit one or two of these behaviors for other reasons, totally unrelated to sex exploitation. But taken together, they may be a sign that you need to investigate things further.

There is never any substitute for having a loving honest and open relationship with your kids. If you foster this by spending time with them, taking an active interest and encouraging their hobbies, keeping the lines of communication well and truly open, then with some luck you will notice something or they will talk to you before they are in harms way. This isn’t always possible, for a million reasons. If you are worried, signs to look out for include:

  • Spending time away from home, especially when you cannot account for and verify their whereabouts.
  • Suddenly mentioning new people that you may have never met, especially if they are vague or unwilling to give you much information.
  • Sudden changes in behaviour/attitudeMay become disruptive or withdrawn at school or ‘difficult’ at home. May suddenly seem more secretive, or engage in inappropriate sexual talk/behaviours. May become promiscuousEating habits may change, eating significantly more or less. Bed wetting, sudden aggressive behaviour, pregnancy, unusual discharge/blood in underclothes.
  • Suddenly having money/possessions that s/he cannot explain or account for. Be aware of mentioning any gifts or offers of trips out or anything inappropriate from un-trusted sources that could indicate grooming

What are possible effects of this type of abuse?

In some of the worst cases this kind of abuse during childhood can begin a child on a path that, with the way the system and society works at the moment, may lead them forever into a life of abuse, prostitution and substance abuse. As things stand, children who become victim to organised child sex gangs are notoriously difficult to identify and rescue, partly because there is still such denial that this even happens, partly because of lack of awareness and resources.

All children who suffer sex abuse, even those who are rescued, will bear emotional and psychological scars. One of the biggest problems, highlighted in recent weeks, is that kids who are ‘rescued’ from harmful and abusive situations, and put into the care system, are likely to be at even more risk in some instances; the term ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ was cited.

The consequences of sexual abuse are as varied as the abuse itself, but can include:

  • Physical damage to internal organs, genitals and body in general, both temporary and permanent.
  • Psychological damage, including: anxiety disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorders, uncontrollable emotions (including anger), sleeping problems, eating disorders, self-esteem disorders, denial, repression, self-destructive behaviours including substance abuse and self-harm
  • Social damage, including; inability to form lasting relationships, inappropriate social behaviour, inability to trust, inability to have healthy sexual relationships, inability to fulfil potential due to aforementioned psychological/physical damage.

What should i do if i suspect a child is at risk of being sexually exploited?

If you suspect a child is being sexually abused, you MUST NOT CONFRONT THE ABUSER. This may give them time to intimidate and frighten the child or other witnesses, or to lie or escape, or hurt the child further.

Instead, you can talk your concerns and options through anonymously with the NSPCC counsellor on 0808 800 5000, (outside the UK? See NOTES: GLOBAL CONTACTS). You can also contact your local council, find contact details here.

 ***If you fear the child is in imediate danger, you MUST call the police*** 999/911/Other


How do i keep my children safe?

Always it is important to keep things in perspective. The very fact that you are here reading this suggests that you are a good parent who loves their child and is doing everything possible to care for them, this alone reduces the risk greatly. Most people;e do not want to hurt children, and generally speaking, most children are relatively safe.

There are things you can do to keep the risk absolutely minimal:

  • As explained above, fostering a good relationship with your children is the best way to protect them from any kind of threat, as they will feel able to come to you with their problems.
  • Obvious things, like stressing the importance of their own responsibility and talking to them about how they can stay safe, is a very good idea. Talk about the routes they will walk home, not going certain local places that are dangerous, not talking to strangers, having their mobiles on them, being home by a certain time etc. Be as honest with your children as you can, explain to them why certain rules are in place, that you are keeping them safe because you love them; the more they understand the more likely they are to abide by your rules even when you are not there!
  • Have a list of your child’s friends and their mobile and home numbersWhen your child visits a friend, ring and leave your number, and speak to the parents; make sure you know where they are and who they are with, and how you can contact them if you need to.
  • Take the necessary steps to keep your kids safe on-line. For advice, see here.

What is the ‘cost’ to society?

The cost of the sexual exploitation of our children is absolutely limitless. Lost psychological and physical well-being, loss of opportunity for education and employment, the loss of the chance to fulfil potential and the high percentage of  negative long-term outcomes including a contribution to the increase of violent crime cause untold damage to society. From a purely monetary value, child sex abuse costs a lot in policing, prosecution, treatment (victims and abusers) and the cost of secure units.



Because of the recent media attention and the tireless campaigning of certain charities, there are MANY things you can do right now to TAKE ACTION to HELP PROTECT VULNERABLE CHILDREN!


  • TELL YOUR MP TO MAKE RUNAWAYS SAFE VIA THE CHILDREN’S SOCIETY, click on this link and enter your postcode to send a PRE-WRITTEN message urging your MP to take action:

  • Action Against Abuse – Change4Children Campaign demands child protection reform in Ireland, where failure to protect children leaves them particularly vulnerable to child sex exploitation. There is a pre-written message to send to your representative, and a petition to sign.
  • Banardos Cut Them Free Campaign This campaign was instrumental in persuading recent government to investigate the issues surrounding child sex exploitation.
  • The EPCAT Campaign to Stop Sex Trafficking


Loving, nurturing foster families have NEVER been so urgently required in the UK, where 1 child goes into care every 22 minutes, and many more do not, not because they are deemed to be safe, but because there simply is no where to put them. COULD YOU OFFER A LOVING HOME TO A CHILD IN DESPERATE NEED? Find out more information on fostering here and here.

You can also DONATE to these CHARITIES, every single penny counts when we all come together!

Further Info

  • The National Working Group offer various resources for professionals working with sexually exploited children
  • Barnardos have a wealth of information here, including print out leaflets to raise awareness on spotting the signs –
  • My Dangerous Loverboy is a breakthrough campaign that will raise awareness of the internal trafficking of vulnerable young girls into the sex trade.
  • The LucyFaithful Foundation – The Lucy Faithfull Foundation (LFF) is the only UK-wide child protection charity dedicated solely to reducing the risk of children being sexually abused. They work with entire families that have been affected by abuse including: adult male and female sexual abusers; young people with inappropriate sexual behaviours; victims of abuse and other family members.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: