What Is Child Sexual Exploitation And What Are The Signs?

One of the factors that makes child sex exploitation so difficult to quantify, understand and prevent is the ‘behind-closed-doors’, secretive nature of it. It is a growing problem and is rarely reported, as children are intimidated and often too 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 UK  in 2012, 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.

Child sexual abuse (CSAdescribes  a range of behaviors whereby an adult harms a child for sexual gratification. The abuse may be contact (eg: touching) or non-contact (eg: inappropriate photographing , it can be penetrative or non-penetrative, the harm can be physical and psychological  and the child may appear to consent (even physically developed children are not emotionally ready to make decisions about sex) or may be forced using fear through threatened or actual violence or other. CSA generally involves a grave abuse of trust and power on behalf of the abuser. CSA typically (but not always) involves 1 abuser who is known to the child victim. The abuse may happen once, every now and then, or continually over a period of time.

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is CSA, with material/financial gain for the abuser. CSE usually (though not always) involves a third person or persons, as well as the victim and initial abuser. Something (money/drugs/affection/cigarettes/shelter/gifts/food) is generally exchanged for participation in sexual activities, either from the abuser to victim, or third party to initial abuser (as payment for use of the ‘commodity’). In its most organized form, CSE is the commercial and predatory sexual abuse of children. Essentially, it is child sexual slavery. Children are seen as commodities that can be brought, controlled, used, violated and sold. All forms of CSE involve the abuse of trust on the part of the adult, who by nature of their age, cognitive abilities, experience, intellect and resources, are always the powerful party within the relationship.

The 3 Models Of Sexual Exploitation

1: The Inappropriate Relationship: Typically involves 1 abuser who has power over and is able to control the child. Child may be manipulated, co-erced or threatened into keeping secrets about sexual behavior. Child may accept the abuse as normal, or be too afraid to speak out because of fear of disbelief, guilt, fear of repercussions, or because the child believes s/he is dependent on the abuser.  Child may believe s/he is in a loving relationship. 

2: The Boyfriend Model: An organized network (gang/peadophile ring etc) of abusers may send 1 abuser to target and obtain victims. Typically s/he (generally, but by no means exclusively, male) is good looking/charming, and will generally (but NOT always) target vulnerable children (kids in care, isolated children, children who spend long periods unsupervised, children with family problems, children who may not be able to communicate or have anywhere to turn). S/he will ‘groom‘ the victim, often with gifts (take-aways, drugs, clothes, alcohol), to gain the child’s trust and make the child dependent  Generally the child believes s/he is in a ‘normal’ relationship initially, but is soon co-erced or threatened into sexual acts with ‘friends’ or associates.

3: Organized Exploitation and Child Trafficking: Victims are trafficked (brought/sold like any other product) often across towns, cities and countries, by criminal gangs, often at ‘sex parties’. They may be forced to have sex with multiple people and to ‘recruit’ more victims.


The Warning Signs

Behavior and events that may not be of interest in normal circumstances could become very important when concerning a vulnerable child and in the presence of other signs that provide a fuller picture.

It is vital that parents, caregivers, aunties, uncles, teachers, and anyone that cares for children, is aware of the signs of possible child sexual exploitation, as there is no doubt this is a growing problem, and all studies show that early intervention can be key to limiting damage and helping children to thrive. Ignorance makes us vulnerable.


Mood Swings: Children/young people may experience severe mood swings as they attempt to come to terms with the emotions they feel as a result of the sexual abuse. These emotions can include but are not exclusive to: confusion, shame, guilt, victimization, betrayal and isolation. SIGNS: Suddenly becoming aggressive/disruptive or insular and withdrawn, sudden changes in temperament, self-esteem, self-image, general disposition.

Running Away: Children who are being sexually abused often run away from home or care. This can be as a cry for help, or an attempt to escape the abusers. SIGNS: Going missing for unexplained periods of time, Staying out all night with no explanation.

Missing School/withdrawing form peers: Victims of CSE may withdraw from peers and disengage from school/friends for a number of reasons, including inability to concentrate because of the emotions caused by the abuse, inability to relate to ‘normal’ children, or due to threats from the abusers (isolated children are easier to control). SIGNS: Suddenly disinterested in previous hobbies, unwilling to see friends, increased time spent alone, time spent with unknown ‘friends’ 

Sexuality: Children who have been sexually abused may equate sex with love and attention, and because of this, may appear promiscuous and may act in an inappropriate, overtly sexual way. They may also be trying to communicate what has happened to them SIGNS:  Promiscuity, over-familiar with strangers, inappropriate sexual language, knowing more about sex than appropriate, overtly sexual dress, high interest in sexual behavior, sending sexual pictures on internet, STDs, pregnancy.

  • GIFTS:

Abusers may give lots of gifts/treats as a way to groom the child into feeling safe to spend time alone with the abuser, to control the child (by making him/her dependent ,  to manipulate the child to comply with the sexual behavior and to buy the child’s silence. SIGNS: Suddenly having new items (clothes, jewels, gadgets, food, credit, etc) with no reasonable account for obtaining them, or attempts to hide them.


Mobile Phones: Abusers can use phones to control and contact victims. They may present the phone as a gift, and can use the GPS system to tract the whereabouts of the victim. SIGNS: New phone (unexplained), sudden credit (unexplained), increased use, secretive use.

Computer: Abusers can use the internet to identify and contact a victim. Abusers may encourage children to send inappropriate pictures, or may groom a child via online messaging. Modern mobile phones are able to use internet, social networking and messaging sites as well as computers.  SIGNS:  Spending more time online, becoming secretive about online activities. Please go HERE for info on keeping your kids safe online.

Cars: Some abusers may target victims and ‘test the waters’ by initially offering lifts in cars. Some gangs cruise around in cars looking for victims. SIGNS: Talking about car rides with unknown people, being picked up/dropped of by unknown people.

  • CRIME: 

Research has pointed to a strong link between sexual exploitation and youth offending  In a recent study, 40% of victims were also youth offenders. SIGNS: Sudden criminal behavior, or sudden significant increase in offending.


Abusers can create dependency and control children by introducing them to drugs, which may be addictive, and may encourage them to loose their inhibitions and behave sexually. SIGNS: Visible signs of drug/alcohol use: slurred speech, trouble balancing, trouble concentrating, smell (alcohol/cannabis), drug paraphernalia (smoking equipment  tin foil etc) unwilling to make eye contact, red eyes, dilated/constricted pupils (not according to light exposure), laughing etc.



For support and advice, call:

UK NSPCC Helpline – 0808 800 5000 Email – helpline@nspcc.org.uk

UK- ChildLine: 0800 1111

USA – National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453)

Further info, help and support:

CROP: Founded in 1996 and driven by the experiences and needs of affected parents, CROP is the only UK organisation to specialise in working alongside the parents, carers and wider family of child sexual exploitation victims.

EPCAT: In 2004, ECPAT UK produced groundbreaking research on the trafficking of children into the UK. An on-going programme of research, training and advocacy informs our campaigning efforts. ECPAT UK has been instrumental in raising awareness in government of the plight of children trafficked into the UK for both sexual exploitation and for exploitative labour. There are still many gaps in policy and practice that need urgent attention. PLEASE SUPPORT EPCATS CAMPAIGNS HERE

Child Sexual Exploitation – AAA

Puppet On A String: Barnardos report into sexual exploitation of children Exploitation

Myths And Facts


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