Sexual exploitation

Sexual exploitation is when people use the power they have over people – usually young people and children – to sexually abuse them. Their power may result from a difference in age, gender, intellect, strength, money or other resources.

People often think of sexual exploitation in terms of serious organised crime, but it also covers abuse within relationships and may involve informal exchanges of sex for something the victim wants or needs, such as accommodation, gifts, cigarettes or attention. Some people are "groomed" through "boyfriends" who then force the child or young person into having sex with friends or associates.
Sexual abuse covers penetrative sex, sexual touching, masturbation and misuse of sexual images, e.g. on the Internet or by mobile phone.

Part of the challenge of tackling sexual exploitation is that the victims may not understand that non-consensual sex (sex they haven't agreed to) or forced sex – including oral sex – is sexual assault or rape.

Who is affected?

Any child or young person can be a victim of sexual exploitation, but children are believed to be at greater risk of being sexually exploited if they:

  • are homeless
  • have feelings of low self-esteem
  • have had a recent bereavement or loss
  • are in care
  • are a young carer

The signs

The signs of child sexual exploitation may be hard to spot, particularly if a child is being threatened. To make sure that children are protected, it’s worth being aware of the signs that might suggest a child is being sexually exploited.

Signs of child sexual exploitation include the child or young person:

  • going missing for periods of time or regularly returning home late
  • skipping school or being disruptive in class
  • appearing with unexplained gifts or possessions that can’t be accounted for
  • experiencing health problems that may indicate a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • having mood swings and changes in temperament
  • using drugs and alcohol
  • displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviours, such as over familiarity with strangers, dressing in a sexualised manner or sending sexualised images by mobile phone ("sexting")

They may also show signs of unexplained physical harm, such as bruising or cigarette burns.

Preventing abuse

The NSPCC offers advice on how to protect children. It advises:

  • helping children understand their bodies and sex in a way that is appropriate to their age
  • developing an open and trusting relationship so that they feel they can talk to you about anything
  • explaining the difference between safe secrets (such as a surprise party) and unsafe secrets (things that make them unhappy or uncomfortable)
  • teaching children to respect family boundaries such as privacy in sleeping, dressing and bathing
  • teaching them self-respect and how to say no
  • supervising Internet and television use

If you suspect that a child or young person has been or is being sexually exploited, the NSPCC recommends you should not confront the alleged abuser. Confronting them may place the child in greater physical danger and may give the abuser time to confuse or threaten them into silence.

Instead, seek professional advice. Discuss your concerns with your local authority children’s services (safeguarding team), the police or an independent organisation such as the NSPCC. They may be able to provide advice on how to prevent further abuse and how to talk to your child to get an understanding of the situation.

Birmingham Safeguarding Children Board NSPCC – sexual exploitation at a glance

If you know for certain that a child has been or is being sexually exploited, please report this directly to the police.

West Midlands Police

The See Me, Hear Me campaign was launched by West Midlands councils and West Midlands Police to raise awareness of child sexual exploitation.

See Me, Hear Me