What is it?
Sexual exploitation is someone using the power they have over other people, usually young people and children, to sexually abuse them in some way. The types of power people use to exploit others can include age, money, gender, intellect and strength.
People often think of sexual exploitation as being connected to organised crime, but it also covers abuse within relationships. It may involve informal exchanges of sex for something the victim wants or needs, such as accommodation, gifts or attention.
Some people are groomed through "boyfriends" who force the child or young person into having sex with other people.
Sexual abuse covers penetrative sex (inserting the penis), sexual touching, masturbation and misuse of sexual images, e.g. on the Internet or by mobile phone.
It can be difficult to tackle sexual exploitation, because the people who’ve been exploited may not understand that sexual contact that they haven’t agreed to is sexual assault or rape.
Any child or young person can be a victim of sexual exploitation, but people 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
How to spot it
The signs of child sexual exploitation may be hard to spot, especially 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 may include somebody:
- going missing for periods of time or regularly returning home late
- skipping school or being disruptive in class
- appearing with unexplained money, gifts or possessions
- showing signs of 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 phone ("sexting")
- being collected from school or college by older men who they claim to be boyfriends
Affected people may also show signs of physical harm, such as bruising or cigarette burns.
The NSPCC offers advice on how to protect children who may be at risk of sexual exploitation. 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 children 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 children how to say no and that only they should decide what they do with their bodies
- 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 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 the child to get an understanding of the situation.
The See Me, Hear Me campaign was launched by West Midlands councils and West Midlands Police to raise awareness of child sexual exploitation.