Child Sexual Exploitation

What is child sexual exploitation?

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a form of sexual abuse where children and young people receive gifts, money or emotional affection in return for performing sexual acts on others, or having sexual acts performed on themselves (Alderson, 2016). Although CSE can occur at any age, young people aged 13 to 17 are most at risk (Jago et al., 2010). CSE can also occur online.

CSE involves an imbalance of power in favour of those perpetrating the abuse, such as an adult or peer. Perpetrators can use a range of methods to gain the trust of the young person, for example, through the purchase of gifts, offering affection and kindness, or even the use violence, threats, coercion and intimidation to secure compliance (Barnado’s, 2011). CSE is largely underreported in the wider population, due to the reluctance of young people to report such abuse, or the fact that many children are unaware that they are being exploited (Barnado’s, 2011).

What is the impact of child sexual exploitation?

The impact of CSE can be wide-ranging, with both short and long-term effects, including (Hanson, 2016):

  • Low self-esteem;
  • Poor attachments;
  • Social withdrawal;
  • Poor achievement in school;
  • Anti-social behaviour;
  • Mental health difficulties;
  • Self-harm and suicide attempts;
  • Acting out or aggressiveness;
  • Poor control over emotions and coping;
  • Conflict and hostility in relationships;
  • Pregnancy;
  • Sleep disorders;
  • More likely to be arrested than peers.

What makes someone vulnerable to exploitation?

As research into CSE is relatively new, there are currently no theories as to why some young people experience CSE. It has been suggested that prior trauma leads to poor coping styles (Reid, 2011). Opportunities to escape stressful situations may make young people more susceptible to exploitation by increasing the likelihood of coming into contact with potential perpetrators through substances. Other ideas relate to the development of unhealthy relationships in adolescence as a result of traumatic experiences (Alderson, 2016).

Research has sought to identify factors in a child’s background that may make them vulnerable to CSE. Key vulnerability factors include (Coy et al., 2009; Cusick et al., 2003; Hanson, 2016; Lalor & McElvaney, 2010; Palmer, 2015):

  • Parental neglect;
  • Historical sexual abuse;
  • Residential placement;
  • Drug or alcohol use;
  • Exploration of sexuality;
  • Engaging in risk-taking behaviours.

However, it is important to note that every child’s individual circumstances are different. Young people who have experienced sexual exploitation may not present with any of these vulnerability factors (Alderson, 2016), which makes this area a focus for future research.

What signs do I need to look out for?

The following signs are generally observed in young people who are being exploited (Berelowitz et al., 2015):

  • Changes in mood and physical appearance;
  • Going missing from home, school or care;
  • Staying out late;
  • Being secretive about their whereabouts;
  • Receiving unexplained gifts or money;
  • Lack of interest in hobbies and interests;
  • Significantly older boyfriend or girlfriend;
  • Sexual bullying through social media;
  • Estranged from family members;
  • Offending behaviour;
  • Recruiting others into exploitative situations;
  • Self-harm and suicide attempts.

How can children and young people be supported if they have been exploited?

Children’s charities, such as Barnado’s, ChildLine and NSPCC offer support and guidance, and initially drove much of the research in this area. Some children may need to access specialist therapeutic support. In this case, it is important that the child is at the centre of any support offered (Hickle & Hallett, 2016). It is also necessary to build the trust and confidence of the young person if the relationship with the professional is successful in enabling the child to explore and address risky attitudes and behaviours (Lefevre et al., 2017).

CCATS has an experienced team who can offer specialist support to children and young people who have experienced CSE, and training for professionals in this area.

If you would like to find out more information about CSE, you may wish to read a useful review published by Kirsty Alderson, one of our Forensic Psychologists, in the Journal of Forensic Practice. A link to the article can be found here:


Alderson, K. (2016). Child sexual exploitation. Journal of Forensic Practice, 18(4), 292-295.

Barnardo’s (2011). Puppet on a string: The urgent need to cut children free from sexual exploitation. Essex: Barnardo’s.

Berelowitz, S., Clifton, J., Firimin, C., Gulyurtlu, S., & Edwards, G. (2015). ‘If only someone had listened’: inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups – final report. London: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.

Coy, M. (2009). ‘Moved around like bags of rubbish nobody wants’: How multiple placement moves can make young women vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Child Abuse Review, 18(4), 254-266.

Cusick, L., Martin, A., & May, T. (2003). Vulnerability and involvement in drug use and sex work. Home Office Research Study 268. Home Office Research: Development and Statistics Directorate.

Jago, S., Arocha, L., Brodie, I., Melrose, M., Pearce, J., & Warrington, C. (2010). What’s going on to safeguard children and children from sexual exploitation? How local partnerships respond to child sexual exploitation, University of Bedfordshire, Luton

Hanson, E. (2016). Exploring the relationship between neglect and child sexual exploitation: Evidence Scope 1. Research in Practice.

Hickle, K., & Hallett, S. (2016). Mitigating harm: considering harm reduction principles in work with sexually exploited young people. Children & Society, 30, 302-313.

Lalor, K., & McElvaney, R. (2010). Child sexual abuse, links to later sexual exploitation/high-risk sexual behaviour, and prevention/treatment programs. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse11(4), 159-177.

Lefevre, M., Hickle, K., Luckock, B., & Ruch, G. (2017). Building trust with children and young people at risk of child sexual exploitation: the professional challenge. The British Journal of Social Work.

Palmer, T. (2015). Digital dangers: The impact of technology on the sexual abuse and exploitation of children and young people. Barnardo’s: Barkingside.

Reid, J. A. (2011). An exploratory model of girl’s vulnerability to commercial sexual exploitation in prostitution. Child Maltreatment16(2), 146-157.