Spotting the Signs: Child Sexual Exploitation

We have put together the following information about child sexual exploitation and ways to spot the signs that abuse may be occurring or may have occurred.

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.

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a form of sexual abuse where a perpetrator may coerce or persuade an individual to engage in sexual acts for tangible goods, or other intangible factors that may be missing in their life. This can include affection, attention, protection, or safety from physical harm, either at the hands of the perpetrator or another individual.

Their sexual abuse may involve:

  • Direct physical contact with a perpetrator, and/or other individuals
  • Indirect contact, such as through technology (the internet or mobile telephone).

In all cases, this is sexual abuse, with a power imbalance which is in favour of the perpetrator.  This imbalance could be due to one or several factors, including gender, cognitive ability, physical strength, status, economic resources, age, maturity, emotional development, mental health, or another factor that places the victim at a disadvantage.

Many CSE victims have been blamed for their own abuse, or incorrectly perceived to have consented to sex, even when they were under the age of consent (Bedford, 2015; Jay, 2014).  This is problematic, because when victims are stigmatised or blamed, this can lead to self-blame.  In the psychological literature, self-blame is consistently linked with a range of psychological and emotional difficulties (Easton, 2014; Ullman & Filipas, 2005; Yancey & Hansen, 2010).  Therefore, at CCATS we work collaboratively and respectfully with people who may be affected by CSE.  We encourage professionals and carers to reflect on their interactions with victims, including the language they use to describe CSE, so as not to infer blame.

At CCATS we provide assessment and intervention for children, adolescents and adults who have experienced, or are deemed vulnerable to CSE.  Professionals are generally keen to understand what makes some individuals vulnerable, in order to identify and safeguard those who are ‘at risk’.  Currently, there are a multitude of CSE ‘risk assessment tools’ that are used throughout different regions of the UK.

However, there are several problems or limitations with these risk assessment tools.  The research on vulnerability factors is under-developed and therefore the evidence base underpinning these risk assessment tools is not adequate.  Additionally, many tools do not consider protective factors that might reduce the likelihood of CSE taking place.  In each risk assessment tool, a raw score is generally calculated, from which a risk category is derived (e.g. low, medium or high).  An over-reliance on risk categories is problematic, as this fails to identify why certain factors may increase vulnerability, which of the factors are critical, the imminence of victimisation risk and the conditions under which an individual’s vulnerability is raised.  In other words, these tools fail to incorporate a formulation and contextual understanding of risk (Alderson, 2016).  At CCATS, our assessments are individualised, collaborative, and with a detailed formulation of the client’s strengths and vulnerabilities.  We also provide therapeutic intervention for clients who have experienced CSE and other forms of abuse and adversity.

At CCATS we are currently working to develop the literature base for CSE, through undertaking various research projects in this area.  Our goal is to undertake research which has a direct impact on policy and practice with those affected by CSE.  In 2018, one of the staff at CCATS was invited to present the findings of their PhD to the Home Office.  There are currently a number of research projects underway in the area of CSE, and which will be submitted for publication.