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Child sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is when people use the power they have over children/young people to sexually abuse them.

Each year in England thousands of children and young people are raped or sexually abused. This includes children who have been abducted and trafficked, or beaten, threatened or bribed into having sex.

Any child or young person may be at risk of sexual exploitation, regardless of their family background or circumstances, but some are particularly vulnerable. These include children/young people who have a history of running away, going missing from home, those with special needs, those leaving residential and foster care, migrant children, unaccompanied asylum seeking children, children who have disengaged from education and children who are abusing drugs & alcohol and those involved in gangs.

Anyone who has regular contact with a child/young person is in a good position to notice changes in behaviour and physical signs which may indicate involvement in sexual exploitation. For those professionals who work with adults they may discuss concerns they have about how their child’s behaviour has changed.

What is child exploitation?

Before explaining child sexual exploitation, it is helpful to understand what is meant by the age of consent (the age at which it is legal to have sex). This is 16 for everyone in the UK. Under the age of 16, any sort of sexual touching is illegal. It is illegal to take, show or distribute indecent photographs of children or to pay or arrange for sexual services from children.

It is also against the law if someone in a position of trust (such as a teacher) has sex with a person under 18 that they have responsibility for.

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

People often think of child sexual exploitation in terms of serious organised crime, but it also covers abuse in relationships and may involve informal exchanges of sex for something a child/young person wants or needs, such as accommodation, gifts, cigarettes or attention. Some children are "groomed" through "boyfriends" who then force the child or young person into having sex with friends or associates.

Sexual abuse covers penetrative sexual acts, sexual touching, masturbation and the misuse of sexual images - such as on the internet or by mobile phone.

Part of the challenge of tackling child sexual exploitation is that the children and young people involved may not understand that non-consensual sex (sex they haven't agreed to) or forced sex - including oral sex - is rape.

Signs of child sexual exploitation

The signs of child sexual exploitation may be hard to spot, particularly if a child/young person is being threatened. To make sure that children/young people 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
  • Having mood swings and changes in temperament
  • Using drugs and/or alcohol
  • Displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour, 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 and cigarette burns

Preventing abuse

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) offers advice on how to protect children. It advises:

  • Helping children to understand their bodies and sex in a way that is appropriate for their age
  • Developing an open and trusting relationship, so 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, mobile and television use

Who is sexually exploiting children / young people?

People of all backgrounds & ethnicities and of many different ages, are involved in sexually exploiting children. Although most are male, women can also be involved in sexually exploiting children. For instance, women will sometimes be involved through befriending victims.

Criminals can be hard to identify because the victims are often only given nicknames, rather than the real name of the abuser. Some children and young people are sexually exploited by criminal gangs specifically set up for child sexual exploitation. 

Abuse includes domestic violence, rape and sexual assault. Find out where to get help, how you can support a friend and how to recognise the signs of abuse in the articles below.

Worried about a child / young person?

Professionals need to be aware of the complex issues regarding sexual exploitation of children and young people. Our organisation works in partnership with Wirral Local Safeguarding Children’s Board (LSCB).

Where there are concerns professionals should discuss their concerns with Wirral Local Safeguarding Children’s Board and follow their guidance and procedures.

The NSPCC also provides a 24/7 helpline for advice and support - 0808 800 5000 /

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

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