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Child sexual 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.

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 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 wants or needs, such as accommodation, gifts, cigarettes or attention. Some children/young people 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.

Spotting the signs

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/young person 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 NSPCC offers advice on how to protect children/young people. 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

Help and support

What to do if you are worried you are at risk?

It can be difficult to know what to do if you are being harmed by someone or you are worried about someone else. There are adults who can help, so it’s important to tell someone you trust so they can take steps to protect you or the person you are worried about.

If you are worried you are at risk you can call the local authorities Central Advice and Duty Team for help on 0151 606 2008. Alternatively, you can call Child Line for confidential advice on 0800 1111.

You can also speak to a trusted adult such as a nurse or doctor at any of our clinics, teacher, social worker, school nurse, police officer or youth worker who will help you.

For further information about sexual exploitation please visit Listen To My Story.

What to do if you are concerned about someone else?

If you are a young person who has concerns about someone else because they might be being neglected, not looking after themselves, or suffering abuse or exploitation you should talk to an adult you trust (nurse or doctor at any of our clinics, teacher, social worker, school nurse, youth worker etc) about your concerns.

You can also contact children’s services Central Advice and Duty Team on 0151 606 2008 (open 9.00am-5.00pm). Outside of these hours please phone the Emergency Duty Team on 0151 677 6557.

If you think someone is being harmed right now call the police on 999.

You’ll find more information and advice about child sexual abuse at NSPCC.