Children at Risk of Exploitation

What is Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE)?


The Sexual exploitation of children and young people under 18 involves exploitative situations, contexts and relationships where young people (or a third person or persons) receive 'something' (e.g. food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, affection, gifts, money) as a result of performing and/or others performing on them, sexual activities.

Sexual exploitation can take many forms from the apparently 'consensual' relationships where sex is exchanged for attention/affection, accommodation or gifts, to serious organised crime and child trafficking. What makes it exploitation is an imbalance of power within the relationship. The perpetrator always holds some kind of power over the victim, increasing the dependence of the victim as the exploitative relationship develops.

How do children and young people come to be sexually exploited?

Grooming or targeting

Many children and young people are groomed into sexually exploitative relationships. The perpetrators of sexual exploitation are often well organised and use sophisticated tactics. They are known to target areas where children and young people might gather without much adult supervision such as shopping centres, cafes, takeaways, pubs, sports centres, cinemas, bus or train stations, local parks, playgrounds and taxi ranks, or sites on the internet used by children and young people. The process of grooming may also be visible in adult venues such as pubs and clubs. In some cases perpetrators are known to use younger men, women, boys or girls to build initial relationships and introduce them to others in the perpetrator networks


Others exchange sex for accommodation or money as a result of homelessness and experiences of poverty.


Some young people have been bullied or threatened into sexual activities by peers or gangs which is then used against them as a form of extortion and to keep them compliant.


Child sexual exploitation can occur through use of technology without the child's immediate recognition, for example the persuasion to post sexual images on the internet/mobile phones, with no immediate payment or gain

The exploitative relationship

The manipulation or 'grooming' process involves befriending children and gaining their trust, sometimes over a long period of time, before the abuse begins. The abusive relationship between victim and perpetrator involves an imbalance of power which limits the victim's options, and the relationship is sometimes wrongly perceived by the victim and outsiders as consensual. Although it is true that the victim can be tricked into believing they are in a loving relationship, no child under the age of 18 can ever consent to being abused or exploited (Barnardo's 2012). In all cases those exploiting the child/young person have power over them by virtue of their age, gender, intellect, physical strength and/or economic or other resources.

Signs and Symptoms of sexual exploitation

Grooming and sexual exploitation can be very difficult to identify. Warning signs can easily be mistaken for 'normal' teenage behaviour and/or development. Parents, carers, school teachers and practitioners are advised to be alert to the following signs and symptoms.

  • Inappropriate sexual or sexualised behaviour
  • Repeat sexually transmitted infections; in girls repeat pregnancy, abortion or miscarriage
  • Having unaffordable new things (e.g. clothes, mobile phones) or expensive habits (e.g. alcohol, drugs)
  • Going to hotels or other unsual locations to meet friends
  • Getting in/out of different cars driven by unknown adults
  • Going missing from home or care
  • Having older boyfriends or girlfriends
  • Associating with other young people involved in sexual exploitation
  • Truancy, exclusion, disengagement with school, opting out of education altogether
  • Unexplained changes in behaviour or personality (chaotic, aggressive, sexual)
  • Drug or alcohol misuse
  • Getting involved in crime
  • Injuries from physical assault, physical restraint, sexual assault

 (Barnardo's 2011, CEOP 2011, Berelowitz et al 2012)

Criminal Exploitation

It is often difficult to split different forms of exploitation.  CARE recognises that a young person ‘plugging’ (anally inserting) substances can carry a sexual element to it, as can residing at property to sell drugs (trap house) and any other methods involved in county lines . Therefore if you have a young person at risk or victim of criminal exploitation and you are unsure whether to refer, please speak to a member of the team to discuss further.

The CARE team have produced some factsheets showing the stages of recruitment in criminal exploitation. These documents are able to be downloaded by professionals for use with the children and young people with whom they work.

2 page version for Young People

4 page version for Young People

There is also a leaflet for professionals which provides some additional information.

Professionals leaflet

Click on each of the images above to download the relevant documents.


If you have any questions about the CARE project, please do not hesitate to contact The Children’s Society East on 01245 493311 and ask to speak to a member of the CARE team.

If you have concerns about a child or young person and sexual exploitation you can contact us on 01245 493311 during office hours, or contact the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000 24 hrs a day.