Child Sexual Exploitation

What is 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. 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 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 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.

Which children are affected?

Any child or young person can be a victim of sexual exploitation, but children are believed to be at greater risk of being sexually exploited if they:

  • are homeless
  • have feelings of low self-esteem
  • have had a recent bereavement or loss
  • are in care
  • are a young carer

The signs of child sexual exploitation may be hard to spot, particularly if a child is being threatened. To make sure that children are protected, it’s worth being aware of the signs that might suggest a child is being sexually exploited.

Signs of grooming and child sexual exploitation

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. 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?

People of all backgrounds and 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.

What to do if you suspect a child is being sexually exploited

If you suspect that a child or young person has been or is being sexually exploited, the NSPCC recommends that you do not confront the alleged abuser. Confronting them may place the child in greater physical danger and may give the abuser time to confuse or threaten them into silence.

Instead, seek professional advice. Discuss your concerns with your local authority’s children’s services (safeguarding team), the police or an independent organisation, such as the NSPCC. They may be able to advise on how to prevent further abuse and how to talk to your child to get an understanding of the situation.

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

How common is child sexual exploitation?

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) estimates that between August 2010 and October 2011, around 2,409 children were confirmed as having been sexually exploited, with a further 16,500 being identified as at risk. However, the OCC says that evidence suggests the number is far greater.

Female genital mutilation (FGM)

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the partial or total removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It’s also known as female circumcision, cutting or sunna.

Religious, social or cultural reasons are sometimes given for FGM. However, FGM is child abuse. It’s dangerous and a criminal offence.

There are no medical reasons to carry out FGM. It doesn’t enhance fertility and it doesn’t make childbirth safer. It is used to control female sexuality and can cause severe and long-lasting damage to physical and emotional health.

FGM has been a criminal offence in the UK since 1985. In 2003 it also became a criminal offence for UK nationals or permanent UK residents to take their child abroad to have female genital mutilation. Anyone found guilty of the offence faces a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

From July 2015 anyone can apply to the court for an FGM Protection Order if they are concerned that someone is at risk of FGM. Breaching an FGM Protection Order is a criminal offence with a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment.

Signs, symptoms and effects

A girl or woman who’s had FGM may:

  • have difficulty walking, sitting or standing
  • spend longer than normal in the bathroom or toilet
  • have unusual behaviour after an absence from school or college
  • be particularly reluctant to undergo normal medical examinations
  • ask for help, but may not be explicit about the problem due to embarrassment or fear.

Things you may notice

If you’re worried that a child is being abused, watch out for any unusual behaviour.

  • withdrawn
  • suddenly behaves differently
  • anxious
  • clingy
  • depressed
  • aggressive
  • problems sleeping
  • eating disorders
  • wets the bed
  • soils clothes
  • takes risks
  • misses school
  • changes in eating habits
  • obsessive behaviour
  • nightmares
  • drugs
  • alcohol
  • self-harm
  • thoughts about suicid

What to look out for before FGM happens

A girl at immediate risk of FGM may not know what’s going to happen. But she might talk about:

  • being taken ‘home’ to visit family
  • a special occasion to ‘become a woman’
  • an older female relative visiting the UK.

She may ask a teacher or another adult for help if she suspects FGM is going to happen or she may run away from home or miss school.

The effects of FGM

FGM can be extremely painful and dangerous. It can cause:

  • severe pain
  • shock
  • bleeding
  • infection such as tetanus, HIV and hepatitis B and C
  • organ damage
  • blood loss and infections that can cause death in some cases.

Long-term effects

Girls and women who have had FGM may have problems that continue through adulthood, including:

  • difficulties urinating or incontinence
  • frequent or chronic vaginal, pelvic or urinary infections
  • menstrual problems
  • kidney damage and possible failure
  • cysts and abscesses
  • pain when having sex
  • infertility
  • complications during pregnancy and childbirth
  • emotional and mental health problems.

ABC to read Volunteers

As with any other form of suspected abuse, your first action must be to alert the Designated Person for Safeguarding within the school and to alert ABC to read that you have had to make a referral. If you fail to receive assurance that your referral is being taken seriously, contact either of the ABC to read again for further assistance:

Lead Trustee for Safeguarding: Mike Edwards

E-mail: / Mobile: 07958 557587

Chief Operating & Development Officer: Marcia Rowlinson

E-mail: / Mobile: 07847 566005