Key findings

  • There are some common misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding child sexual exploitation (CSE) relating to personal agency and stereotypes of victims and perpetrators.
  • Sexual exploitation can be difficult to spot and the lack of consistency in assessment tools can lead to challenges in identification, with much exploitation likely to go unreported due to the issues children face around disclosure.
  • Technology is often a feature of CSE cases, enabling contact with children for the purposes of grooming, bullying and harassment, the making of threats, and the sharing of explicit photographs and videos.
  • While there is limited evidence on the success of specific interventions, developing trusting relationships, focusing on strengths and resilience, and trauma-informed approaches are considered to be beneficial.
  • Care should also be taken with the language used by professionals to avoid the child feeling any sense of blame.
  • Secure accommodation may not be the most appropriate way to keep a child safe, and may make them more vulnerable to being exploited.
  • Although there is some evidence of a link between experiences of sexual exploitation and offending, this relationship is far from clear.


CSE is a form of child sexual abuse. It can range from a seemingly ‘consensual’ relationship, where sex is exchanged for attention, accommodation, or gifts, to serious organised crime and international child trafficking. Any child may be at risk of sexual exploitation, regardless of their family background or other circumstances. What marks out exploitation is an imbalance of power within the relationship. Young people often trust their abuser and do not understand that they are being abused. Victims may depend on their abuser or be too scared to tell anyone what is happening.

CSE does not always involve physical contact and can happen online. Technology can, for example, be used to record abuse and share it with other individuals, or as a medium to access children online in order to groom them.

The video below, produced by the University of Bedfordshire, provides an accessible overview of the key facts about CSE, including the fact that there is no typical CSE case, that it can be perpetrated by individuals or by groups, and that an effective response needs to encompass prevention, protection and prosecution.

Disclaimer: an external platform has been used to host this video. Recommendations for further viewing may appear at the end of the video and are beyond our control.

The prevalence of CSE is difficult to determine because it is frequently unreported, with victims often not being aware that they are being exploited. As such, any official figures are likely to under-represent the real scale of the issue, as set out in this infographic from the centre of expertise on child sexual abuse:

Summary of evidence

Common misconceptions and misunderstandings

There are some common misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding CSE. The question of personal agency can be seen as one of the most complex aspects of CSE and it is important to recognise that children may:

  • fail to recognise their experiences as exploitative
  • struggle to disclose or ask for help
  • perceive the exploitation as the best option available to them and/or feel the abuse is expected or acceptable.

It is also important to recognise the following:

  • while the majority of CSE experienced children are female and the majority of perpetrators are male, boys can and are sexually exploited and perpetrators can be female
  • high-profile cases have resulted in an assumption that CSE is committed largely by gangs or other organised groups. However, CSE can and does occur at the hands of individuals
  • children who are gay or bisexual and who lack supportive family or communities where they feel their sexual identity can be accepted can be especially vulnerable to CSE
  • disabled children and young people are known to be overrepresented among abused and exploited populations; however, signs of abuse may be missed.

Identifying children at risk

Sexual exploitation can be difficult to spot and distinguish from what can be seen as ‘normal’ teenage behaviour. While there is no ‘typical’ victim, some children can be more vulnerable than others, and the following have been listed as signs which could indicate that a child is experiencing CSE:

  • unhealthy or inappropriate sexual behaviour
  • being frightened of some people, places or situations
  • being secretive
  • sudden changes in mood or character
  • having money or things they cannot or will not explain
  • physical signs of sexual abuse
  • alcohol or drug misuse
  • sexually transmitted infections
  • pregnancy.

The video below, produced by Hounslow Council, also talks about the signs of CSE, as well as providing an overview of the grooming line, grooming models, and how to stay safe.

Disclaimer: an external platform has been used to host this video. Recommendations for further viewing may appear at the end of the video and are beyond our control.

CSE specific assessment tools were originally created due to the lack of awareness of CSE and the hidden nature of the abuse, helping to bring together concerns that could not be explained through existing social care related mechanisms and helping people to ‘think CSE’. However, research has identified issues with the tools and checklists, including:

  • serious concerns were raised that some indicators were actual signs of sexual abuse and exploitation rather than risks of abuse.
  • the threshold for being identified as a potential victim was very high in some tools, resulting in differences in practice and responses across local authorities and agencies.
  • assessments did not always consider relevant strengths or protective factors.

Disclosure of abuse

Children experiencing CSE are often unlikely to disclose, and interviews with 60 young adults about the abuse they had received in their childhood revealed that:

  • disclosure – especially at the time of abuse – is rarely a straightforward process
  • many disclosures were either not recognised or understood, or they were dismissed, played down or ignored – resulting in no action being taken
  • disclosure would be more likely to take place when the child felt they were no longer able to cope with the abuse, the abuse was getting worse, they wanted to protect others from abuse, or they wanted to seek justice
  • reasons for not disclosing included having no one to turn to, not understanding they were being abused, being ashamed or embarrassed, and being afraid of the consequences of speaking out
  • the young people said they wanted someone to notice that something was wrong, to be asked direct questions, professionals to investigate sensitively but thoroughly, and to be kept informed about what was happening.

Disclosing abuse can take years, particularly for younger victims. Children may sometimes express their abuse through more indirect methods, such as expressing unhappiness or discomfort when asked to spend time with a particular adult. Language can also act as a barrier to telling professionals; not having the correct vocabulary or language skills can stand in the way of a child telling a professional, and may also impede the ability of professionals to understand a disclosure. Children who have a learning disability where communication skills are impaired may not be able to tell a professional. In relation to ethnic minorities, refugees and asylum-seeking children, they may not know the precise terminology used to describe sexual abuse and/or to seek help.

The role of technology

Technology is often a feature of CSE cases, enabling:

  • contact with children for the purposes of grooming, often via social media
  • bullying and harassment
  • the sharing of explicit photographs and videos, or threats to do so
  • the viewing of extreme pornography
  • the filming of crimes of sexual assaults
  • the exploitation of social media connections to find new victims or maintain contact with previous victims.

Devices such as mobile phones can be both expensive and easily stolen, making them valuable as gifts or as incentives to coerce behaviour for abuse. Exposure to extreme and violent forms of pornography has often been raised as an issue by staff working with sexually abused children and children. Research has concluded that a causal link cannot be established between viewing child abuse images online and being directly involved in the physical/sexual abuse of children, but there is little research on whether extreme forms of pornography can create a sense of entitlement, whether it can foster unrealistic and untrue beliefs about normal sexual behaviour and relationships, and whether it leads to sexual objectification of women and girls.

It is important to recognise that technologies are continually evolving, e.g. new immersive technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality, and that the risks are also evolving, with offenders finding new ways to groom, coerce, sexually abuse and exploit children.

Practice responses

The work with children and young people who are at risk of, or are abused through, sexual exploitation, is multi-agency in nature – agencies need to take mutual responsibility for best ensuring the safeguarding of those children and young people involved, with information recorded and shared in a timely manner. Given the complex nature of CSE, agencies should create a culture where different professional perspectives can be shared and where time is given to discussing relevant learning, with agencies learning from and professionally challenging each other’s practice.

While there is limited evidence on the effectiveness of specific practice and intervention strategies for CSE, the following have been identified as important:

  • providing supportive, consistent and durable relationships; frequent changes in case workers are often unsettling
  • establishing trust before undertaking work to change a child’s perception of their experiences (i.e. from a ‘relationship’ to ‘abuse’)
  • focusing upon enhancing children’s resilience, confidence and self-efficacy by engaging them in positive activities, training and education. This is particularly important when work comes to an end to help children transition into independence from services. Work with families should likewise focus on strengths rather than identifying weaknesses
  • trauma-informed approaches are especially appropriate for working with this population, grounded in creating safety and trust, promoting control, building resilience and empowerment, and prioritising self-empathy and self-care
  • cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), and (systematic) family-based interventions have a robust evidence base in effectively addressing the needs of some vulnerable populations
  • language implying that the child is complicit in any way, or responsible for the crimes that have happened or may happen to them, must be avoided.

It has also been found that placing children in secure accommodation as a way of keeping them safe can be problematic. Not only can this leave the child feeling that they are to blame for the abuse, safety cannot always be assured, in part because perpetrators can and do target such accommodation for the very reason that the young people housed there are known to be vulnerable.

CSE and youth offending

Despite anecdotal evidence linking CSE to youth offending, there has been little empirical research into the interaction between the two phenomena. A 2012 study which considered the profile of children with exploitation and youth offending histories found that:

  • four in ten CSE victims had offending records
  • male CSE victims were significantly more likely to offend than their female counterparts
  • the early age of onset for recorded offending and the high recidivism rates among CSE victims were seen by the authors as particularly concerning
  • only 28 per cent of sexually exploited children had already been referred to a specialist CSE provider at the time of their first arrest
  • aggression was the most common offence type, accounting for more than one-third of all recorded offences. Sexual offences were least common, accounting for just one per cent of all recorded crimes.
Inspection data

A ‘deep dive’ investigation was undertaken as part of the joint targeted area inspections (JTAIs) with a focus on CSE. The 2016 report entitled ‘Time to listen’− a joined up response to child sexual exploitation and missing (PDF, 238 kB) included the following key findings:

  • Tackling CSE can be done, but only if all partners take responsibility for their role as a discrete agency, work collaboratively with each other, and have a shared understanding of how to tackle CSE. Strategic goals must be clearly identified, understood and agreed across agencies, which resources committed to tackling CSE.
  • The local authority, police, health and other key agencies like probation and youth justice services must share information and intelligence to fully understand the local patterns of CSE, to disrupt and deter perpetrators and to identify, help and protect children.
  • Children benefit from being able to build a relationship with one trusted individual, and being actively involved in decisions about their lives. Professionals in all agencies need the time and capacity to build relationships with children if they are to effectively identify children at risk and help protect them.
  • The most effective assessments of the risks of CSE involved young people and all the professionals working with them. These assessments incorporated risks and protective factors in schools, peer groups and local neighbourhoods and were regularly updated, recognising that children’s circumstances and the risks they faced could change rapidly.
  • Responding effectively to CSE requires fundamental and established multi-agency child protection procedures to be implemented effectively. Oversight by leaders/managers and the supervision of frontline practice are both critical.

Key references

Allnock, D. and Miller, P. (2013). No one noticed, no one heard: a study of disclosures of childhood abuse. London: NSPCC.

Berelowitz, S., Firmin, C., Edwards, G. and Gulyurtlu, S. (2012). “I thought I was the only one. The only one in the world” The Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation In Gangs and Groups. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner, London.

Children’s Commissioner (2015). Protecting Children from Harm: A critical assessment of child sexual abuse in the family network in England and priorities for action.

Cockbain, E. and Brayley, H. (2012). ‘Child Sexual Exploitation and youth offending: a research note’, European Journal of Criminology, 9(6), pp. 689-700.

Department for Education (DfE) (2017). Definition and a guide for practitioners, local leaders, and decision makers working to protect children from CSE. London: Department for Education.

Fox, C. (2016). ‘It’s not on the radar’: The hidden diversity of children and young people at risk of sexual exploitation in England. Barkingside: Barnardo’s.

Hallett, S (2017). Making Sense of Child Sexual Exploitation: Exchange, Abuse and Young People. Bristol: Policy Press.

Karsna, K. (2022). Child sexual abuse in 2020/21: Trends in official data. Barkingside: Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse.

NSPCC Learning (2023). Child sexual exploitation: learning from case reviews. London: The NSPCC.

Sharp-Jeffs, N., Coy, M. and Kelly, L. (2017). Key messages from research on child sexual exploitation: Multi-agency working. Barkingside: Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse.

The Children’s Society (2022). Appropriate Language in Relation to Child Exploitation. London: The Children’s Society.

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Last updated: 27 October 2023