Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a type of abuse.

A young person is encouraged, manipulated or forced into taking part in a sexual act, (such as penetrative sex, sexual touching, masturbation or the misuse of sexual images – for example on the internet or by mobile phone) often in exchange for something.

This could be part of a seemingly consensual relationship, or could involve control through force, threat, manipulation – for example in return for attention, affection, gifts, money, drugs, alcohol or somewhere to stay.

How does it happen?

Often, the first step is someone befriending a young person over time to gain their trust or have control over them. This is called grooming and involves making them feel ‘special’ so they become attached or even think they are falling in love with the person exploiting them.

The young person may think that their abuser is a friend or even their boyfriend or girlfriend. They are often older, wealthier and stronger and may have a status that makes them seem ‘cool’ to others. There is also often a difference in, gender, intellect and resources. Sometimes the abuser will strengthen their control over the young person by driving them away from those who would usually look after them, whether that’s family, friends or carers.

When the behaviour of their abuser starts to change, often slowly, the young person is likely to feel trapped, isolated and scared. Many children are too frightened to come forward or find it difficult to acknowledge that they are no longer comfortable in the relationship and don’t realise they are being abused. They may suffer in silence for years without anyone to talk to about what they’re going through.

Who does it involve?

CSE affects boys and girls of all backgrounds and from all communities, right across the UK. Children are most vulnerable to sexual exploitation between the ages of 13 and 15, but younger victims can also be targeted.

Abusers can be men or women, and not just adults. CSE can also happen between young people – peer to peer and especially within gangs or social groups.

Part of the challenge of tackling child sexual exploitation is that it often happens out of sight, behind closed doors or even online. The children and young people involved may not be aware of it or understand that non-consensual sex (sex they haven’t agreed to) or forced sex – including oral sex – is rape.

Young people experiencing problems at home who go missing or are in care can be vulnerable and particularly at risk, but child sexual exploitation can also happen to those from a loving, supportive home.

Spot the signs

Child sexual exploitation is hard to spot, even for the young person affected, because there is no standard profile of an abuser or victim.

Many of the signs that a young person is being sexually exploited could be seen as common teenage behaviours but keep an eye out for increased instances of changes in behaviour that may be signs of grooming. These could include:

  • unexplained gifts or possessing items such as phones or jewellery that you haven’t given them and which they couldn’t afford to buy themselves
  • changes in mood or becoming emotionally volatile (mood swings are common in all young people, but more severe changes could indicate that something is wrong)
  • going missing, staying out late or staying out all night
  • being secretive about who they are talking to and where they are going
  • lack of interest in activities and hobbies
  • missing school
  • sudden changes in their appearance and wearing more revealing clothes
  • using sexual language that you wouldn’t expect them to know
  • engaging less with their usual friends
  • appearing controlled by their phone
  • switching to a new screen when you come near the computer.

Less common behaviours and indicators of exploitation could include:

  • being associated with a gang
  • becoming estranged from family
  • becoming involved in drugs or alcohol, particularly if you suspect they are being supplied by older men or women
  • associating with older men and women, particularly if they go missing and are being defensive about where they are and what they’re doing
  • having more than one, or a secret phone.

Parents are often the first to notice that their child is being exploited. It is so important to act quickly and intervene early if you suspect your child is being exploited.

Listen to some affected parents talk about the changes they noticed in their child.

If you think a child could be in immediate danger contact Cambridgeshire police at once or dial 999.

If you are concerned about a child’s welfare, contact Cambridgeshire and Peterborough’s Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) on 0345 045 5203 (Cambridgeshire) or 01733 864180 (Peterborough)

During out of hours call 01733 234724