Sexual exploitation

In this section

  • Overview
  • National and local update
  • Vulnerability to sexual exploitation
  • Locations where sexual exploitation takes place
  • Signs of exploitation
  • Child sexual exploitation
  • Case study
  • Links with other forms of exploitation
  • More information
  • Overview
    • sexual exploitation is a form of sexual abuse where people in exploitative situations and relationships are manipulated, coerced or forced into participating in sexual acts in order to receive something such as gifts, money or affection
    • people can be sexually exploited through physical assault or acts not involving physical contact, such by sharing sexual images through the internet and social media
    • perpetrators of sexual exploitation have power over those they are exploiting – for example due to their age, gender, sexual identity, physical strength or status
    • anyone of any age can be sexually exploited
    • this includes people who are aged sixteen and over and can legally consent to sex – if they are being forced, manipulated, deceived or coerced into taking part in sexual acts they cannot freely give consent.
  • National and local update

    Sexual exploitation

    • affects people of all genders and ages and can take place in any community
    • can happen in rural villages and coastal areas as well as large towns and cities
    • can be carried out by individuals and groups, children and adults, and people of all genders – these people may be strangers (they may try to befriend in order to groom them) or they may be known to the victim, such as a partner, family member or friend
    • can happen as part of a relationship, which the person being exploited may view as loving and consensual – they may trust or feel dependent on the person exploiting them
    • can happen once or on many occasions, and may be opportunistic or part of organised abuse and exploitation
    • can involve abuse, coercive control, sexual and physical violence and other forms of harm and exploitation
    • people who are sexually exploited may be given phones – this helps their exploiters keep contact and control and coordinate their exploitation, especially if this involves being harmed by multiple people
    • people who are sexually exploited may be forced participate in the grooming and exploitation of other people
    • sexual exploitation can happen in gangs as a form of punishment or control, or as a display of status and power
    • in Devon some forms of sexual exploitation have become linked to drug dealing (including county lines activities), gang activities and youth violence; and homelessness and street attachment; and involvement in sex work.
  • Vulnerability to sexual exploitation

    People may be at greater risk of sexual exploitation if, for example

    • they are involved in selling sex
    • they are homeless or street attached
    • they are involved in a gang, including being in a relationship with a gang member
    • they are experiencing other forms of exploitation, violence and abuse
    • they have connections to other people who are being exploited or are involved in sex work
    • people of all sexual and gender identities can be at risk of sexual exploitation
    • people who do not have a safe space in which to explore their identity may be more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

    Other factors that can increase vulnerability can be found here

  • Locations where sexual exploitation takes place

    Sexual exploitation is more likely to take place in places where people being exploited can be easily targeted, hidden, and in some cases transported to new locations for exploitation

    • hotels, B&Bs, hostels, holiday parks and holiday accommodation
    • pubs, bars and clubs
    • brothels and other locations used for sex work
    • public spaces, including parks, shopping centres and car parks
    • small retail outlets with long opening hours
    • take-away fast food outlets and cafes
    • transport hubs and taxi ranks

    Residential settings may be targeted, including

    • residential homes and semi-independent accommodation
    • care homes, including children’s homes

    The internet and social media is also a key place for sexual exploitation with people being groomed and exploited, in some cases entirely, online.

  • Signs of exploitation

    Common signs that may indicate someone is being exploited include those listed below.

    This not an exhaustive list and warning signs will show differently in each person. It’s important to explore all concerns over someone’s behaviour and personal circumstances and consider whether they could be signs of exploitation.

    Appearance and behaviour

    • evidence or suspicions of sexual assault
    • self-harm or changes in emotional wellbeing
    • developing inappropriate or unusual relationships or associations, including relationships with controlling or significantly older people
    • displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour, language or dress
    • sending sexually explicit content through the internet, mobile phones or social media
    • frequenting areas known for sex work
    • secretiveness around behaviours.

    Personal situation

    • associating with gang members
    • becoming involved with drugs and alcohol
    • becoming isolated from peers and social networks
    • becoming pregnant unexpectedly
    • contracting sexually transmitted infections
    • unexplained absences, including persistently being late or going missing
    • unexplained acquisition of money, clothes and mobile phones.

    Other signs

    • using more than one phone, especially if both are used to communicate with different people (for example, if one phone is used exclusively to communicate with a specific group of ‘friends’)
    • receiving an excessive amount of texts or phone calls – these may be from multiple callers, some of these may not be known to the person.
  • Child sexual exploitation

    Children (aged under eighteen) can be victims of sexual exploitation. Most information on this page applies as much to child as adult victims.

    Information specific to child exploitation includes

    • children aged between twelve and fifteen are most at risk, although victims as young as eight have been reported
    • there are increasing reports of exploitative sexual offences against children that have been committed by people aged under twenty-five, and under eighteen – these include peer-on-peer offences
    • child sexual exploitation can happen to children aged sixteen and over who can legally consent to sex – the law states that consent is only valid when a young person has the freedom and capacity to make this choice. If they are not able to make a meaningful choice, feel that they are being threatened into having sex, or are under the influence of harmful substances, they cannot legally give consent.
  • Case study


    Natasha was fourteen and lived with her parents and younger brother. She attended a local secondary school and was doing well academically.

    Natasha received a message on social media from a twenty-three year-old man encouraging her to chat with him online. He told Natasha that she was beautiful and asked her to be his girlfriend.

    Natasha agreed and started secretly meeting the man. He gave her a mobile phone, cannabis and alcohol, telling Natasha that they were for her and her friends to ‘have fun’. Natasha’s behaviour at home and school began to change. The man told Natasha that she should keep their relationship a secret from her parents as they would not understand and would prevent her from seeing him.

    Natasha withdrew from her family and began staying out late at night to meet the man. He told her that he loved her and wanted to have sex with her. When Natasha refused he became aggressive and demanded sexual favours as repayment for the drugs he had given her. He said that she was lucky to be with him and that nobody else would want her. Natasha did not know what to do.

    Natasha’s teacher noticed some changes in her behaviour during this time. She had become more challenging in class and her grades were slipping. She appeared tired, was constantly on her phone, and had withdrawn from friendships. Another student had told the teacher that Natasha was taking drugs and had an older boyfriend. When the teacher asked Natasha about this, Natasha denied that she had a boyfriend.

    Natasha’s teacher was concerned about possible sexual exploitation. She shared her concerns with the local safeguarding children’s services. With the consent of Natasha’s parents an Early Help assessment was completed and a support plan was put in place. Referrals were made to a local child sexual exploitation service, young person’s drug and alcohol service, and a family support service.

    This enabled Natasha to receive specialist support. Through the positive relationships she developed with professionals she was able to explore her experiences and relationships and recognise that she had been exploited. This led Natasha to disclose details of the man’s identity, information which the police used to build a case against him as a perpetrator of grooming and sexual exploitation.

    Actions by professionals prevented Natasha from being sexually exploited. Services continued to help her rebuild her self-esteem, reduce her use of drugs and alcohol, improve relationships with her family, and engage positively with her education.

    This case study is based on a number of real cases which have happened in Devon. In the interests of confidentiality all names and other identifying features are fictional.

    Read more sexual exploitation case studies on the Luton Borough Council website

  • Links with other forms of exploitation
    • sexual exploitation is linked to domestic violence and abuse, sexual violence, substance misuse and involvement with gangs
    • victims of sexual exploitation may become victims of modern slavery and human trafficking if they are held captive or moved for sexual exploitation
    • people who have been enslaved for other reasons (for example as forced labour) may also be sexually abused and exploited by their captors
    • people involved with gangs (including drug gangs) may be sexually exploited – sexual exploitation may be used to exercise power and control over members, as a form of initiation, for status or protection, or as a weapon during conflict between gangs. Girls and women are particularly at risk
    • sexual exploitation is closely linked to criminal and financial exploitation – people who are being sexually exploited may be forced to participate in criminal activities such as drug trafficking; they may also owe debts to perpetrators which they are forced to repay through taking part in sexual acts.
  • More information

    The following resources and websites provide information about sexual exploitation

    The following organisations provide support for people experiencing sexual exploitation