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 (penetrative sex, sexual touching or masturbation) or acts not involving physical contact, such as the sharing of sexual images through the internet and social media.
Perpetrators of sexual exploitation usually hold power over their victims, 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 performing sexual acts they cannot freely give consent.
National and local context
Sexual exploitation can affect all genders and ages and can occur within any community or social group. It can happen in rural villages and coastal areas as well as large towns and cities. It can be perpetrated by individuals and groups, children and adults, and people of any gender.
Sexual exploitation can be a one-off occurrence or a series of incidents. It can be opportunistic or part of organised abuse and exploitation. Perpetrators may be outsiders or individuals known to the victim, such as a partner, family member or friend.
Victims of sexual exploitation may be given phones, especially if they are being exploited by an organised crime group. Mobile phones act as a means for perpetrators to maintain contact and control over the victim and coordinate their exploitation, especially if this involves being exploited by more than one individual.
Sexual exploitation can happen as part of a relationship, which the victim may view as loving and consensual. The perpetrator may have groomed them through becoming their friend and offering them favours. Because of this the victim may trust or feel dependent on the perpetrator and may not realise that they are being exploited.
Victims of sexual exploitation may also be forced to participate in the grooming and exploitation of other people.
Sexual exploitation can happen within gangs where it may be used as a form of punishment or control, or as a display of status and power. Within Devon some forms of sexual exploitation have become closely linked to drug dealing (including county lines activity) and also gang activity and youth violence.
Factors increasing vulnerability to sexual exploitation
Factors increasing vulnerability to sexual exploitation can include:
- being in care or being a care leaver
- being homeless or living in insecure accommodation
- experiencing communication difficulties (including having a sensory impairment or having English as an additional language)
- experiencing financial difficulties
- experiencing mental health difficulties
- experiencing substance misuse difficulties
- feeling socially isolated
- having a learning disability
- having a physical disability
- having an autism spectrum condition
- having connections to other people who are being sexually exploited or who are involved in sex work
- having links to a gang or being a member of a gang
- having past experience of neglect or abuse
- living in an unsafe or unstable home
- sexual and gender identity, particularly identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or being unsure about one’s owns sexual identity
- the absence of a safe environment in which to explore sexuality
- past trauma and adversity, including neglect and abuse.
Locations where sexual exploitation takes place
Sexual exploitation can happen anywhere, although it is more likely to take place in the following locations:
- care settings
- educational settings
- family environments
- hotels, B&Bs, hostels, holiday parks and holiday accommodation
- pubs, bars and clubs
- public spaces, including parks, shopping centres and car parks
- residential homes and semi-independent accommodation
- small retail outlets with long opening hours
- take-away fast food outlets and cafes
- the internet and social media sites
- transport hubs, including taxi ranks
Signs that someone is being exploited
Common signs that someone is being sexually exploited include those listed below. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list and that warning signs will show themselves differently in each person. It is important to explore all concerns over someone’s behaviour and personal circumstances and to consider whether these could be signs of exploitation.
Appearance and behaviour
- evidence or suspicions of sexual assault
- self-harm or significant 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 via the internet, mobile phones or social media
- frequenting areas known for sex work
- secretiveness around behaviours.
- associating with gang members
- becoming involved with drugs and alcohol
- being 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 observations and circumstances
- 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 whom may be unknown.
Child sexual exploitation
Children (aged under eighteen) can be victims of sexual exploitation. Most of the information discussed on this page (including information about vulnerabilities and signs of exploitation) applies as much to child as adult victims. However, certain child-specific elements of sexual exploitation are worth noting.
- 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 which 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.
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.
Links between sexual exploitation and other forms of exploitation
Victims of sexual exploitation may become victims of modern slavery and human trafficking if they are held captive or moved for the purposes of sexual exploitation. People who have been enslaved for other purposes (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 from this form of sexual exploitation.
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 have become dependent on money given to them by their abusers, with this being used as a means to keep them trapped in the exploitative situation. They may also owe debts to perpetrators which they are forced to repay through engaging in sexual acts.