Child sexual exploitation

Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) is a form of sexual abuse of young people. It is not just something that affects teenage girls or specific groups and can happen in and out of school.

Child sexual exploitation can happen in schools, in the community and online. It involves an individual or group coercing, manipulating and deceiving a child into sexual activity. Children as young as 8 have been sexually exploited.

All staff in schools and colleges should be aware of how child sexual exploitation can occur, what to look for and what to do.

If you are worried a child is being sexually exploited contact your local children’s services, or phone the police.

Definition of child sexual exploitation

“Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator.

“The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual. Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology.”

HM Government

Quotation marks

Child sexual exploitation can affect any child. Sometimes there are indicators, sometimes there are none, and at times professionals can confuse these with young people growing up.

Young people are more vulnerable to abuse where they:

  • Have a prior experience of neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse;
  • Lack a safe/stable home environment, now or in the past (domestic abuse or parental substance misuse, mental health issues or criminality, for example);
  • Had a recent bereavement or loss;
  • Are socially isolated or have social difficulties
  • Don’t have a safe environment to explore sexuality;
  • Are economically vulnerable;
  • Are homelessness or in insecure accommodation;
  • Have connections with other children and young people who are being sexually exploited;
  • Have family members or other connections involved in adult sex work;
  • Have a physical or learning disability;
  • Are in care (particularly those in residential care and those with interrupted care histories);

Child sexual exploitation is never the victim’s fault. Avoid suggesting young people might be making ‘lifestyle choices’ to be abused, or minimising concern because they have ‘agreed’ or received something for the abuse.These are indicators of heightened vulnerability.

Sometimes action has not been taken because there is ‘insufficient evidence to prove abuse’. The burden of proof to begin a child protection enquiry is far lower than to secure a conviction. If you have reasonable cause to suspect abuse the local authority must investigate.

Warning signs include a child who:

  • Acquisition of money, clothes, mobile phones etc without plausible explanation;
  • Gang-association and/or isolation from peers/social networks;
  • Exclusion or unexplained absences from school, college or work;
  • Leaving home/care without explanation and persistently going missing or returning late;
  • Excessive receipt of texts/phone calls;
  • Returning home under the influence of drugs/alcohol;
  • Inappropriate sexualised behaviour for age/sexually transmitted infections;
  • Evidence of/suspicions of physical or sexual assault;
  • Relationships with controlling or significantly older individuals or groups;
  • Multiple callers (unknown adults or peers);
  • Frequenting areas known for sex work;
  • Concerning use of internet or other social media;
  • Increasing secretiveness around behaviours; and
  • Self-harm or significant changes in emotional well-being.

What to do…

  • Always take young people seriously, and see them as children not deserving of abuse
  • Build and use your relationships with young people to understand what is happening in their community (in school, locally and online) and be a safe person for them to come to if required.
  • Share information at an early stage about concerns. You may be preventing CSE by working with neglect, domestic abuse or a breakdown in relationship with parents.
  • In agreement with your lead and where it is appropriate we should be working closely with families to understand and reduce the risk.
  • See this as your responsibility – raise it with your designated lead but keep being worried about the child and taking action until you’ve good reason to relax.
  • You should raise issues within your school’s safeguarding policies listening carefully to the advice you are given. Take it higher if you feel concerns are not being taken seriously, make a referral yourself if you need to and follow your local escalation procedure to raise concern between agencies. If a child is at immediate risk, call the Police.


  • Child sexual exploitation: definition and guide for practitioners

    Guidance from the Department for Education outlining the definition of child sexual exploitation, potential vulnerabilities and indicators of abuse and appropriate action to take in response.

  • Key messages from research on child sexual exploitation: professionals in school settings

    Document bringing together the key messages from research on child sexual exploitation and considering the implications for practice within schools.

  • Alternative terminology

    Short video asking us to think about the phrases that we use to describe young people to ensure that no blame is inadvertently placed on the child.

    Open link
  • It’s not on the radar

    Report developed by Barnardo’s bringing together discussions from four roundtables and existing literature – explores how perceptions of sexual exploitation can affect the identification and response to CSE.

  • Criminal Exploitation: Stages of Recruitment

    Two page document produced by the Children’s Society breaking down recruitment into Criminal Exploitation into four stages and providing information about what young people may experience at each stage of recruitment – can also be used when considering cases of exploitation.

  • Consent: It’s as simple as tea

    YouTube video by Blue Seat Studios helping people of all ages understand what is meant by consent by using the analogy of a cup of tea.

  • Childline – resources for children on healthy and unhealthy relationships

    Childline have a produced a new webpage with advice & guidance for young people on what makes a healthy and unhealthy relationship, together with tips on how to recognise this and make decisions to end an unhealthy relationship

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  • Training resources for DSLs to use in team meetings
  • Reference documents for additional information
  • Handout for school staff summarising child sexual exploitation
  • Quiz to test staff understanding
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