Child Sexual Exploitation

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a form of sexual abuse In return for gifts, money, drugs, affection, and status, children and young people are coerced, manipulated and deceived into performing sexual activities.

It is not just something that affects teenage girls or specific groups and can happen in and out of school. Children and young people can be tricked into believing they are part of a loving and consensual relationship that could be framed as friendship, mentoring or romantic.  Child sexual exploitation can happen in schools, in the community and online. 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 or young person is being sexually exploited contact your local children’s services, or phone the police.

Definition of Child Sexual Exploitation

CSE is a form of sexual abuse that occurs “where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance in power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child into taking part in sexual activity, in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator and/or through violence or the threat of violence. CSE … can affect children, both male and female and can include children who have been moved (commonly referred to as trafficking) for the purpose of exploitation.”

“CSE can occur over time or be a one-off occurrence and may happen without the child’s immediate knowledge, for example through others sharing videos or images of them on social media.”

Adapted from Keeping Children Safe in Education

Quotation marks

Child sexual exploitation can affect any child. Sometimes there are indicators, sometimes there are none, and professionals can dismiss these as simply the behaviour associated with children and young people growing up.

Children and young people are more vulnerable to abuse when they:

  • have a prior experience of neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse;
  • lack a safe/stable home environment, now or in the past (due to domestic abuse or parental substance misuse, parental mental health issues or criminality, for example);
  • experience a bereavement or loss;
  • are socially isolated or have social difficulties;
  • don’t have a safe environment to explore their sexuality;
  • Are economically vulnerable;
  • are homeless 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 to’ 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 or young person who:

  • acquires money, clothes, mobile phones etc, without plausible explanation;
  • has gang association and/or isolation from peers/social networks;
  • is excluded or has unexplained absences from school, college or work;
  • leaves home/care without explanation and persistently goes missing or returns late;
  • is in excessive receipt of texts/phone calls;
  • returns home under the influence of drugs/alcohol;
  • undertakes inappropriate sexualised behaviour for their age/develops sexually transmitted infections;
  • displays evidence of/suspicion of physical or sexual assault;
  • has relationships with controlling or significantly older individuals or groups;
  • has multiple callers (unknown adults or peers);
  • frequents areas known for sex work;
  • has concerning use of the internet or other social media;
  • displays increasing secretiveness around behaviours;
  • self-harms or displays significant changes in emotional well-being.

What To Do…

  • Always take young people seriously.
  • Build and use your relationships with children and 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 children and young people who experience neglect, domestic abuse or a breakdown in their relationship with their parents.
  • In agreement with your safeguarding lead, and where it is appropriate work closely with families to understand and reduce the risk.
  • See this as your responsibility – raise it with your designated safeguarding lead, but keep being worried about the child and taking action until you have restored your confidence in the safety of the child.
  • You should raise issues within your school’s safeguarding policies and listen 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 concerns 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 the appropriate action to take in response.

  • Alternative Terminology

    A 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.

  • It’s Not on the Radar

    This report by Barnardo’s brings together discussions from four roundtables and existing literature, and explores how perceptions of sexual exploitation can affect the identification and response to CSE.

  • Consent: It’s as Simple as Tea

    YouTube video by Thames Valley police to help people of all ages understand what is meant by consent using the analogy of a cup of tea.

  • Childline – Resources for Children about Healthy and Unhealthy Relationships

    Childline has produced a webpage with advice and guidance for young people about what makes a healthy and unhealthy relationship. It includes tips on how to recognise and how to end an unhealthy relationship

  • Responding to Child Sexual Abuse

    The CSA Centre has published a wide range of reports covering interventions regarding child sexual exploitation.

  • Using Appropriate Language

    This document from The Children’s Society aims to provide guidance for professionals working with children regarding the appropriate use of language when discussing children and young people, and their experiences of exploitation. This includes discussions with children and young people, recording and in multi-agency meetings.

  • Childline – Report Remove tool

    Childline’s Report Remove tool works with the Internet Watch Foundation to try to remove nudes or semi-nudes of children and young people from the internet. You can also listen to this podcast to learn more about why a tool like Report Remove is needed, how the tool works, and how you can signpost young people to the tool as part of your response to incidents of sharing nudes.

  • Data Trends for CSE

    The latest report from the CSA Centre focuses on the scale and nature of CSE.

  • Advice Regarding the Sharing of Nude and Semi-nude Images

    This is guidance from UKCIS for staff in educational settings to learn more about what is meant by sharing nudes  and how to respond to incidents where nude or semi-nude images have been shared.

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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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