Child Sexual Exploitation

Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse that affects both boys and girls. Sexual abuse may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (e.g. rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside clothing. It may include non-contact activities, such as involving children in the production of sexual images, forcing children to look at sexual images or watch sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via the internet).
The definition of child sexual exploitation is as follows:
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.
Department of Education, February 2017. Child sexual exploitation: Definition and a guide for practitioners, local leaders and decision makers working to protect children from child sexual exploitation, available at:

Types of sexual exploitation

It is accepted that the methods that perpetrators use to sexually exploit young people do change and may not neatly fit into any of the models outlined below. These examples are provided in order to gain a better understanding of some of the challenges young people face and the way offenders operate.

  • Peer-on-peer exploitation
  • Relationship model
  • Online CSE
  • Youth-produced sexual imagery 
  • Gangs and groups
  • County lines
  • Organised/networked sexual exploitation or trafficking
  • Familial
  • Opportunistic

Identifying child sexual exploitation

Sexually exploited young people rarely approach the police or social workers directly and disclose that they are being exploited. It is a shared responsibility for all to identify young people vulnerable to, at risk of, or experiencing CSE. It is important that everyone working with young people are aware of the vulnerabilities and risk indicators that can make a young person more vulnerable.

To assist all frontline practitioners in identifying and remembering the signs, the mnemonic S.A.F.E.G.U.A.R.D. has been created and is shown at Appendix A. of the London CSE Operating Protocol.

The following are factors that may make a young person more vulnerable to exploitation:

  • having a prior experience of neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse
  • lack of a safe/stable home environment, now or in the past (e.g. domestic violence or parental substance misuse
  • mental health issues or criminality)
  • recent bereavement or loss
  • social isolation or social difficulties
  • absence of a safe environment to explore sexuality
  • economic vulnerability
  • missing from home or care
  • gang association
  • dependent on drugs and alcohol
  • homelessness or insecure accommodation status
  • connections with other children and young people who are being sexually exploited
  • family members or other connections involved in adult sex work
  • having a physical or learning disability
  • being in care (particularly those in residential care and those with interrupted care histories)
  • young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or whose gender identify differs from the sex they were given at birth.

Can You See It?

Commissioned by the Metropolitan Police Service and Barnardo’s, this video was created to help support professionals working with young people who are suffering abuse in the form of peer on peer child sexual exploitation. The film aims to educate, inform, and signpost professionals towards available support, and to make sure that all professionals working with young people are fully aware of their ethical and legal responsibilities.

Can You Stop It?

Commissioned by the Metropolitan Police Service, the aim of the film is to raise awareness amongst practitioners working with children about the behaviour traits of perpetrators of ‘on street’ CSE, in the hope of offering practical advice and information that will allow individuals to understand, recognise and intervene where they suspect offences are taking place.

Jay's Story

Emma's story

For more information please visit the government website for Guidance on what to do if you suspect a child is being sexually exploited.

If you are concerned that a child or young person is at risk of CSE, please contact:

In an emergency call the police on 999.