Sexual exploitation can be very difficult to identify. Warning signs can easily be mistaken for 'normal' teenage behaviour.

Young people who are being sexually exploited may:

  • go missing from home, care or education.
  • be involved in abusive relationships, intimidated and fearful of certain people or situations
  • hang out with groups of older people, or antisocial groups, or with other vulnerable peers
  • associate with other young people involved in sexual exploitation
  • get involved in gangs, gang fights, gang membership
  • have older boyfriends or girlfriends
  • spend time at places of concern, such as hotels or known brothels
  • not know where they are, because they have been moved around the country
  • be involved in petty crime such as shoplifting
  • have unexplained physical injuries
  • have a changed physical appearance, for example lost weight.

They may also show signs of sexual abuse or grooming.


Things you may notice

If you're worried that a child is being abused, watch out for any unusual behaviour. 

  • withdrawn
  • suddenly behaves differently
  • anxious
  • clingy
  • depressed
  • aggressive
  • problems sleeping
  • eating disorders
  • wets the bed
  • soils clothes
  • takes risks
  • misses school
  • changes in eating habits
  • obsessive behaviour
  • nightmares
  • drugs
  • alcohol
  • self-harm
  • thoughts about suicide

If you're worried about a child, contact the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000.

Find out more about the signs, symptoms and effects of child abuse.


Sexual abuse: signs and symptoms

Children who are sexually abused may:

Stay away from certain people

  • they might avoid being alone with people, such as family members or friends
  • they could seem frightened of a person or reluctant to socialise with them.

Show sexual behaviour that's inappropriate for their age

  • a child might become sexually active at a young age
  • they might be promiscuous
  • they could use sexual language or know information that you wouldn't expect them to.

Have physical symptoms

  • anal or vaginal soreness
  • an unusual discharge
  • sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • pregnancy.

Grooming: signs and symptoms

The signs of grooming aren't always obvious. Groomers will also go to great lengths not to be identified.

Children may:

  • be very secretive, including about what they are doing online
  • have older boyfriends or girlfriends
  • go to unusual places to meet friends
  • have new things such as clothes or mobile phones that they can't or won't explain
  • have access to drugs and alcohol.

In older children, signs of grooming can easily be mistaken for 'normal' teenage behaviour, but you may notice unexplained changes in behaviour or personality, or inappropriate sexual behaviour for their age.

Groomers who sexually exploit children online may focus on quickly gaining control over a child rather than spending time building up a trusting relationship. The period of time between contacting a child and offending may be extremely short. (CEOP, 2013)

Guidance for professionals on spotting the signs of child sexual exploitation 

Raising professional awareness of the signs of CSE is vital. The following resources can help professionals identify the signs of CSE and and help keep children safe:

The effects of sexual exploitation on children

Sexual exploitation can have devastating effects on a child or young person that can last throughout their lives. Every child and situation is different.

What research tells us about the effects of child sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation has long-term effects on young people's social integration and economic well-being and may adversely affect their life chances. Some of the difficulties faced by victims include:

  • isolation from family and friends
  • teenage parenthood
  • failing examinations or dropping out of education altogether
  • unemployment
  • mental health problems
  • suicide attempts
  • alcohol and drug addiction
  • aggressive behaviour
  • criminal activity.

(PACE, 2013; Safe and Sound, 2013; Berelowitz, 2012)

The story of Jay

Watch our video sharing the story of a young person who has been groomed and sexually exploited.

People

Over 2,400 children were victims of sexual exploitation in gangs and groups from August 2010 to October 2011

Explanation: 2,409 children were confirmed as victims of sexual exploitation in gangs and groups during the 14-month period from August 2010 to October 2011.

Over 230 children were trafficked for sexual exploitation last year

Explanation: In 2013, 236 children were believed to have been trafficked for sexual exploitation. 

The National Crime Agency (NCA) collects information from a number of different agencies about potential victims of trafficking. Cases that meet specific criteria will be added to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). The NRM was set up in 2009 as a process for identifying and supporting victims of trafficking. 

These figures are likely to be under-estimates due to the difficulties in recognising and understanding that individuals have been victims of trafficking. 

See also:

Find out more about the National Referral Mechanism.

illustration of umbrella

The most common reasons for children to be trafficked are sexual exploitation and criminal exploitation.

Explanation: 3,309 potential victims of human trafficking were identified in 2014. 732 (22%) were aged under 18. The most prevalent exploitation types for children believed to have been trafficked were sexual exploitation (32% of all children believed to have been trafficked) and criminal exploitation (19%). The exploitation type of 30% of children believed to have been trafficked was recorded as unknown.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) collects information from a number of different agencies about potential victims of trafficking. Cases that meet specific criteria will be added to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). The NRM was set up in 2009 as a process for identifying and supporting victims of trafficking.

These figures are likely to be under-estimates due to the difficulties in recognising and understanding that individuals have been victims of trafficking.

See also National Crime Agency (2015) National referral mechanism statistics: end of year summary 2014 (PDF) and Indicator 19 in How safe are our children? 2016.

Find out more about the National Referral Mechanism.

Further information and advice

Who is affected

Sexual exploitation can happen to any young person – whatever their background, age, gender, race or sexuality or wherever they live.

Find out more

Helping children who have been sexually exploited

Find out how you can help protect children who have experienced, or at risk of, child sexual exploitation.

Find out more

Research and resources

Read our research, reports and resources about child sexual exploitation including learning from case reviews and factsheet for schools. 

See research and resources for child sexual exploitation

It's Time to demand change

Up to 90% of children who've been abused will develop mental health issues by the time they're 18.

Help us change this

Your donation can take a child anywhere

Research like this helps keep children safe from abuse and free to dream – but we can’t do it without our generous supporters. 

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References

  1. Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) (2013) Threat Assessment of Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse 2013 (PDF). London: National Crime Agency (NCA).

  2. Parents against Child Sexual Exploitation (PACE) (2013) The impact of child sexual exploitation. [Leeds]: Parents against Child Sexual Exploitation (PACE).

  3. Safe and Sound Derby (2013) The impact of child sexual exploitation. Derby: Safe and Sound.