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

  • a history of abuse, particularly sexual abuse
  • recent bereavement or loss
  • homelessness
  • low self-esteem or self-confidence
  • being a young carer
  • being in or leaving care
  • links to a gang through relatives, peers or intimate relationships
  • living in a gang-affected neighbourhood
  • lacking friends from the same age group.

Children's stories

"I'm just glad CTAC have been there to defend me through this experience."

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What research tells us about risk factors

Gender, age, ethnicity and missing children

In 2011, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) published a thematic assessment analysing 2,083 victims of child sexual exploitation (CEOP, 2011). The study found that:

  • the majority of victims were girls
    However in 31% of cases, gender was unknown. It is likely that male victims are under-represented due to difficulties in identifying sexual exploitation in boys and young men.
  • 14 and 15 year olds are most likely to be noticed by authorities
    Some victims of sexual exploitation were as young as 9 or 10 years old, however young people most commonly came to the attention of statutory and non-statutory authorities aged 14 or 15.
  • the majority of victims were white
    61% of the victims were white, 3% were Asian and 1% were black. Ethnicity was unknown in 33% of cases. Children from minority ethnic backgrounds are likely to be under-represented in statistics because of barriers to reporting and accessing services.
  • children who go missing are risk of sexual exploitation.
    Information about whether children went missing was incomplete but 842 children were reported as missing on at least one occasion. We don't know whether these children were sexually exploited before, during or after they went missing.

Offending behaviour

Other research has shown that there are links between child sexual exploitation and youth offending.

A University College London (UCL) study of 552 victims of child sexual exploitation in Derby found that:

  • nearly 4 out of 10 young people had a history of criminal behaviour
  • male victims (55%) were significantly more likely to have offended than female victims (35%).

Although research shows that there's a link between criminal activity and child sexual exploitation, this study didn't suggest that abuse causes offenders to commit child sexual exploitation. In some cases the young person's criminal behaviour began around the time of the exploitation and in other cases offending and child sexual exploitation were both features of the victim's 'generally chaotic lifestyle' (Cockbain and Brayley, 2012).

Who sexually exploits children and young people

We don't know a great deal about who commits child sexual exploitation. Identifying abusers is difficult because:

  • data often isn't recorded or is inconsistent or incomplete
  • children and young people often only know their abuser by an alias, nickname or appearance
  • victims may be passed between abusers and assaulted by multiple perpetrators
  • children and young people are often moved from location to location and abused in each place
  • young people may be given alcohol or drugs (Berelowitz et al, 2012).

The number of known perpetrators is likely to be far higher than those reported.

People who sexually exploit children are often described as highly manipulative individuals. They exert power over young people through physical violence, emotional blackmail or financial pressure, for example holding them in debt.

To maintain control or to distance children and young people from those who may be able to protect them, abusers create or exploit weaknesses such as:

  • being isolated/distant from friends and family
  • disengagement from services such as education or health
  • challenging or criminal behaviour (CEOP, 2011).

The focus on manipulation and control has similarities with domestic violence, although more research is needed to establish this link and fully explore motivations for child sexual exploitation (CEOP, 2011).

Gender, age and ethnicity of perpetrators

The Children's Commissioner's study found that:

  • 72% of abusers were male
  • 10% of abusers were female
  • in 18% of cases gender wasn't disclosed (Berelowitz et al, 2012).

The evidence indicated that the age range of abusers was from 12 to 75 years.

Where ethnic group was recorded, the majority of perpetrators were White and the second largest group were Asian.

CSE committed by children and young people

In 2012 Barnardo's reported an increase in sexual exploitation by peers in 8 of their services. They found young people were sexually exploiting peers either directly by sexually abusing victims themselves or indirectly by introducing children and young people to abusers (Barnardo's, 2012).

The Children's Commissioner Inquiry found that of the 2,409 victims reported to them, 155 were also identified as perpetrators of child sexual exploitation (Berelowitz et al, 2012).

According to CEOP, perpetrators can use one victim to gain access to others, asking victims to bring their friends along to pre-arranged meetings or 'parties'. In some cases, if victims try to break free, the perpetrator will use their peers to draw them back in (CEOP, 2011).

Risk factors for all child abuse and neglect

There’s still a lot we don’t know about why abuse happens, but research has highlighted some similarities among children who have been abused or neglected. These similarities, or risk factors, help us identify children who may be at increased risk of abuse and neglect.

Some risk factors are common across all types of abuse and neglect. But they don’t mean that abuse will definitely happen. A child who doesn’t have any of these risk factors could be abused and a child with multiple risk factors may never experience abuse or neglect. But we do know that having one or more of these issues can increase the risk of harm.

Children who are at risk

Disabled children are over three times more likely to be abused or neglected than non-disabled children (Jones et al, 2012).

Some disabled children may not understand that what's happening to them is abuse and that it's wrong. Even if they do, they might not be able to ask for help. If a child is being abused by someone who looks after them or who they rely on to meet their needs it can be even harder for them to speak out or protect themselves.

Parents and professionals might mistake signs that a child is being abused or neglected as part of a child's impairment. And those working with disabled children may not be trained to spot the signs of abuse and neglect.

Children and families who feel isolated or without support due to a limited number of accessible services, may not know who to turn to to get help.

Parents who are abusive or neglectful might excuse their behaviour, blaming it on the difficulties of caring for a disabled child. Professionals focused on supporting parents to meet the needs relating to their child's disability may overlook parenting behaviours that are not good enough.

Professionals working in child protection might not have the specialised skills to accurately assess or understand a disabled child's needs, or to communicate with them properly.

Read our research report: 'We have the right to be safe': protecting disabled children from abuse.

Most children who are in care live safely but a small number do experience harm. There are a number of risk factors related to being in care which can make children more vulnerable to abuse and neglect.

Children who have been abused or neglected in the past are more likely to experience further abuse than children who haven’t been abused or neglected (Finkelhor, Ormrod, and Turner, 2007). This is known as revictimisation.

Children who are being abused or neglected are also likely to be experiencing another form of abuse at the same time (Finkelhor, 2008). This is known as polyvictimisation.

There don’t appear to be links between ethnic groups and child abuse or neglect.

But children from black and mixed ethnic backgrounds are over-represented in the care system and in the children in need statistics. Children from Asian backgrounds are under-represented.

This may be a result of a variety of issues including:

  • racial discrimination
  • language barriers
  • community and cultural norms and practices, such as female genital mutilation or harsh physical discipline
  • inadequate or inappropriate services
  • no action being taken for fear of upsetting cultural norms.

(Owen and Statham, 2009).

Parents, family and home

Problems with mental health, drugs or alcohol, domestic violence or learning disabilities can make it harder for parents to meet their child’s needs. Children living with parents who have one or more of these issues may be more at risk of abuse and neglect.

Witnessing or experiencing domestic abuse is a form of child abuse.

But children living in homes where there is domestic abuse are also likely to experience other abuse and neglect.

The impact of hearing or witnessing domestic violence can be very traumatic for a child and result in emotional or psychological abuse (Cleaver, Unell and Aldgate, 2011).

Research has also shown a link between domestic abuse and child physical abuse or child sexual abuse (Hester et al, 2007).

Not all parents who drink or take drugs harm their children, but children living with parents with alcohol or drug problems can be at more risk of harm and neglect.

Drug or alcohol problems can leave parents unable to care for their children or provide the practical and emotional support they need.

Being abused or neglected as a child doesn’t mean that someone will go on to harm others.

But a lot of the people who abuse or neglect children have experienced abuse themselves.

Because the effects of child abuse or neglect can last well into adulthood, some parents who were abused as children struggle to provide safe and appropriate care for their own children.

Just because a parent has learning disabilities or learning difficulties it doesn’t mean they can’t be a great mum or dad. But some parents can struggle to understand what they need to do to provide appropriate care for their child. In some cases, this can lead to a child being neglected.

However, research shows that helping parents to identify and understand their child’s needs can reduce the risk of a child being neglected (Cleaver, Unell, and Aldgate, 2011).

Most parents or carers with a mental health problem give their children the love, care and support they need to thrive. But when parents are ill themselves, they may struggle to look after their children the way they are able to when they are well. For families without strong support networks, this can result in children having to take on extra responsibilities, such as caring for other family members.

Research has also highlighted that some parental mental health problems (such as suicidal or self-harming behaviour, psychopathy or anxiety) could place children at risk of abuse or neglect. It is a common feature in serious child abuse cases.

Mental illness in the perinatal period, just before and just after birth, is known to interrupt healthy parent-child bonding, referred to as “attachment” (Jütte at al, 2014).

Families under pressure

All families come under pressure from time to time. But increased or continued stress can seriously affect how well a parent can look after their child.

Research shows that parents:

  • with a low income are more likely to feel chronically stressed than parents with higher incomes
  • living in poorer neighbourhoods have high stress levels.

(Jütte at al, 2014).

Living in poverty

Children who grow up in poverty might:

  • live in a poorly maintained, unsafe or temporary home
  • have to move often due to repeat evictions
  • have disruptive neighbours.

Someone who is being abused may feel unable to leave their abusive partner and their home.

Housing worries on top of money worries can put a lot of stress on parents. This can stop them being able to provide the practical and emotional support that children need.

Poor housing and multiple moves are common features in serious child abuse cases.

Research has found that children living in the most deprived neighbourhoods have a greater chance of being on a child protection plan or being taken into care than children in the least deprived areas (Jütte at al, 2014).

There's also a link between physical discipline, stress and lower socio-economic groups.

Lack of support

Support from family, friends, neighbours or the wider community can give parents the resources and emotional support they need to help keep their child safe. But sometimes parents don't have this support. This might be because they live in an isolated area or because they have language difficulties or cultural differences.

Sometimes the services they need just aren’t available or they aren’t able to access them. This can put children at a higher risk of harm and research has found that there are clear links between social isolation and child abuse or neglect (Jütte at al, 2014).

Preventing child sexual exploitation

How we can protect children and young people from sexual exploitation.

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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.

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  1. Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) (2011) Out of mind, out of sight: breaking down the barriers to child sexual exploitation: executive summary (PDF). London: CEOP.

  2. Cockbain, E and Brayley, H (2012) Child sexual exploitation and youth offending: a research note. European Journal of Criminology, 9(6): 689-700.

  3. Finkelhor, D. (2008) Childhood victimization: violence, crime, and abuse in the lives of young people. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  4. Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R.K. and Turner, H.A. (2007) Re-victimization patterns in a national longitudinal sample of children and youth. Child abuse and neglect, 31(5): 479-502.

  5. Hester, M. et al. (2007) Making an impact: children and domestic violence: a reader. London: Jessica Kingsley.

  6. Jütte, S. et al (2014) How safe are our children? 2014. London: NSPCC.