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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual exploitation by organised networks investigation report


C.2: Defining child sexual exploitation

3. The unique feature of child sexual exploitation is that children are coerced, controlled, groomed, manipulated or deceived into sexual activity.

4. Abusers often use alcohol, drugs, actual or threatened violence, kindness and affection to develop a connection with a child they intend to exploit. The manipulation at the core of exploitation is often a result of an imbalance of power. While any child may be at risk of sexual exploitation, exploited children are often already vulnerable, with childhoods characterised by neglect, substance abuse and domestic violence. Many are in care or have a disability. Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to child sexual exploitation but younger children are increasingly exposed to such harm.

5. That some exploited children seem to cooperate with sexual activity should not be misinterpreted as consent. A child under the age of 13 can never legally give consent to sexual activity and such activity is a criminal offence. Too often, even today, children who are victims of these crimes are treated as if they were consenting when the reality is that they have been coerced or manipulated into sexual activity.

6. Child sexual exploitation is currently defined in English statutory guidance as a form of child sexual abuse which:

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”.[1]

7. There is no longer a definition of child sexual exploitation in Wales. However, the guidance given to practitioners indicates that exchange is considered to be the central feature which distinguishes sexual exploitation from other forms of sexual abuse.[2]

8. There was debate during this investigation as to whether the ‘exchange’ element of these definitions is appropriate. Some argue that the exchange concept reinforces the suggestion that children have a choice about their own exploitation, which does not reflect the experiences of children who are sexually exploited, and may lead to ‘victim-blaming’ (even if this is unintended).[3] Others support the concept because it reflects the fact that perpetrators manipulate children into sexual behaviour in return for something tangible or the meeting of victims’ emotional needs and it allows holistic, needs-focussed support to be given to exploited children.[4]

9. This debate is unnecessary and is not helping children who are being abused in this way. Exchange may be present in some cases of child sexual exploitation but not others. For example, there might have been exchange many months before the exploitation but not at the time of the sexual activity. Barnardo’s agreed that there were children using its services who were clearly being sexually exploited but for whom the concept of ‘exchange’ was inapplicable or inappropriate.[5]

10. The English statutory definition, with its use of “and/or”, therefore rightly makes clear that exchange is a possible but not an essential component of child sexual exploitation. However, it provides that, if exchange is absent, an element of financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator is necessary. This is too restrictive and child sexual exploitation can occur without either element. If one of these elements was genuinely required in order to show exploitation, the most egregious cases – where children are brutalised into sexual activity by serious violence – would fall outside the definition of exploitation.

11. A child-centred approach is required. This may involve, but is not limited to, circumstances involving elements (a) and (b) of the current definition.

12. The definition of child sexual exploitation must also be regularly reviewed to ensure it addresses the changing nature of the harm, including the substantial increasing use of online grooming.

13. Additional confusion was caused by how the definitions were applied in practice.

14. We saw repeated examples across the case study areas of confused professional judgements. Many children were described as being at high, medium or low risk of sexual exploitation, when in fact they had already experienced or were likely to be experiencing actual harm.

15. The evidence also showed children being ‘missed’ from classification as victims or at risk of child sexual exploitation for flawed reasons. In County Durham, for example, there were some examples of cases not being recorded as child sexual exploitation because of a failure to understand the concept of consent.[6] In Bristol, it was accepted by Avon and Somerset Police that there were incidents of clear exploitation which were not flagged as such (as well as cases where a flag was used without any evidence of exploitation), for reasons which were not entirely clear.[7]

16. In the South Wales Police area, if the ‘exchange’ between the victim and perpetrator was not “abundantly clear from the outset”, cases were logged as child sexual abuse rather than exploitation.[8] This is at odds with the intention of the Welsh guidance that exchange denotes the exploitation of a need.[9]

17. These inconsistent approaches hinder the ability to understand the true nature and scale of child sexual exploitation properly. As a result, crime prevention strategies are also not being adequately developed, perpetrators are not being identified and apprehended, and children who have experienced sexual exploitation are not being provided with the support they need.

18. There is also some debate about whether child sexual exploitation should be understood as a distinct type of harm, as a type of child sexual abuse within a framework of ‘child sexual abuse and exploitation’, or as a type of exploitation to be considered within a framework of ‘child exploitation’, including child criminal exploitation such as so-called ‘county lines’ drug trafficking activities.[10] All the case study areas in this investigation have moved towards the third approach of considering child sexual exploitation by networks within a framework of child exploitation, including the very real and emerging threat of child criminal exploitation.[11]

19. Child sexual exploitation may of course overlap with other forms of child sexual abuse and child exploitation. However, the nature of the harm experienced by sexually exploited children and the service response needed can be significantly different from that needed by victims of other forms of child sexual abuse or child criminal exploitation: it is essential “to recognise the separate and distinct care and support needs arising for children and young people who have been sexually assaulted and raped as part of their exploitation”.[12] For this reason, if agencies are to include child sexual exploitation within a broader child exploitation model, they must have a distinctive and separate focus on child sexual exploitation. Otherwise, the risk of dilution of focus is too great.


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