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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

An explorative study on perpetrators of child sexual exploitation convicted alongside others


TONIC was commissioned by the Inquiry to interview perpetrators of child sexual exploitation in organised networks. This was in recognition of a relative lack of primary research on this emerging topic. Historically, work has tended to focus on perpetrators of sexual offending (not child sexual exploitation). Where child sexual exploitation was the focus, work has centred around lone perpetrators and online offending (for example Walker, Pillinger and Brown, 2018). There have recently been a small number of studies looking at groups of child sexual exploitation perpetrators (for example Cockbain, 2018; Pancholi and Palmer, forthcoming), but the topic still warrants further research.

The aims of the current research were to:

  • further an understanding of the motivations and modus operandi of perpetrators of child sexual exploitation who operate in organised networks; and
  • identify interventions and approaches that could prevent or disrupt perpetrators of child sexual exploitation who operate in organised networks.

Using the definition from Working Together to Safeguard Children (HM Government, 2018), the Inquiry defines child sexual exploitation as:

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.

The team started the project by conducting a background literature review, which indicated the following:

  • There remains a lack of research on child sexual exploitation perpetrators who operate in groups, especially in contrast to research on lone perpetrators or online perpetrators.
  • Seemingly, a variety of people engage in child sexual exploitation: young and old, and from different ethnic backgrounds. Most commonly, however, they appear to be young (under 25) and white. Recent work challenges the view that they are less likely to have previous convictions compared to other perpetrators.
  • Victims can be male or female. There are several proposed models to understand methods of child sexual exploitation (for example the boyfriend model, and the hook, coordinator or predator), some of which have considerable overlap with other offence types, including domestic violence, county lines and human trafficking.
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