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Child sexual exploitation is a child protection issue, and is the most common type of child sexual abuse perpetrated against young people. Marginalised children and young people who are sad, isolated, going missing from home, using alcohol and other drugs or experiencing mental health and behavioural issues are deliberately targeted and coerced by abusers. They are gradually introduced into a ‘relationship’ they think is normal but is actually abusive. Young people can be deceived into believing that the alleged abuser is their ‘friend’, ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’. The alleged abuser may further reinforce their connection to the young person by offering gifts and compliments.
Once the young person is manipulated and coerced, they are then forced to have sex or engage in sexual acts (which can be recorded), often in ‘exchange’ for something such as alcohol, gifts, money, affection, drugs or somewhere to stay. These sexual activities can happen on or offline. The young person is then entrapped and secrecy is maintained through threats of social isolation, public shame and other types of physical or emotional abuse. Young people may be manipulated, coerced and targeted in public places (Firmin, 2018), through their friendship groups or online.
Marginalised young people and young people involved in the child protection system are deliberately targeted because of the belief that they are:
- more likely to respond to manipulative and coercive behaviour
- less likely to report their sexual exploitation
- less likely to be believed if they do report their abuse
- lacking connected relationships that make it more difficult for them to differentiate between a loving relationship and an abusive one.
- of the belief that the exploitation is the only way that they can get their basic needs met, and any connection is better than nothing.
(Smallbone et al, 2008)
Victimisation prevalence estimates show significantly greater risk of child sexual abuse for girls than for boys. (Smallbone, Marshall and Wortley, 2008). There is consensus in the literature that younger children are often at greater risk of familial abuse, whereas older children are generally more are risk of extra-familiar abuse, for example through their peers (Firmin, 2018; Smallbone et al, 2008). Adolescents and young adults are responsible for between 30% and 50% of all child sexual abuse offences. (Smallbone et al, 2008; Firmin, 2018).
As a society, we accept that any sexual interaction with a child is illegal, harmful and morally wrong. When working with young people, it can be very difficult to differentiate between a loving relationship and an exploitative one. Family members and the young person themselves may all have been deceived into believing that the young person is ‘in love’ and is engaging in consensual sexual activity.
Professionals can also fall into the trap of minimising the harm caused by an exploitative relationship, particularly where the young person does not believe they are being harmed, the alleged abuser is offering them support such as accommodation, food, ‘care’ and the age differences are minimal.
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