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Gathering information to understand the young person’s relationships and identify sexual exploitation

Talk with the young person

Being open and curious about the young person’s friendships and relationships is critical when attempting to identify sexual exploitation. This table will help you to be aware of risk factors for the young person and open up a conversation about what is happening for them. Remember, these kinds of conversations are very sensitive and require empathy and connection. You will be far more likely to retain a relationship with the young person by working slowly alongside them to identify any abusive dynamic in their relationship than by telling them that they are being exploited.


Running away from home (including residential and foster care) is a significant risk factor for sexual exploitation. This is because young people who run away from home are often more marginalised and isolated from family and community supports. Child sexual abusers also have more opportunity to manipulate, coerce, entrap and abuse young people who are not supervised at home.

Practice considerations

Conversation ideas

Be aware of the risk factors for sexual exploitation and be curious about the young person’s relationships and friendships.

Does the young person have any of the following risk factors for sexual exploitation:

  • has a history of abuse, particularly sexual abuse
  • is in care or has recently left care
  • homelessness
  • has experienced the unexpected death of someone close to them
  • is linked to gangs through their peers, relatives, intimate relationships or neighbourhood
  • is socially isolated?

“There has been a lot happening for you since I last saw you- what’s that been like for you? Has anyone been helping you?”

“Talk me through your plans for the week. What will you be doing on [Monday-Sunday]? Who will you be doing that with?”

"Your mum said you are hanging out with [alleged abuser ]. Tell me about them. What do you like about hanging out with them? Are there some things you don’t you like so much?”

“How did you meet [alleged abuser ]?”

Is the young person demonstrating any of the following warning signs of sexual exploitation? Are they:

  • running away from home, leaving home without permission or persistently returning home late (including residential care and youth refuges)
  • returning home distressed / dishevelled or under the influence of substances
  • requesting the morning after pill upon return home
  • looking clean and well cared for on their return home, in spite of a long absence
  • being labelled by family members, community members or other professionals in a way that sexualises them and makes it hard for you to assess the risk of sexual exploitation?  For example: ‘promiscuous’, ‘attention-seeking’, ‘sexually advanced’?

“What would need to happen for you to want to spend more time at home? What would your [parent / siblings / workers] be doing?”

“What is good about being away from home?”

“What happens when you stay out all night with [alleged abuser]? Is anyone else there? What are they doing?”

“What happens if [alleged abuser] wants you to do something you don’t want to do? Can you say no to them?”

“Sometimes young people may hang out with older guys and have sex with them. Is this happening for you? Are there things that are good about sex? Are there things that are not so good?”

Can the young person identify friends who are in relationships that are sexually exploitative?

“What do you think of your friend’s boyfriends? What kind of things do they do with them?”

“Are your friends having sex? Do you think they like having sex? Are there things they do to stay safe when they are having sex?”

“Do you ever worry about your friends’ relationships? What kind of things make you worried? What would you do if you thought a friend was in an unhappy relationship?”

Is the alleged abuser being labelled by family members, community members or professionals in a way that makes it hard for you to see the risk they pose? For example, is the alleged abuser referred to as ‘supportive’, or as the young person’s ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’?

“I know you said [alleged abuser ] is your boyfriend but I am worried because you seem really stressed out about the idea of saying no to them. Can you tell me about that?”

Does the alleged abuser have power over the young person? How do the following factors impact on the young person’s ability to say no to their demands or requests:

  • age
  • gender
  • sexuality
  • intellect
  • physical strength
  • role in the community
  • friendship networks
  • economic or other resources?

“Your mum said [alleged abuser ] has given you some new stuff. Why do you think he gave you these things? What would happen if you gave them back?”

“It’s normal to have arguments. What happens when you and [alleged abuser ] argue or want to do something different?”

“What do you like to do when you’re out? Who do you like to hang out with? Has that changed since you have been with [alleged abuser ]?”

“Has [alleged abuser ] introduced you to any of their friends? What are they like? What do you do when you are all together?”

“Has [alleged abuser ] met any of your other friends? What do they think of him?”

Is the alleged abuser using violence, manipulation, coercion or intimidation to maintain power over the young person?

This may include:

  • threats to make their sexual exploitation known through texts or emails to their friends or family
  • threats to withdraw financial and emotional support, housing or goods
  • threats to isolate the young person from their friendship networks
  • use of manipulation and coercion  to entrap the young person and prevent them from seeing that they are experiencing abuse.

“What do you think would happen if you told [alleged abuser] you didn’t want to do something they wanted you to do?”

“What was it like when you first started hanging out with [alleged abuser ]? What are things like now?”

“Some young people get caught up in relationships that seem really caring at first and then become scary.

What do you think you would do if this happened to you?”

Can the young person identify areas in their community that are targeted by abusers or where young people tend to gather and get drunk / intoxicated?

“What do you like to do with your friends?”

“Are there places around here where you get drunk / do drugs? Who hangs out there? Have you made any friends there?”

“Where did your friends meet their

[boyfriends / girlfriends]?”

Practice prompt

The friends of young people that have been sexually exploited can also be targeted for sexual exploitation. When working with a young person who you believe has been sexually exploited, consider undertaking preventative strategies such as education and raising awareness with their friends and any young people who have been living with them, for example, in a residential care setting.

Young people are loyal and highly sensitive to any perceived criticism of their friends. Tread carefully and steer clear of statements that may be seen as judgmental.

Further reading

Read the Responding section in Working with children for ideas to help children to talk about sexual abuse. Many of these ideas can be adapted to use with young people who are being sexually exploited.

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