Signs of Risk and Vulnerability

Children in exploitative situations may be tricked into believing they’re in a loving, consensual relationship. They may receive something such as gifts, money or affection, or be invited to parties and given drugs and alcohol. They may also be groomed online.

Grooming is when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking. Children and young people can be groomed online or face-to-face, by a stranger or by someone they know – for example, a family member, friend or professional. Many children and young people don’t understand that they have been groomed or that what has happened is abuse.

Signs of Grooming:

The signs of grooming aren’t always obvious and groomers will often go to great lengths not to be identified. “Online grooming” occurs when an adult communicates online with a child under the age of 18 to establish an emotional connection or relationship and gain the child’s trust for the purposes of sexual abuse or exploitation. If a child is being groomed they may:

  • be very secretive, including about what they are doing online;
  • have older boyfriends or girlfriends;
  • go to unusual places to meet friends;
  • have new things such as clothes or mobile phones that they can’t or won’t explain;
  • have access to drugs and alcohol.

How Common is Grooming?

We don’t know how common grooming is because often children don’t tell anyone what is happening to them. Children may not speak out because they are:

  • ashamed;
  • feeling guilty;
  • unaware that they’re being abused;
  • believe they are in a relationship with a ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’.

Child Sexual Abuse Online

63% of child sexual exploitation is facilitated online. When sexual exploitation happens online, young people may be persuaded or forced, to:

  • send or post sexually explicit images of themselves;
  • take part in sexual activities via a webcam or smartphone;
  • have sexual conversations by text or online.

Abusers may threaten to send images, video or copies of conversations to the young person’s friends and family unless they take part in other sexual activity. Images or videos may continue to be shared long after the sexual abuse has stopped.

Signs of Sexual Exploitation

Sexual exploitation can be very difficult to identify. Warning signs can easily be mistaken for ‘normal’ teenage behaviour. Young people who are being sexually exploited may:

  • go missing from home, care or education;
  • be involved in abusive relationships, intimidated and fearful of certain people or situations;
  • hang out with groups of older people, or antisocial groups, or with other vulnerable peers;
  • associate with other young people involved in sexual exploitation;
  • get involved in gangs, gang fights, and gang membership;
  • have older boyfriends or girlfriends;
  • spend time at places of concern, such as hotels or known brothels;
  • not know where they are, because they have been moved around the country;
  • be involved in petty crime such as shoplifting;
  • have unexplained physical injuries;
  • have a changed physical appearance, for example, have lost weight.

Resource: Spotting the signs of child sexual exploitation video for healthcare professionals from Health Education England and Department of Health.

What You Can Do

The best way to fight and prevent child sexual exploitation is by REPORTING any cases of child sexual exploitation you believe may be taking place.