Key Risk Factors and Warning Signs

Child sexual exploitation is not limited to any particular geographic, ethnic or social background. There is no set formula for identifying child sexual exploitation, but the following have been identified as factors that may make children and young people more vulnerable to abuse:

  • Living in a chaotic or dysfunctional household (including parental substance use, domestic violence, parental mental health issues, and parental criminality).
  • History of abuse.
  • Recent bereavement or loss.
  • Gang association.
  • Attending school with children and young people who are already sexually exploited.
  • Learning disabilities.
  • Unsure about their sexual orientation or unable to disclose their sexual orientation to their families.
  • Friends with young people who are sexually exploited.
  • Homeless.
  • Lacking friends from the same age group.
  • Living in a gang neighbourhood.
  • Living in residential care.
  • Living in hostel, bed and breakfast accommodation or a foyer.
  • Low self-esteem or self-confidence.
  • Young carer.

A child who is already being sexually exploited may show the following signs and behaviours: 

  • Missing from home or care.
  • Physical injuries.
  • Drug or alcohol misuse.
  • Involvement in offending.
  • Repeat sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy and terminations.
  • Absent from school.
  • Change in physical appearance.
  • Evidence of sexual bullying (can be through the internet and/or social networking).
  • Estranged from their family.
  • Receiving gifts from unknown sources.
  • Recruiting others into exploitative situations.
  • Poor mental health.
  • Self-harming.
  • Thoughts of or attempts at suicide. 

Some facts about child sexual exploitation:

  • All children from all kinds of families can be sexually exploited.
  • The majority of sexually exploited children and young people will be hidden from view and it is difficult to quantify the number of children and young people who are abused in this way.
  • The average age for exploitation is getting younger from 15 to 13 years of age. Barnardo’s has worked with children as young as 10.
  • A child under the age of 13 is not legally capable of consenting to sexual activity.
  • Sexually exploited children over the age of 16 can consent to sex but they cannot consent to exploitation, all children under 18 should be safeguarded.
  • Child sexual exploitation does not just take place in large towns and cities. It can happen anywhere.
  • Public areas such as parks and leisure centres are often used by perpetrators to targets victims.
  • Children from families where there may be problems can be targeted by perpetrators who identify a child’s vulnerabilities and exploit them.
  • The majority of victims are not ‘looked after’ children. It is estimated that only 20-25% of victims are ‘looked after’.
  • Because of the grooming methods used by their abusers, it is very common for children and young people who are sexually exploited not to recognise that they are being abused.
  • The age profiles for child sexual exploitation offenders are often within the 18-24 age group, although they are sometimes within the victim’s age group.
  • Girls and women can be both the groomers and the offenders.
  • Offenders come from all racial groups.
  • Individuals offend as well as groups.
  • Boys are often victims of sexual exploitation but they may find it harder to disclose that they are being abused by other men because of issues about sexual identity.
  • Boys and young men who are sexually exploited are more than twice as likely to have a recorded disability such as a learning disability, behaviourally based disability or an autism spectrum disorder than girls.
  • Children and young people can be trafficked from one street to another and within regions.
  • Child sexual exploitation has a devastating long term impact for the victim and on the whole family.