Sexual exploitation is child abuse. Children and young people cannot consent to being sexually exploited.
What is child sexual exploitation?
Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a form of sexual abuse that involves the manipulation and/or coercion of young people under the age of 18 into sexual activity in exchange for things such as money, gifts, accommodation, affection or status. The manipulation or ‘grooming’ process involves befriending children and gaining their trust. Often by feeding them drugs and alcohol. Sometimes over a long period of time before the abuse begins. The abusive relationship between victim and perpetrator involves an imbalance of power which limits the victim’s options. It is a form of abuse which is often misunderstood by victims and outsiders as consensual. Although it is true that the victim can be tricked into believing they are in a loving relationship, no child under the age of 18 can ever consent to being abused or exploited. (Barnardos 2012)
Myths about child sexual exploitation
There are a number of common myths about child sexual exploitation that need to be dispelled:
1. Child sexual exploitation is something that is done to girls and young women - FALSE - There are male victims too. Research suggests that they are fewer in number but the numbers may be under reported.
2. Child sexual exploitation only happens to children who are in care, who come from a ‘bad’ family or are of a particular race or religion - FALSE - Any child, from anywhere can potentially be a victim. It is true that young people are more vulnerable to becoming sexually exploited as a result of social exclusion, poverty and deprivation.
3. Child sexual exploitation is rare and only happens in a few places - FALSE - It is much more prevalent than most people imagine. But it may often be hidden and can only be uncovered by people being vigilant and reporting their concerns.
4. A lot of these children are over 16 years and have consented to sex - FALSE - A young person cannot consent to an abusive situation.
We need to support children and young people to know what healthy relationships are. We need to help them understand consent and what is a healthy or unhealthy relationship. We need to encourage children and young people to talk to a trusted adult if they are worried about a situation.
Recent research by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner identified that young people did not understand consent to sexual activity:
A child under 13 is not legally capable of consenting to sexual activity. Any offence under the sexual offences act 2003 involving a child aged under 13 years is very serious. It should be taken to indicate that the child is suffering, or likely to suffer significant harm. It should be reported to the police immediately.
Sexual activity with a child aged under 16 is also an offence.
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 states that consent in relation to sexual activity is:
'A person consents if he or she agrees by choice to the sexual activity and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice'
Consent involves three elements:
1. CHOICE - The test for choice is whether the child or young person felt able to say ‘No’
2. FREEDOM - Was the child or young person physically free to get away from the situation or were they being held against their will?
3. CAPACITY - Did the child or young person have the maturity to make the right decision? Do they understand the possible consequences of complying? Were they intoxicated at the time so did not have the capacity to choose? The law not only sets down 16 as the age of consent, it also applies to whether a person has given their consent to sexual activity, or was able to give their consent, or whether sexual violence and rape in particular took place. In the context of child sexual exploitation, the term ‘consent’ refers to whether or not a child understands how one gives consent, withdraws consent and what situations (such as intoxication, duress, violence) can compromise the child or young person’s ability to consent freely to sexual activity.
It is important that young people understand consent so that they recognise when abuse may have occurred and get help.
It is not easy to tell someone about something which is upsetting, worrying, frightening or where there may be feelings of shame and guilt. However there are people who will listen and help and not judge.
If you are worried about a situation that you or a friend are in, then please talk to an adult you can trust as soon as you can. This can be a teacher, a support worker, a youth worker or a street sport worker. You can also talk to a social worker who will be able to help you on 01724 296500.
Follow this link for advice about where to get help.