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Intro to CSE


Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is an increasingly high profile issue that affects children and young people of all backgrounds and from all communities, right across the UK. Barnardo’s is working to tackle the problem and support those who are affected.

Children are most vulnerable to sexual exploitation between the ages of 13 and 15, but younger victims are being targeted all the time. In one month alone, Barnardo’s services worked with 126 children aged 10–13 who had been affected.

What is child sexual exploitation?

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a type of child abuse. It happens when a young person is encouraged, or forced, to take part in sexual activity in exchange for something.

  • The reward might be presents, money, alcohol, or simply emotional attention.
  • It can happen to any child or young person.
  • It might seem like a normal friendship or relationship to begin with.
  • It can happen online or offline, and without the young person being aware of it.

If you’re wondering about child sexual exploitation – whether you’re a parent, young person, teacher or other professional – have a look at our answers to some of the most common questions about it.

Who does it happen to?

  • Any young person can be a victim of child sexual exploitation.
  • It can happen to boys as well as girls.
  • It can happen to young people of all races and backgrounds.
  • Young people experiencing problems at home who go missing or are in care can be vulnerable and particularly at risk, but child sexual exploitation can also happen to those from a loving, supportive home.
  • No matter who is affected by child sexual exploitation, it is never, ever their fault – even if they agreed to the sexual activity because they felt they ‘should’. A child may agree to sexual activity because they felt they had no other choice and or do not fully understand consent.

Who does it?

People who commit this crime can be male or female and they normally have an ‘edge’ over the young people they target. They might be older, wealthier, or physically stronger than them. They may have status that makes them seem ‘cool’ to others, and might give support and attention that no one else provides. They might listen, offer advice, or give compliments.

They are also becoming increasingly sophisticated, using the internet to protect their identity, and trafficking children around the country to avoid detection.

But there’s no standard profile of an exploiter, and child sexual exploitation can also happen between young people – peer to peer and especially within gangs or social groups.

Because there’s no standard profile of an offender, child sexual exploitation is hard to spot  – even for the young person affected. They may be groomed over time and so not be aware that they are a victim, and even if they are, they may think that it’s their fault.

How does it happen?

At first, a young person may like, respect, or even think they are falling in love with the person exploiting them. This is because they are ‘groomed’ over time. This process involves making them feel ‘special’, so they become attached. But later, the behaviour of the abuser starts to change, often slowly. By this point, the young person is likely to feel trapped, isolated and scared, and they may find it difficult to acknowledge that they are no longer comfortable in the relationship.

Boy looking down

People who commit child sexual exploitation can be very manipulative. They might buy presents or give emotional attention that makes a young person feel on top of the world, or as if they are falling in love. They may single out their victims and target them face-to-face, or approach them online.

Sometimes the abuser will strengthen their control over the young person by driving them away from those who would usually look after them, whether that’s family, friends or carers.

Find out how to spot the signs of child sexual exploitation.

Child sexual exploitation can quite literally happen to any young person. You have to really know what the signs are, and be able to look out for them.
Barnardo’s CSE project worker