Posted: 31 July 2013

Exploiting vulnerability: The links between running away and sexual exploitation

'Running from what you hate to what you think is love' is a piece of research recently published by Paradigm Research and Barnardo’s that explores the relationship between child sexual exploitation and running away.

I was fortunate enough to be part of the group responsible for sharing the report’s findings and in this blog I’ll explore some of the issues outlined in the research.

The report was based on interviews with professionals and more than 40 runaways who have been victims of sexual exploitation before the age of 16. Some of these young people and practitioners were from our services for young runaways

There are many links between child sexual exploitation and running away

There is a complex relationship between running away and child sexual exploitation (CSE) but key research findings include: 

  • young people who run away can be at great risk of CSE
  • young people sometimes run away because they are being sexually exploited by people who seek to harm them

We need to understand this relationship better if professionals and policy makers are to effectively tackle these issues and support these vulnerable young people.

Exploitation of vulnerability

The young people’s experiences that came out in the research starkly demonstrate the variety of reasons why children choose to run away and how easily they can find themselves at risk and in danger of being sexually exploited. 

A practitioner who took part in the research said:

‘I always explain the link as a chicken and egg which begs the question: which comes first? Some young people have issues that cause them to run away which, in turn, makes them vulnerable to exploitation. Others are vulnerable to exploitation due to low self-esteem, often caused by issues at home, which led to running away.’

However, the research found that at the heart of why young people run away and become involved in CSE is an exploitation of their vulnerability and power. This is summed up in the report’s title, ‘Running from what you hate to what you think is love’,  which are the words of a young person.

As Fay, a young person who took part in the research, said: ‘I now know I was stupid to go to his house but, at the time, he seemed really nice and like he understood how I was feeling.’

The internet and Facebook can facilitate this exploitation, as these are often used by young people (particularly young men) as a way of alleviating their loneliness, which makes them vulnerable to being groomed by adults and encouraged to run away. 

CSE as a survival strategy 

Running away and living on the streets can also lead to young people becoming sexually exploited or CSE can happen as part of a survival strategy.

A young person said:

‘If you’re on the streets … you’re trying to hustle up a bit of money to eat… men will say “do you want to come into this toilet with me? … I’ll give you twenty quid”. And twenty quid’s very tempting when it took you all day to make a couple of quid.’

Seeking help, finding disbelief 

Young people who have already been sexually exploited are often encouraged to run away by predatory individuals – sometimes posing as older boyfriends or girlfriends – as part of the grooming process. 

Sadly, some young people who have been sexually exploited run away as a response to how professionals and parents react when they disclose that they have been abused.

Lucy, a young person who took part in the research, said: ‘The police woman acted like she had already made her judgement before she had already met me so I stood up and said “I’ve had enough of this” and that was the first time I ran away.’ 

The report found that key to tackling and protecting these vulnerable children is addressing the problematic perception amongst professionals that running away and CSE is a lifestyle choice. 

But a child can never consent to their own exploitation and such assumptions and attitudes need to be challenged through awareness-raising training such as those delivered by our services.

How the research will be used

Reports like this help to illuminate the complexity and diversity of issues that cause young people to run away and the risks they face when they do.

Through our services and our lobbying work, we will be working with Barnardo’s and Paradigm Research to ensure the findings of this important research can help both practitioners and policy makers to better understand these issues. This will help us and others to take action to protect children who run away and are at risk of sexual exploitation.


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By Natalie Williams - Policy team

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