All children and young people are at risk of being sexually exploited, regardless of age, gender or where they live

a girl looking worried

Our work with sexually exploited children was identified as an issue through our young runaways practice. In 1995, we publicly campaigned on the issue for the first time, through encouraging the police to treat children as victims of abuse rather than as criminals. We also began developing our child sexual exploitation policy work in order to influence change for all children at risk.

Throughout the late 1990s we campaigned for the issue to be recognised as sexual exploitation rather than 'children involved in prostitution'. This resulted in the publication of government guidance for police in responding to children, and later the statutory guidance for all professionals in 2000 and 2009. Read more about our history fighting child sexual exploitation.

All children and young people are at risk of being sexually abused and exploited, regardless of age, gender or where they live. Our services provide confidential and independent support and advice for all young people at risk or have been sexually exploited, some of whom have gone missing from home or care.

Older teenagers at risk

Older teenagers who have experienced sexual exploitation face huge obstacles in getting the protection and help they need. Despite their being more vulnerable than other age groups, there is often less protection and support available as they are seen as being 'old enough to know better' because they have reached the age of consent.

Our recent Old Enough to Know Better? report highlighted how older teenagers are being targeted for sexual abuse but are not offered enough protection in the law. Analysis in the report of the Crime Survey for England and Wales found that around 50,000 girls aged 16 and 17 say they have experienced a sexual offence in the last 12 months. The same analysis also shows that this group are at the highest risk of being a victim of sexual crime.

We have been calling on the Government to strengthen the law so that 16 and 17 year olds don’t fall through the cracks in protection and support.

Join our Seriously Awkward campaign  and help us raise awareness of the need to keep children safe from sexual exploitation. 

The links between child sexual exploitation and running away

Running away or going missing is a key early indicator of child sexual exploitation.

Recent research has found that many as 70% of children who are sexually exploited go missing. Some young people go missing as a consequence of sexual exploitation. Others are at risk of being targeted by perpetrators who groom them for sexual exploitation.

Our Make Runaways Safe campaign worked to ensure that the police, local and national government and schools treat running away as a cry for help including sexual exploitation.

Children in care

There is a strong link between children in care who go missing and those being groomed or sexually abused and exploited.

The APPG inquiry we supported into children who go missing from care found that children running away from care are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Many have had difficult starts to their lives and experienced neglect, abuse or trauma. The report found that perpetrators target children’s homes because of the high vulnerability of the children placed there and how easily they can make contact with the children.

Negative attitudes from professionals – social workers, care home staff and the police – who view children involved in sexual exploitation and children who run away as ‘troublemakers’ were also found to hamper support for these vulnerable children.

Parliamentary work on child sexual exploitation

Read our parliamentary briefings on child sexual exploitation – these focus on looked after children, the links between sexual exploitation and running away, grooming and sexting.