Child sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of power to manipulate or deceive a child under the age of 18 into sexual activity in exchange for something the victim needs, and / or for the financial advantage or increased status of the facilitator.

The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual.

Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact, it can also occur through the use of technology. There are a range of signs outlined under “Common characteristics of child exploitation” to consider whether a child is being sexually exploited.

Child criminal exploitation

Child criminal exploitation is not defined in law, though the government’s Serious Violence Strategy defines it as occurring where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into any criminal activity:

  • In exchange for something the victim needs or wants
  • For the financial or other advantage of the perpetrator or facilitator
  • Through violence or the threat of violence. 

The most common form of child criminal exploitation is ‘county lines’. This refers to criminal gangs involved in exporting illegal drugs around the UK using dedicated mobile phone lines or other forms of a ‘deal line’. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store drugs and money, and they will often use intimidation, violence, sexual violence and weapons. Children can be criminally exploited in other ways, such as theft, acquisitive crime, knife crimes and other forms of exploitation.

The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child criminal exploitation does not always involve physical contact, it can also occur using technology like social media.

Another form of child exploitation is the recruitment of children to move the proceeds of crime (as cash or through banking transactions or purchases) on behalf of organised crime groups and fraudsters. These victims are sometimes referred to as ‘money mules’, or ‘financially exploited children’.

Common characteristics of child exploitation

The most common characteristics of child exploitation are:

  • Control, coercion, intimidation, threats of violence, and violence
  • Associating with other children involved in exploitation
  • Suffering from changes in emotional well-being and/or behaviour
  • Misuse of drugs and alcohol
  • Appearing with unexplained gifts, money or new possessions
  • Going missing for periods of time or regularly coming home late
  • Regularly missing school or education, or not taking part in education

Some additional signs that may be present if a child is a victim of sexual exploitation:

  • Coercion, manipulation or deception into sexual activity
  • Having older romantic partners
  • Suffering from sexually transmitted infections, displaying sexual behaviours beyond their expected sexual development, or becoming pregnant

Useful links:

Child exploitation disruption toolkit (

Help with drug misuse

Information and advice from Leicestershire Police

County Lines guidance for professionals and frontline workers 

Child sexual abuse and exploitation - National Crime Agency

Child criminal exploitation advice for parents | LiveSafe

Last updated: Fri 22 March, 2024 @ 16:21