Defining child sexual exploitation
Child sexual exploitation is a form of sexual abuse where offenders use their power, (physical, financial or emotional) over a child or young person, or a false identity, to sexually or emotionally abuse them.
Sexual exploitation is a real threat for children and young people of all ages and backgrounds.
It often involves situations and relationships where young people receive something (for example: food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, affection, gifts or money) in return for participating in sexual activities. Child sexual exploitation can occur in person or online, and sometimes the child or young person may not even realise they are a victim.
Identifying the signs
Child sexual exploitation can be hard to identify, however there are warning signs.
As professionals who work with children, you are often best placed to identify signs and behaviours that may indicate that a child or young person has been subject to abuse, or that a school community member may be a perpetrator of abuse. It is therefore critical that you are able to recognise the signs of sexual exploitation, as you may be the only adult in a position to identify and respond to suspected abuse.
In many cases the signs that an adult is sexually abusing (or grooming a child with the intent of sexually abusing them) may not be obvious. To find out more about how to spot the signs, refer to Identify child abuse.
How sexual exploitation happens
Child sexual exploitation can take many forms but some of the common situations in which it can occur include:
This usually involves an individual who exercises inappropriate power or control over a young person. There may be a significant age gap. The victim may believe they are in a loving relationship or friendship initially but the relationship then changes and the offender uses their power over the young person to coerce, intimidate and continue the abuse.
Another young person befriends and grooms the victim into a sexual relationship by presenting as an ideal partner. They then force or coerce the victim into having sex with them, friends or associates, for social status, financial or other gain.
Organised exploitation and trafficking
Organised sexual exploitation is the most sophisticated form of sexual exploitation. There are often links between abusers and victims are moved between networks (internal trafficking). Young people (often connected) are passed through networks, possibly over geographical distances, between towns and cities where they may be forced into sexual activity.
Forced marriage, where a child or young person is subject to a marriage without their consent, and which is usually arranged for by their immediate or extended family, is also a form of sexual exploitation and constitutes a criminal offence.
Grooming is when a person engages in predatory conduct to prepare a child or young person for sexual activity at a later time.
Grooming can include communicating or attempting to befriend or establish a relationship or other emotional connection with the child or their parent or carer.
Young people are often 'groomed' before they are sexually abused. At first they may be tricked into thinking they are in a safe and normal relationship so they may not know it’s happening or may feel they have no choice but to be abused.
It may be hard to identify when someone is being groomed until after they have been sexually abused, because grooming behaviour can sometimes look like ‘normal’ caring behaviour, however this is not always the case.
Examples of grooming behaviour may include:
- giving gifts or special attention to a child or young person, or their parent or carer, making the child or young person feel special or indebted to an adult
- making close physical contact sexual, such as inappropriate tickling and wrestling or play fighting
- openly or pretending to accidentally expose the victim to nudity, sexual material and sexual acts (this in itself is classified as child sexual abuse but can also be a precursor to physical sexual assault)
- controlling a child or young person through threats, force or use of authority making the child or young person fearful to report unwanted behaviour.
Groomers may rely on mobile phones, social media and the internet to interact with children in inappropriate ways and will often ask the child to keep their relationship a secret. The grooming process may continue for months before the offender arranges a physical meeting.
How grooming happens
There are many different ways in which grooming can occur and it may even be parents, carers or other adults who supervise young people, who are targeted by this behaviour.
While the below information describes some of the ways in which grooming can happen, grooming will not always look like this. Offenders are deceptive and manipulative in the way they work, so it is important to draw on a range of information, such as the warning signs of sexual exploitation, if you have concerns.
The groomer could be a male or female and may look for a young person or a group of young people in places such as schools, other places young people frequent or by creating false profiles on the internet. They may show an interest in the child and perhaps offer the child or young person something, for example, a cigarette, food and drink or someone to talk to for support.
The groomer may want to keep contact with their target and even isolate them from their supportive networks. They may give them a mobile phone; make them feel special by complimenting them or do favours for them such as giving them lifts and planning fun activities. This may lead to the child spending less time with their friends and family.
Fake loving relationship or friendship
Victims may enter a fake loving relationship or friendship with the groomer. Within the fake friendship, children and young people may be introduced to sex through, for example, porn or watching sexual acts. The victim may think everything is fine and that they are in control but the groomer is slowly gaining more control.
Control and reinforcement
The groomer may attempt to consolidate and entrap the victim by getting them to do things that can be dangerous or against the law like drinking, taking or selling drugs or criminal activity. This may lead to the child or young person being forced to do sexual favours in return for not being hurt or exposed. This may include violence or threats of violence.
The child or young person may be forced into having sex with others for something they need or want, by either force or persuasion. Groomers can persuade their victims to undertake sexual activities like being filmed performing sexual acts, by using emotional blackmail, and by making it sound normal.
Identify the signs
Victims of abuse are unlikely to tell anyone that they are being abused. They may think they are in a loving relationship or friendship, or that they have no choice. That is why it’s vital to be able to spot the signs of child sexual exploitation.
There may be many reasons for changes in the behaviour of a child or young person, but if you notice a combination of worrying signs, it is time to seek help or advice. If a child or young person is a victim of grooming, blackmail or sexual abuse, they may show some or all of the following signs:
- regular absences from school, missing training, work or other activities
- going missing for long periods or appearing at school extremely fatigued
- being dishonest about where they’ve been and whom they’ve been with
- developing an unusually close connection with an older person
- displaying mood changes (hyperactive, secretive, hostile, aggressive, impatient, resentful, anxious, withdrawn, depressed)
- using street or different language or copying the way a new friend may speak
- talking about new friends who don’t belong to their normal social circle
- presenting at school with gifts or money given by new friends
- having large amounts of money, which they cannot account for
- using a new mobile phone (possibly given to them by a new friend), excessively making calls, videos or sending text messages
- being very secretive about their phone, internet and social media use, using drugs (physical evidence includes spoons, aluminium foil, ‘tabs’, ‘rocks’ or pieces of ripped cardboard)
- assuming a new name, being in possession of false identification, a stolen passport or driver’s licence
- being picked up by an older or new friend from school, or down the street
- threats to humiliate or share sexual images of victims if they don't carry out sexual acts.
Grooming is now a criminal offence under the Crimes Act 1958. This offence targets predatory conduct undertaken by an adult to prepare a child, under the age of 16, to engage in a sexual activity at a later time.
Most at risk
Sexual exploitation happens to children of any age, background, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation and vulnerability. Offenders can be from an ethnic background; they can be women, men or other young people.
While any child can be victim to sexual abuse, children who are vulnerable, isolated and/or have a disability are much more likely to be victimised and are a significantly over represented group.
A student may be vulnerable to sexual exploitation if you notice, or they report any of the following in their relationships:
- threats to end their relationship if they don’t have sex
- demands that they have sex with other people
- expectations to provide sex in return for food, a place to stay, or drugs or gifts
- threats to cease the relationship if sexual ‘dares’ are not carried out
- receiving money in return for sexual acts
- requests to provide sexual photos or sharing sexual photos online or via text
- threats to humiliate or share sexual images of victims if they don’t carry out sexual acts.
Identify perpetrators of child sexual exploitation
You can play a critical role in identifying signs that a member of the school community maybe engaging in child sexual exploitation, or grooming a child or young person for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity.
Most critically you must report suspected abuse if you:
- feel uncomfortable about the way an adult interacts with a child or children
- suspect that the adult may be engaging in sexual abuse of a child or children
- suspect that the adult is grooming the child or children for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity
- reasonably believe that the adult is at risk of engaging in sexual behaviour with a child or children.
In many cases the signs that an adult is sexually abusing (or grooming a child with the intent of sexually abusing them) may not be obvious.
Report child sexual exploitation and grooming
If indicators lead you to form a reasonable belief that a child or young person is being sexually exploited, you must follow the Four Critical Actions for schools. For more information, refer to Report child abuse in schools.
If you are concerned about online behaviour involving the sexual exploitation of a child or young person you can report it to the Australian Federal Police.
Talk to children about sexual exploitation
Sexual exploitation can be difficult to speak about with students. They may be very reluctant to share information and disclose details about the abuse. When listening to the child or young person make a disclosure about potential abuse, including sexual exploitation, it is important to avoid asking leading or intrusive questions.
Your role is simply to receive the information in an unbiased way and to reassure the child or young person that they no longer have to deal with the abuse alone. It is the role of Victoria Police and other relevant authorities to investigate the concerns and identify the details of what exactly happened.
For more information on how to handle a disclosure, refer to Report child abuse in schools.
- Bully Stoppers - Online grooming
- Bully Stoppers - Sexting
- Reporting obligations
- Child Protection - information for parents
Fact sheets for school staff including teachers, allied health and other school based staff
- Identifying sexual exploitation (PDF, 300KB)
- Identifying sexual exploitation (DOCX, 90KB)
- Responding to sexual exploitation (PDF, 278KB)
- Responding to sexual exploitation (DOCX, 86KB)
- Child Wise: Speak Up (PDF, 579KB)
- Child development and trauma
- Grooming offence
- Spot the Signs
- Tea and Consent
Keeping children safe from sexual exploitation strategy
The Victorian Government is committed to keeping children and young people safe from sexual exploitation. The whole-of-government Keeping Children Safe from Sexual Exploitation Strategy aims to prevent and protect children from sexual exploitation, and prosecute perpetrators who prey on vulnerable children.
These web pages and supporting fact sheets have been developed as part of that strategy.