Child Sexual Exploitation: Sketching the Parameters of a Complex Phenomenon – by Suzanne Ost and Jamie-Lee Mooney

This blog was written by Suzanne Ost (Centre for Child and Family Justice) and Jamie-lee Mooney (School of Law, University of Liverpool).

In this blog, we explore the breadth and complexities of child sexual exploitation (CSE). Despite a proliferation of government and charity led campaigns and academic research designed to develop our existing knowledge and increase public awareness, attempting to understand the spectrum of sexually harmful behaviour that constitutes CSE is challenging because it is a phenomenon which continues to evolve. And the complexity of CSE is increased by the fact that the various aspects of CSE cover a range of behaviours that can merge together.

What is child sexual exploitation?

According to this definition of CSE provided by the NHS, which we have slightly modified: ‘[c]hild sexual exploitation is when people use the power they have over [children and] young people to sexually [exploit and/or] abuse them. This power may result from a difference in age, gender, intellect, strength, money or other resources.’

CSE is an overarching term that encompasses a wide range of harmful behaviours which involve a child being taken advantage of sexually, including: sexual grooming, sexual abuse, involving a child in abusive images and involving children in prostitution and trafficking. We are not aiming to be definitive in our consideration of behaviour that falls under the umbrella of CSE in this blog, but merely to illustrate the broadness of the phenomenon.



Looking first to grooming, whilst grooming is part of the process of CSE that facilitates abuse, it has been described as a ‘distinct behavioural type’ that can involve a multitude of varying techniques. Providing a singular definition of grooming has proven problematic, as behaviours used to groom children can be seemingly innocent in nature (such as the giving of affection and gifts). However, grooming has recently been defined by McAlinden as: ‘(1) The use of a variety of manipulative and controlling techniques (2) with a vulnerable subject (3) in a range of interpersonal and social settings (4) in order to establish trust or normalize sexually harmful behaviour (5) with the overall aim of facilitating exploitation and/or prohibiting disclosure’.

Although grooming is not a new phenomenon, the development of online technologies gave rise to concerns at the turn of the Millennium about the expanding ways in which children could be targeted; it was no longer necessary for a physical meeting to take place in order for grooming to occur. Such concerns led to the offence which criminalises meeting or arranging to meet a child following a course of grooming under section 15 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and to subsequent amendments to increase the ambit of this offence (with the most recent of these occurring in 2015). Notwithstanding the legislative attention paid to grooming that takes place via modern technologies, research continues to confirm that a child is more likely to be groomed in an offline setting by someone with whom they are in a relationship of trust, which means that it is often more difficult to detect. And whilst grooming was considered to involve one perpetrator grooming a victim or victims, more recent cases have also demonstrated that besides the ‘lone’ groomer, grooming can also occur in a localised, organised context in which perpetrators operate as part of a group (group localised grooming (GLG)).


Child sexual abuse and abusive images

Child sexual abuse can involve the perpetrator forcing or enticing a child to take part in sexual activities including physical contact between the perpetrator and child, or the child and another child, and both penetrative acts (for instance rape or oral sex) and non-penetrative acts (criminal offences under the Sexual Offences Act 2003). Child sexual abuse may also include non-contact behaviours, as reflected by the NSPCC’s definition of child sexual abuse: ‘A child is sexually abused when they are forced or persuaded to take part in sexual activities. This doesn’t have to be physical contact, and it can happen online.’ So, for example, a perpetrator could encourage the child to perform sexual acts upon herself and to record herself doing this on her smartphone so that he can watch.


Sexual abuse might also be accompanied by the child’s involvement in abusive images. The child’s sexual abuse can be recorded in images or video footage for the perpetrator’s own sexual gratification and uploaded onto the internet for others to view and download (criminalised behaviour under section 1 of the Protection of Children Act 1978 and section 160 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988).


Prostitution and child trafficking

Finally, turning to the prostitution and trafficking of children (criminalised under sections 48 and 58 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003), much behaviour related to prostitution involves contact abuse, although it can also involve online sexual activity. ECPAT has defined ‘Child Prostitution’ as occurring ‘when someone benefits from a commercial transaction in which a child is made available for sexual purposes. Children are also involved in prostitution when they engage in sex in return for basic needs such as food, shelter or safety, or pocket money to purchase consumer goods.’ Importantly, research has drawn attention to the fact that children involved in prostitution will often not perceive themselves to be prostituted, but rather that they are making a voluntary choice to engage in sexual activity in order to obtain something (be that money, gifts or their ‘boyfriend’s’ continued affection).

Trafficking is not infrequently connected to prostitution, as in the high profile Rochdale GLG example where victims were exploited for financial gain by prostitution and trafficking beyond the GLG group. ECPAT’s definition of the ‘trafficking of children for sexual purposes’ is ‘the cross-border or internal, recruitment, transportation, harbouring, transfer or receipt of children for the purpose of sexual exploitation.’ Whilst attention has been paid to trafficking as an international phenomenon, it is important to note that ECPAT’s definition also recognises that trafficking can occur within countries and, indeed, it can occur on a small scale in localised settings. There are examples of GLG involving the ‘internal trafficking’ of the victim, a process by which victims are moved for relatively short periods of time within selected areas for abuse and exploitation.


Merging behaviours

CSE thus covers a range of behaviours, methods and techniques. But the matter becomes more complex because these behaviours can merge together. Consider, for example, the creation of abusive images. In one instance of such behaviour, a child may be directly involved through his sexual abuse being recorded by the perpetrator. Alternatively, a child’s involvement could be indirect when an offender creates a pseudo-photograph by merging an ‘innocent’ photograph of the child with a photograph of others engaging in a sexual act. In the latter situation, no act of sexual abuse against the child occurs, yet the child is still sexually exploited. Further, ‘sexting’ provides an example of the way in which what might start out as consensual adolescent behaviour can morph into CSE once images are released via social media.

Offending patterns are also becoming more complex and may involve more than one perpetrator using various techniques and sexually harmful behaviours, sometimes with more than one victim. For instance, a recent case involved a group of perpetrators who secured the trust of relatives of children, including pregnant women with a view to gaining access to their babies for future sexual abuse. They drugged their child victims when carrying out sexual abuse upon them and utilised Skype and the so called ‘darknet’ in order to watch each other abusing victims and to incite others to do the same.

Whilst we have explained the various forms of CSE as being distinct (albeit sometimes connected) aspects of the phenomenon above, the boundaries between different forms of behaviour(s) and/or techniques employed in order to facilitate sexual exploitation are becoming less distinct and, thus, more complex. Groomers can utilise abusive images as part of their grooming process, to reassure the child that what they are asking them to do is ‘normal’ and to blackmail the child (e.g., ‘if you don’t do what I’m asking I’ll show this photograph to your friends’) to ensure compliance. Abusive images can also form a part of sexual abuse where, for instance, a perpetrator forces a child to look at abusive images for his own sexual gratification.


Child sexual exploitation or child sexual abuse?

Although we have presented CSE as the umbrella term for the behaviours discussed, conversely, it is child sexual abuse that is utilised by some as the overarching term, of which CSE is a type. But this fails to account for the possibility that CSE can occur without abuse, such as in one of the examples of making abusive images we gave above involving the creation of a pseudo-photograph of the child. And whilst a successful course of grooming may lead to sexual abuse, this is not always the case. For this reason, we contend that sexual exploitation is a more apt term than abuse, conveying the taking advantage of someone else solely for one’s own ends which may or may not involve abuse. Whichever of the CSE behaviours that the perpetrator engages in, he exacts power to use the child’s vulnerability. That said, this difference in understanding the very essence of the phenomenon – abuse or exploitation – increases its complexities. 

It should thus be apparent that CSE involves an intricate web of varying behaviours that can be distinct but can also merge with each other. Whilst behaviour can be categorised into distinct parts of the phenomenon (such as sexual grooming and abuse), the same process is not embarked upon by all perpetrators, thereby leading to a variety of CSE processes. Furthermore, categories can sometimes overlap (for example, grooming behaviour itself can be abusive), meaning that there are not necessarily any ‘neat’ categories of CSE.

All of this means that whilst protecting children from CSE is a social imperative, tackling this shifting, dynamic phenomenon is especially challenging. We suggest that there is a need for research exploring how we can improve the way in which we, as a society, understand CSE, in order to strive to achieve a proactive as opposed to reactive response.


Suzanne Ost (@SuzanneOst3737) is Professor of Law in the Law School at Lancaster. She researches in the areas of child sexual exploitation and medical law and ethics. She is the author of Child Pornography and Sexual Grooming: Legal and Societal Responses and her most recent journal article is the forthcoming ‘A New Paradigm of Reparation for Victims of Child Pornography’. Jamie-Lee Mooney (@JamieLeeMooney) is a lecturer in Law in the Law School at the University of Liverpool. She researches in the areas of child sexual grooming, children’s rights and child protection.

Suzanne and Jamie-lee are the co-authors of the journal article Group localised grooming: what is it and what challenges does it pose for society and law?.