Blog: A call to action – what you need to know about child sexual exploitation

Content warning:

Sometimes words or images can cause sadness or distress, or trigger traumatic memories for people, particularly survivors of past abuse, violence or trauma. This blog may contain material that is confronting or disturbing.

For some people, these responses can be overwhelming. If you need to talk to someone, support is available.

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This is a special guest blog from Project Paradigm

The sexual exploitation of children and young people is a growing problem across Australia. The complex nature of this form of abuse means that a whole of community response is required if we are to effectively prevent it. The most successful strategies involve young people themselves, with support to build resilience.

A key factor is the ability for protective adults in the community to identify the signs of exploitation and communicate in ways that reduce the chance of victim blaming. Shared language and clearly defined terminology support appropriate responses, which both protect young people and disrupt perpetrators at the same time. But what do we mean when we say “child sexual exploitation” or CSE?

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) occurs when an individual or group coerces, manipulates or deceives a person under the age of 18 into sexual activity in exchange for something the child or young person wants or needs, or for the financial advantage or increased status of the exploiter. The child or young person is often tricked (groomed) into believing they are in a loving and consensual relationship. Any sexual activity with a child is exploitative and abusive, even if it appears consensual – children cannot consent to sexual activity

CSE does not always involve physical contact – it often occurs through the use of technology, such as social media and gaming apps. It’s important for adults to recognise that CSE is sexual abuse and must be seen and understood as such. It is also crucial to note that a child or young person cannot consent to being abused or exploited. Exploitation isn’t always obvious; it can be subtle, easily overlooked and remain hidden, especially when the characteristics or indicators occur in parallel with typical teenage behaviours, such as mood changes, desire for more independence, social anxiety, and so on.

CSE can impact any child, of any age and socioeconomic status. As a community, we need to recognise that boys can also be victims, but are generally less likely than girls to disclose abuse, due to problematic cultural and social messages about gender roles, stigma and shame. Yet, they are just as deserving of our support and help.

How to communicate about CSE

Problematic language, attitudes and stereotypical ideas of what CSE looks like, including where it may occur, can sometimes be very harmful to victims, and hamper efforts to disrupt CSE. We have consulted on many cases where young people impacted by CSE are stigmatised and seen as the cause of the problem. Use of victim blaming language, such as calling the young person “promiscuous”, or language that implies they are in a consensual relationship, such as “they have an older boyfriend/girlfriend”:, minimise the risks and legitimise exploitative relationships. Conversely, using accurate and trauma informed language – such as “abuse” – can inspire and evoke hope in young people impacted by CSE.

Spotting the indicators of CSE

It’s important for the community to spot the signs of child abuse and exploitation and importantly, know what to do about it – everyone has a role to play in recognising and reporting child sexual exploitation. Key indicators include:

  • going missing overnight
  • disclosures of sexual assault
  • expressions of despair – self-harm, suicide ideation, eating disorders, etc
  • relationship with an older ‘boyfriend’, ‘girlfriend’ or other controlling adult, as well as any indicators of abuse within this relationship
  • sexual health issues – sexually transmitted infections, termination of unwanted pregnancy, etc
  • entering or leaving vehicles driven by unknown adults
  • returning home with unexplained items – money, clothing, mobile phone, etc.

This is not an exhaustive list of the signs of abuse and exploitation. The indicators can vary depending on the vulnerabilities present in a young person’s circumstances. In addition, not every affected child will display signs of CSE – we need to acknowledge this and have a deeper sensitivity regarding the needs of children and young people and provide safe opportunities for the voice of the child to be heard.

What can workers do if they are concerned:

  • Report concerns:
  • Always prioritise the child’s safety
  • Ask questions – be curious
  • Be strengths based and solution focused
  • Create safe spaces for children and young people
  • Validate the child’s experience and respect their voice/expertise
  • Approach parents and carers as partners, where possible
  • Connect with supportive agencies and create partnerships to support children and young people
  • Share information as soon as possible with relevant stakeholders
  • Recognise and challenge inequalities, exclusion and discrimination.

24 hour support is also available for children and young people at Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800 or at www.kidshelpline.com.au.

QCOSS thanks the Project Paradigm team for this special guest blog. Project Paradigm provides specialised training and support to professionals to help them spot and respond to CSE. For more information on identifying the signs of CSE, visit www.projectparadigm.com.au.