In February, the Department for Education released an updated definition of child sexual exploitation (CSE) with guidance for professionals. The University of Bedfordshire was commissioned to write the guidance that accompanies the statutory definition, and you can read it here.
The new definition is as follows:
Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator.3 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.
The guidance covers
- Different features and forms of CSE
- The nature and impact of this abuse
- Some of the key complexities (e.g. ‘constrained choice’ and low levels of professional identification of the abuse and children talking about what is happening)
- Prevention, protection and prosecution
Here is an excerpt from page 17 that helps us make sense of the idea that a child may be ‘choosing’ to engage in sexual activity, which is one of the biggest reasons adults don’t intervene to try to stop the abuse.
“Whilst some young people may ‘choose’ to exchange sex to meet their needs, it is critical to recognise that they are doing so within the context of limited alternative options. Such ‘choices’ are better understood as ‘constrained choices’ or ‘survival strategies’ (a way of meeting needs when other means are not available) and do not make the nature of the act any less abusive. The fact that all such scenarios are characterised by a power imbalance in favour of those perpetrating the abuse and/or some form of vulnerability or limited choice on the part of the victim clearly distinguishes the experiences as abusive.
For example, a homeless 17 year old may ‘choose’ to exchange sex for a place to stay, rather than sleep on the streets. A 14 year old may ‘choose’ to exchange sex for drugs because using drugs is the only way they can cope with the memories of previous abuse. A 16 year old may ‘choose’ to leave a placement (where they are physically safe) and get in a car with several men who they suspect are going to rape them, as they have been told if they don’t, their younger sibling will be raped. All can be argued to be ‘making choices’, but all are doing so from a position of vulnerability, fear or need. None is making an ‘active lifestyle choice’ or is any less a victim because of that ‘choice’.”