Even something that appears innocuous could be a sign that a child is being sexually exploited.

Do you recognise any of these warning signs in young people you work with? Just one sign could indicate a child who is at risk and needs professional help. Check out the interactive graphic below for more information.

This graphic displays best in an up-to-date browser, such as Chrome, Microsoft Edge or Firefox. Please note, in older browsers the interactive wheel will be replaced by a selection of clickable boxes.


This can take various forms but can be described as a grooming process by an older male or female, the age gap can vary widely.

In some cases new victims are identified and brought into the group by other victims sometimes referred to as victim facilitators.

Generally the victim (boy and girl), is identified due to a vulnerability. Again, this is not definitive and the vulnerability need not be physical, behavioural or familial - it could be the location that the child is visiting or the peer group that he/she is part of. Establishments can add to the vulnerability; care homes, schools, under 18 events and amusement arcades are examples.

During this process, the victim may be given gifts but not always. Mobile phones play an important part of this phase of the process as they help to maintain contact, and enable control of the victim as well as being a value/ fashion item. Affection and the promise of love is used during this phase.

The victim may believe they are entering into a ‘romantic’ relationship which becomes a physical/sexual relationship or enters into a sexual relationship which the victim believes they control. An example of this could be the demand for cash or other items in return for sexual activity. Either way, sexual activity with the older male or female becomes the norm for the young person.

In some cases there is no grooming phase, with the victim being moved straight to the exploitation phase due to the location or situation that the young person finds themselves in.

This is an essential element in the process as it establishes the dominance of the perpetrator over the victim.

The victim is encouraged by the perpetrator to break away from some or all support groups including peers, family, and/or school. Missing from home/care and truancy from school are major indicators. This process enables the perpetrator to take total control of the victim by replacing the support structures with him/herself.

In some cases a dependency is created through alcohol, drugs and tobacco, but does not have to be material - it could be emotional or status, and can include threats and violence against the family and young person, blackmail and exposure to the authorities. This can rise as the abuse increases. Restriction of any of these dependencies can be used to control the victim. These controls are applied insidiously with the victim in some cases believing that they are in a loving relationship, with the perpetrator or perpetrators, or in control of the relationship themselves.

In this phase the victim is made available to other person(s) for sexual exploitation. At this point the controls are exerted with extreme pressure to ensure compliance, e.g. violence/threats/bribery.

Further controls can be introduced, gang rape with other victims being forced to watch, filming of the victim performing sex acts accompanied by the threat of posting on the internet or contact with parents or friends and threats against parents and siblings.

As the abuse increases, the physical and emotional condition of the victim will deteriorate due to the chaotic and dangerous nature of their lifestyle.

LGBTQ, BME, and those with disability are not inherently at greater risk of exploitation than others but there are significant areas of risk that need to be considered.

If there is a non-acceptance of non-heterosexual relationships or personal choice in relationships within the family and the community, it may increase the risk that the young person will explore their sexuality in secret or away from their community, both online and in the physical world. In addition they may be less able to disclose worries about relationships they are unhappy with. Young people with disabilities may have greater dependency on adults and have less cognitive or language skills to express or identify inappropriate relationships.


Click an abuse model and then a theme from the interactive wheel (on mobile devices the wheel is replaced by a series of clickable boxes) below to reveal the visible signs of sexual exploitation.

Abuse models

Teacher/group leader/religious leader/physical strength/position of trust and/or authority
Young person believes that they are in a physical and/or emotional relationship
Recruited, groomed and/or exploited by young people. May be mistaken for exploration - "exploration without consent is exploitation"
Groomed online by the use of social media, chat rooms or online gaming. Exploitation takes place online without physical contact
Groomed online with the aim of physically meeting a young person offline for sexual exploitation
Young people are trafficked within the UK by criminal networks and commercially sexually exploited
Young people recruited into postcode-type gangs coerced into criminal activity and sexual exploitation


young person

Child at risk

Graphic by Sim Brody
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