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‘It’s not on the radar’ The hidden diversity of children and young people at risk of sexual exploitation in England

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) can affect all children – including those with disabilities – regardless of gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, faith or economic background. Nevertheless, public and professional perception often stereotypes victims of CSE as white girls from disadvantaged backgrounds who are assumed to be heterosexual. While some victims and children at risk do meet this description, assumptions can prevent the identification of other children who do not fit the stereotype.

In 2015, a series of four roundtables was held with experts in the fields of CSE and diversity to discuss how the two areas connect. The roundtables focused on:

  • boys and young men
  • lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and questioning (LGBTQ) young people
  • disability
  • ethnicity and faith.

Bringing together the findings of the roundtable events and additional research, ‘It’s not on the radar’ explores how perceptions of sexual exploitation can affect the identification of and response to CSE.

Understanding CSE and the different methods that perpetrators use to exploit must be considered in parallel with the fact that children are not defined by one aspect of their identity. A victim of sexual exploitation may have multiple identities and, for example, be male, gay, come from a faith group that does not tolerate homosexuality and have a disability. What makes a young person vulnerable to sexual exploitation is very individual, and while an identity alone may not result in vulnerability, all aspects of a child’s identity must be considered when identifying and raising awareness of CSE.

Due to the complex identities of individuals, there are many themes that cut across all four areas.

For example:

  • A young person’s chronological age may be different from their developmental age, or apparently at odds with their experience of relationships, for example if they have a learning disability or come out as LGBT in their late teens or early twenties.
  • Young people and professionals may normalise abuse experienced through CSE, either because of lack of knowledge about CSE or because it is viewed as ‘normal’ for, or by, the network or group the young person has been exploited in.
  • The lack of sex and relationships education affects all young people, regardless of their identity, although some children – such as those with learning disabilities or those who are LGBTQ – are less likely to receive any, or relevant, sex and relationships education.

There are a number of factors that are relevant to particular ‘groups’ of children and young people addressed in this report.