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Exploring the Scale and Nature of Child Sexual Exploitation in Scotland



1.1 This report examines the findings from a study of the scale and nature of child sexual exploitation in Scotland. The research was initiated in January 2012 as part of the Scottish Government's commitment to commissioning research on child sexual exploitation, and also in response to growing interest in and concern about the issue within the professional community (Barnardo's, 2011; 2012) and in policy throughout the UK (Department for Education, 2011; Office for the Children's Commissioner, 2012; Department for Education, 2012).

1.2 The research has taken place over a six-month period. UK government policy on child sexual exploitation has highlighted the importance of research in providing knowledge through which to understand this complex issue (Department for Education, 2011; Department for Education, 2012). This study is built on a series of studies undertaken by the International Centre for the Study of Trafficked and Sexually Exploited Young People at the University of Bedfordshire. It was commissioned in recognition of the value of more and better comparative information regarding the experience of vulnerable children and young people.


1.3 The research had three aims:

  • To review existing research, policy and practice literature from the UK regarding the scale and nature of child sexual exploitation, and trafficking for sexual exploitation, with a particular focus on the Scottish context.
  • To review relevant Scottish statistical information regarding the scale and nature of child sexual exploitation in Scotland.
  • To gather preliminary and exploratory information from key professionals regarding their perceptions of the scale and nature of child sexual exploitation in Scotland.

1.4 The study has employed three methods: a desktop review of the UK literature regarding child sexual exploitation; a review of Scottish statistical information; and an invited seminar, held in June 2012, for 'expert' professionals working in the area of child protection including child sexual exploitation.


1.5 For the purposes of this report, a child or young person is defined as anyone under the age of 18.

1.6 The definitions and language relating to child sexual exploitation are contested, both in academic debate (Phoenix, 2010; Melrose, 2011) and amongst practitioners (see, for example, Brodie, 2011; see also Estes, 2001, cited in Chase and Statham, 2005).

1.7 The issues of child sexual exploitation and trafficking for child sexual exploitation are frequently juxtaposed. While policy around these issues is distinctive, the relationship between the two should be recognised in the development of local policy and practice (Scottish Government, 2010).

1.8 In Scotland the current definition of child sexual exploitation is as follows:

"Any involvement of a child or young person below 18 in sexual activity for which remuneration of cash or in kind is given to the young person or a third person or persons. The perpetrator will have power over the child by virtue of one or more of the following - age, emotional maturity, gender, physical strength, intellect and economic and other resources e.g. access to drugs." (Scottish Executive, 2003)

1.9 This definition has been a useful starting point for the study, while recognising that this guidance has been superseded by more recent guidance on child protection in Scotland (Scottish Government, 2010). Account has also been taken of the definition contained in the UK Government's 2009 guidance and also adopted in the Welsh Assembly Government's guidance:

"Sexual exploitation of children and young people under 18 involves exploitative situations, contexts and relationships where young people (or a third person or persons) receive 'something' (e.g. food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, affection, gifts, money) as a result of performing and/or others performing on them, sexual activities."
(Welsh Assembly Government, 2010)

1.10 Child sexual exploitation can occur even if there is no immediate payment or gain, for example, when a child is persuaded to post sexual images on the internet/mobile phones. In all cases those exploiting the child/young person have power over them by virtue of their age, gender, intellect, physical strength and/or economic or other resources (DCSF, 2009). This 'exchange' may also be intangible, in the sense that the young person involved will typically believe that the relationship in which they are involved is a consensual one, and that the abuser(s) are their 'boyfriends'. Consequently, the violence and abuse to which the young person is subjected will be perceived as normal and acceptable. This presents major challenges for those seeking to intervene to end the abuse, in that the young person will be reluctant to accept help and/or to end the relationship (Pearce, 2006; Pearce, 2009). There are also social and cultural tensions in terms of what is understood to represent a 'consensual' relationship amongst teenagers, and the agency accorded to young people in developing their independence, including their sexual relationships.

1.11 There is a recognition in the guidance on child sexual exploitation, and in other guidance relating to vulnerable children and young people, that child sexual exploitation may take place in many different ways, and that there are many routes to becoming involved. It may involve grooming by individuals or groups of adults, or through groups of peers, including gang association or involvement. Social networking sites and mobile phone technology are increasingly recognised as important, as is partying with other young people. There is often a significant level of organisation amongst abusers - whether through the sharing of a flat or room where abuse takes place, or the involvement of local businesses such as takeaways and taxi firms where the young people may first encounter their abusers. The variety of routes through which sexual exploitation can take place contributes to the difficulties associated with defining this as a distinct issue. The perception, on the part of young people, that a 'genuine' relationship is involved, is a significant feature.

1.12 Both the Scottish guidance and more recent English and Welsh guidance emphasises that sexual exploitation is child abuse and that children and young people are not able to consent to this. Children and young people from all family, socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds may experience sexual exploitation, though some groups are especially vulnerable.

1.13 Although sexual exploitation tends to be associated with young women, young men are also affected, though much less is known about their experience (Creegan, Scott and Smith, 2005; Beckett, 2011).

1.14 Adolescents aged 12-15 are considered to be at most risk of sexual exploitation, but much younger children have also been identified (Barnardo's, 2011) and young people aged 16-18 are also known to be at risk, though this is not always recognised by services (Scottish Executive, 2009).

1.15 Sexual exploitation carries with it risk of serious harm, including physical violence, exposure to harmful drug and alcohol misuse, self-harm, and sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancy (Beckett, 2011; Barnardo's, 2011).

Structure of the report

1.16 The report begins with a description of the methods used in this study (Chapter 2). It then goes on to examine: the development of policy, practice and research (Chapter 3); evidence regarding the scale and nature of child sexual exploitation in Scotland (Chapter 4); and the features of effective practice in preventing sexual exploitation taking place (Chapter 5). Finally, the report describes the views of practitioners attending the expert seminar (Chapter 6) and a set of Conclusions at the end.

Key messages from this chapter

  • The study aims to review existing research and statistical knowledge regarding child sexual exploitation in Scotland, and to undertake exploratory research regarding the views of professionals.
  • Methods for the study included: a desktop review of the UK literature regarding child sexual exploitation; a review of Scottish statistical information; and a seminar, held in June 2012, for expert professionals working in the area of child protection, including child sexual exploitation.
  • The study adopts the definition of child sexual exploitation contained in the guidance issued by the Scottish Executive in 2003, while taking account of later definitions introduced in English and Welsh guidance.
  • There is agreement throughout the UK that child sexual exploitation is child abuse, and that any child or young person may experience this kind of exploitation.