West Berkshire Council

Sexual Exploitation and 'Grooming': Recognising the Signs

Help and advice about recognising the signs of sexual exploitation


Sexual exploitation is a form of abuse that involves children and young people under 18 being forced or manipulated into sexual activity in exchange for money, gifts, accommodation, affection or status. The abuser 'grooms' the victim by pretending to be a friend and winning the child's trust. Sometimes drugs or alcohol are involved. The grooming process may continue over a long period before the abuse starts and is based on an imbalance of power between victim and perpetrator which limits the victim's choices. This form of sexual exploitation is often misunderstood and viewed as consensual. Yet no child under 18 can consent to their own abuse. (Barnardos 2012).

Sexual exploitation may start through online befriending as well as through face to face meetings.

What are the signs of sexual exploitation?

Recognising sexual exploitation can be difficult as some of the warning signs can be mistaken for 'normal' teenage behaviour. Based on recent research, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) advises parents, teachers, carers and others involved in the care of young people to be alert to the following signs and symptoms:

  • inappropriate sexual or sexualised behaviour
  • repeat sexually transmitted infections; in girls repeat pregnancy, abortions, miscarriage
  • having unaffordable new things (clothes, mobile) or expensive habits (alcohol, drugs)
  • going to hotels or other unusual locations to meet friends
  • getting in/out of different cars driven by unknown adults
  • going missing from home or care
  • having older boyfriends or girlfriends
  • associating with other young people involved in sexual exploitation
  • truancy, exclusion, disengagement with school, opting out of education altogether
  • unexplained changes in behaviour or personality (chaotic, aggressive, sexual)
  • drug or alcohol misuse
  • getting involved in crime
  • injuries from physical assault, physical restraint, sexual assault
    (Barnardo's, 2011; CEOP, 2011; Berelowitz et al, 2012).

This is not an exhaustive list, and you can read more in the NSPCC factsheet Identifying children and young people sexually exploited through street grooming.

What if I am worried about a child or young person?

If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the Police and/or West Berkshire Children's Services.
Even if you are unsure about your suspicions, please do contact us.

We will take your concerns seriously and help you decide on the best action. If we think the child is at risk, we will take action to ensure the safety of the child or young person.