The exploited

Jenny Pearce describes a major research project into the
experiences of young women who are being sexually exploited.

Many young people at risk of sexual exploitation by adults
remain isolated from support. This is despite the existence of
innovative projects aimed at protecting children from being
encouraged into prostitution.

Findings from a two-year action research project highlight the
many needs of young people at risk of, or experiencing, sexual
exploitation (see below).

There has been increasing awareness of the issues facing young
people being groomed for prostitution. Although the majority of
children known to be at risk are female, young men are also
affected. The national guidelines for safeguarding children
involved in prostitution have provided the framework for social
work, education, police, Connexions workers and voluntary
organisations to work together to meet the needs of these
marginalised and socially excluded young people.1,2

This work firmly places the young people concerned as victims of
abuse, rather than as perpetrators of offences related to
prostitution. However, some of the most alienated and excluded
young people can still remain hidden from helpful or informed
contact with suitably trained and informed service providers.

The research aimed to contact some of these young women and
record their accounts of issues involved. Conflicts within
families, in residential care, running away, temporary
homelessness, abduction and rape, previous and current experiences
of violence and abuse, truancy, school exclusion, problems with the
use of alcohol and drugs and with sexual health were some of the
major issues raised by the young women’s stories. The
research suggests different categories of risk, ranging from young
women who are at risk of sexual exploitation, to those who talk of
“swapping sex” for accommodation, money, drugs or other favours in
kind, through to those who call themselves prostitutes. The young
women’s language often obscures the implicit nature of abuse
taking place in their lives. For example, many refer to older men
who are grooming them for sexual exploitation as their “boyfriends”
with whom they are in love. This hides the fact that the young
women are often manipulated through the pretence of love and
through violence and fear. Workers face the task of viewing the
women as adolescents developing towards adulthood, while also
responding to them as children in need of protection.

The early warning signs shown by young women vulnerable to this
abuse are difficult for many service providers to recognise or
respond to. For example, young women who speak of running and
“disappearing” from home or care, of developing sexual
relationships with older men, or getting into unknown men’s
cars at random, are often alienated from, or in conflict with,
adults who can provide care and support. Once the young women lose
productive contact with their school or carers, their vulnerability
to sexual exploitation is compounded. In these cases, a “boyfriend”
finds it easy to encourage a dependence upon him. In the research
this was invariably coupled with young women’s increasing
dependency on alcohol and drugs. The government’s updated
strategy on providing drug prevention and treatment services
includes a welcome focus on the needs of young people.3
However, many local services have historically focused their work
towards adults and may need additional support and training to
develop child-centered outreach services that can engage with the
young people for whom drug use is an integral part of the sexual
exploitation perpetrated by abusive adults.

The stories of young women who spoke of selling sex on the
street showed that they experienced increasing alienation from
mainstream services. The young women in these situations are
dealing with a full range of problems, including being in trouble
with the police, cocaine and heroin dependency, regular sexual
health problems and homelessness. Often because of the level of
need, the young women’s chaotic lifestyles mean that they
often find it difficult, if not impossible, to keep appointments at
set times with services that may be able to help them. Struggling
with the reality of a history of abusive relationships with adults,
they also find it difficult to trust professionals who are trying
to engage them. For these reasons, they find street-based outreach
services to be the most useful. These services provide temporary
respite, often with a free condom service, coffee and chat with
outreach workers trained to offer advice on harm minimisation,
legal rights and sexual health. The outreach services are best when
supported by project-based drop-in facilities. When young women
know that there are one or two days per week when a project worker
is on-site for them to provide advice and support, as well as for
practical resources such as washing and cooking facilities, they
call by on an increasingly regular basis.

There is a need for enhanced training in awareness of the early
warning signs of sexual exploitation. Inter-agency work between key
professionals, including youth and Connexions workers, is important
to ensure that co-ordinated and consistent efforts are sustained to
meet the needs of the young people concerned. Finally, for those
selling sex, dedicated outreach services supported by a drop-in
facility that offers practical resources such as washing and food,
as well as personal support, sexual health and legal advice are
needed. While maintaining a focus on protecting young people,
workers should also be supported in efforts to gather evidence
against abusers. Effective interagency work between police and
voluntary and statutory agencies has resulted in cases being
brought against abusers.4

This research is part of a larger picture of increasing
awareness across the UK of the issues involved, examples of good
practice and effective work being evident in a number of
localities. It is important that this work continues to be shared
and discussed by all those dealing with socially excluded and
marginalised young people.

– For further details of the research findings, to be
launched in May 2003, and of information on a national working
group on young people involved in sexual exploitation and
prostitution contact Jenny Pearce at

1 Department of Health,
Safeguarding Children Involved in Prostitution: Supplementary
Guidance to Working Together to Safeguard Children
. Department
of Health, Home Office, Department for Education and Employment,
National Assembly for Wales, 2000

2 For a comprehensive review
of the guidelines see S Swann, V Balding, Safeguarding Children
Involved in Prostitution: Guidance Review
, 2002

3 Updated Drugs strategy,
Tackling Drugs Together to build a better Britain 1998,
updated 2002 See

4 T Brain, T Duffin T, S
Anderson and P Parchment, Child Prostitution: a Report on the
ACPO Guidelines and Pilot Studies in Wolverhampton and
Nottinghamshire Gloucestershire Constabulary
, Police Research
Series, Home Office, 1998

Jenny Pearce is principal lecturer at the School of
Health and Social Sciences, Middlesex University.

Report recommendations

  • More training is needed for front-line staff in spotting the
    early signs of girls at risk of abuse through prostitution. Signs
    include disappearing from home or care, developing sexual
    relationships with older men, and getting into unknown men’s
  • Young women’s dependency on older “boyfriends” grooming
    them for prostitution is often compounded by drugs or alcohol
    dependency so more drug and alcohol services need to be targeted at
  • Street-based outreach services backed by drop-in facilities
    offering practical support such as washing and cooking as well as
    personal support, health and legal advice were the most

About the research project

The project was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and
Middlesex University, and developed in partnership with the NSPCC.
A total of 55 young women aged 18 years and under from a northern
city and a London borough described what had happened to them and
why, as well as identifying services they wanted to support

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