Concern is growing over the way older men prey on young people.
Angie Heal looks at research into how
drugs are used to groom young women for sexual exploitation and
This article details the links between sexual exploitation, drug
use and drug dealing. Based on research carried out in South
Yorkshire, it examines the use of drugs in the sexual exploitation
of young people, sometimes for the purposes of prostitution, and
the role of some drug dealers. It details the grooming process, a
profile of such perpetrators and highlights some of the issues for
agencies supporting young people.
The issue of older men having sex with younger girls has been
highlighted by the revelations of Ian Huntley’s predilection
for under-age schoolgirls before his conviction for the murders of
Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. There have also been other recent
high-profile cases of older men being charged with child abduction
following their disappearances with girls under 16.
However, despite the public nature of these incidents, there are
numerous cases of older men being sexually involved with under-age
young people. Most cases do not come into the public arena, and
rightly so. But the scale of the problem and the damage done to
young people exploited by older men need to be highlighted, as do
the links with drug use and drug dealing.
There are several national approaches to combating sexual
exploitation of young people, including action plans, legislation
and inquiries (see panel, page 34). In South Yorkshire, research
has been carried out into the links between sexual exploitation,
drug use and drug dealing. The problems highlighted have been well
documented in other areas and are not particular to South
Yorkshire. Although established red light areas exist in two areas
of South Yorkshire, it is relatively rare for girls under 16 to be
found working on the streets.
However, in two areas, one of which does not have a street sex work
scene, there are significant concerns about some men sexually
exploiting young women, some for the purposes of prostitution.
Specialist agencies have gathered only anecdotal and sketchy
reports about the exploitation of boys and young men. Further
research needs to be done regarding boys and young men who are at
risk or who are being exploited.
Grooming for abuse
Drugs play a significant role in sexual exploitation. Class B drugs
and alcohol are often used as part of the “grooming
process”. Older men who have “befriended” young
women often give them amphetamine, ecstasy, cannabis or alcohol.
The effects of these substances on teenagers with little or no
tolerance renders them vulnerable to sexual abuse.
The young women may be flattered by the attention of older men and,
although they may be frightened by what is happening, they hide
their fear in an effort to appear more grown-up and attractive to
the man. The man makes them believe he is their boyfriend and that
he loves them, and may give them presents such as clothes and
particularly mobile phones so that he can contact them
The grooming continues in this way for a while, until the girl is
quite besotted by the man and is easily manipulated. Once he has
established a sexual relationship with her, he may then introduce
her to his friends and tell her she has to sleep with them and that
she would do it if she loved him. Another ploy may be that he owes
money, and that he knows someone who would pay to have sex with
her… that she would do it if she loved him. The abuse begins
once the “courtship” phase of the grooming is over.
Some young women have reported significant levels of harm being
inflicted on them, including rape, physical assaults and emotional
abuse. Once they have started having sex or have been taking drugs,
they are vulnerable to the man blackmailing them by threatening to
tell their parents or carers.
The perpetrators are often criminals involved in several types of
offending. Although the numbers within South Yorkshire are
relatively few, the damage they can inflict is enormous. The
research highlighted that nine of the main perpetrators in the
county are believed to have been involved in property and car
crime, gun crime, violence, witness intimidation and some
immigration offences as well as sexual and violent offences against
young women. All were reported to be heavily involved in dealing
Class A drugs, although they did not all have convictions.
These men are the new breed of pimps and dealers.1 Those who
operate in red light districts inflict significant trauma on women
who are involved in prostitution. Ten young women, referred to a
specialist agency in one area of the county, reported a number of
different offences including being kidnapped, driven around to have
sex with different men, being raped, gang raped, and being in
situations that involved Class A drugs, money and firearms. Some
were also used to carry Class A drugs.
Support for young people
There are several problems associated with supporting young people
who are being sexually exploited and achieving successful
prosecutions against the men involved. The women are often seen as
willing victims who go back to abusive situations however many
times they are taken home. They are also often unwilling to make
statements against the perpetrators. Sometimes this is because they
do not want to inform on the man they believe is their boyfriend.
But it is often because of threats, intimidation and violence
against them, their family or friends.
Parents often feel helpless in such situations, and may not feel
that they receive enough help from statutory services.2 Successful
prosecutions for many types of sexual offences are notoriously
difficult, especially if the young person does not wish to make a
This may change under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, with the
introduction of hearsay evidence. Targeting offenders for other
offences they are involved in, such as supplying drugs, is an
option. If they are convicted and receive a substantial custodial
sentence, young people may feel safer in giving evidence against
them for sexual offences.
Young people need substantial support to limit the damage that
trauma can have on their lives. Specialist agencies that work with
them to offer social services and child protection support,
individual counselling, drug treatment interventions, and
diversionary and educational support should be available. Many, but
not all, of the young people already have complex needs and have
experienced considerable difficulties in their young lives which in
turn makes them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Improved information sharing between agencies, recognising the
vulnerability of young people who are repeatedly missing from home,
improved targeting of suspects and adequate long-term funding of
services are some of the recommendations from the research
conducted in South Yorkshire. Education and awareness training for
those working with young people is equally essential in order to
prevent or make early interventions for those who are at risk of
becoming victims of sexual abuse or perpetrators.
The issue of sexual exploitation and drugs is an area fraught with
difficulties, but improved multi-agency working as well as an
increasing public awareness of the issues for young people must be
the way forward. CC
Angie Heal (RGN, RMN, BA (Hons), MA) is a strategic drugs
analyst. Having worked with drug users for a number of years, Angie
Heal became a consultant and researcher in crime and drugs after
gaining her masters degree in research methods. Although currently
employed by South Yorkshire Police, she is funded by South
Yorkshire partnerships to collate and disseminate information
regarding drugs issues.
1 T May, A Harocops, M Hough, For Love or Money: Pimps and the
Management of Sex Work,
Police Research Series 134, 2000
2 Iveson I, Fiona’s Story, Virago Press, 1997
T May, A Harocops, M Hough, Street Business: The Links Between
Sex and Drug Markets, Police Research Series Paper 118,