Exploitation happens when someone uses their power to take advantage of another persons vulnerability to make money, improve their status or gain control.
Usually the perpetrator will befriend the victim; they might buy them gifts, give them money, alcohol or drugs, they might make them feel special and give them a group to belong to – this is called grooming. Perpetrators will target a person's vulnerability, whether they are children or adults, and will try to isolate the victim to make them depend on the perpetrator.
There are several things that make a person vulnerable, including: learning disability, knowledge of something that that the victim wants to keep secret, drug or alcohol addiction, mental illness, a history of adverse childhood experiences, bereavement, a need for belonging.
Sexual exploitation is a type of sexual abuse. The definition from the Department for Education talks about children but can also be applied to adults:
“Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator. The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual. Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology." (DfE, Feb2017)
Adults can and have been victims of sexual exploitation, the effects are devastating and as with children, sometimes the victims do not realise that they are in an abusive situation which makes it difficult to ask for help and accept support.
Children and vulnerable adults who are trafficked, exploited or coerced into committing crimes are criminally exploited. The victims will usually have been targeted due to a vulnerability such as an addiction or learning disability.
Perpetrators of criminal exploitation may also be victims of the same crime. Although perceptions are changing adults can been seen as willing participants and criminalised for having chosen to take part, this perception can make exploitation of adults can be difficult to spot. Adults can be groomed in the same way as children, so it is important to use professional curiosity to test that what you are being told is the whole picture. The victim's consent may be given under coercion or duress, misplaced loyalty to the perpetrator, fear of repercussions, fear of prosecution, or a genuine belief that the situation is not abusive.
In order to break the cycle it is important for practitioners to view the victim as in need of support and not criminalise them or 'choosing' to take part. Practitioners must consider what they can replace the negative relationships and experiences with, as for some victims this will be the key to accepting support.
For information about disrupting perpetrators to protect victims read the NWG Perpetrator Disruption Toolkit
Sexual or criminal exploitation is usually linked to other forms of abuse or crime, this could be:
- Modern Slavery and Trafficking (moving a person from one location to another to exploit them)
- County Lines
- Cuckooing (when your home is taken over by others and usually used for criminal activity such as selling drugs)