Sexual exploitation involves both girls and boys under the age of 18. The children involved must be regarded as potential victims of abuse. Increasingly, victims are children under 16 years of age, from all communities and cultures and include a significant proportion of looked after children. Vulnerability and low self-esteem are the most common factors amongst children who are at risk of being sexually exploited. Strong links have been identified between sexual exploitation, running away from home, human trafficking and substance misuse.  

Children may be drawn into sexual exploitation by a young person of a similar age. Girls, in particular, are often coerced into sexual exploitation by an older man who targets an individual. They may see him as their boyfriend, and become physically and emotionally dependent upon him. This may be reinforced by the use of alcohol and drugs. Over time, access to friends and family becomes restricted and the child becomes alienated from agencies which may be able to identify and interrupt the abuse. This is often referred to as the grooming process. 

Sexual exploitation adversely affects the lives of children and impacts on their health, education, self-esteem and causes them to be socially excluded. This group may include children who have been victims of human trafficking. 

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. 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.