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Study reveals scale of the sexual exploitation of boys

The sexual exploitation of boys and young men is a much bigger problem than previously thought, according to a study funded by the Nuffield Foundation, supported by Barnardo’s and carried out by NatCen and UCL (University College London).

The study underlines the dangers of underestimating the impact of child sexual exploitation on boys and young men. UCL’s analysis of records from 9,042 children and young people affected by child sexual exploitation supported by Barnardo’s since 2008 reveals that 1 in 3 (2,986) was male. This is a much higher figure than previous national studies have found.

Professionals interviewed by NatCen reported that those dealing with children can be less protective of boys than girls, meaning opportunities to protect boys, or recognise when they are being exploited, are missed.

Barnardo’s is calling for a radical shift in professional attitudes and practice. The charity wants agencies to challenge stereotypical views like these among front-line workers.

In order to better protect children, Barnardo’s believe that all schools should provide high quality, age-appropriate sex and relationship education. This should reflect that boys can be vulnerable to becoming victims, as well as girls.

Case study: Greg’s story

At the age of 12 Greg entered into a relationship with a 26-year-old male, who initially told him he was 18. He first developed this relationship online and met in person after two weeks.

The man made him feel like he was in an intimate relationship and he listened to him and agreed with him when he told him how unfair his life was.

Greg started being introduced to other adults by the man. He felt like these men were the only people he had. He felt that they liked him for being himself.

But then he was told to go to places and have sex with men, and train tickets and cabs were paid for him to get to the locations. The abuse he experienced became more severe and sadistic and he was put into very risky situations.

Eventually Greg was referred to Barnardo’s, who worked with him to help him to understand the reality of his abuse and how he had been groomed and taken advantage of.

Barnardo’s Chief Executuve Javed Khan said:

“We need to be brutally honest with ourselves. At the moment society is miserably and unacceptably failing sexually exploited boys and young men. The tell-tale signs are being missed because of a lack of awareness and stereotypes about the nature of this form of abuse.

“We shouldn’t underestimate the scale of this issue. Around a third of the young people supported by our specialist services over the last six years have been boys. We need to spread the message that it is not just girls who fall victim to this horrendous crime.

“However, we know this is only the tip of the iceberg. All children must have the knowledge to protect themselves. Urgent action is needed – we cannot in good conscience leave any boy or girl waiting in need of support to recover from sexual exploitation.”

Dr Carol McNaughton Nicholls, study lead from NatCen Social Research said:

“Gender discrimination is at the heart of what makes women and girls more likely to be victims of sexual abuse – including sexual exploitation.

“But from talking to professionals we know that it affects male victims, too; not only are they at risk of sexual exploitation, but they are also at risk of being overlooked as victims.

“We need to ensure we understand and address these risks, and protect young people from harm, regardless of gender.”

Dr Ella Cockbain, UCL Security and Crime Science, and principal investigator on the studies led by UCL, said:

“Male victims have largely been overlooked amid growing interest in child sexual exploitation (CSE) in recent years. This research marks a much needed step away from female-centric policy and practice – although it raises many questions that remain to be answered.

“For us, the inclusion of statistical analysis is particularly exciting as it moves beyond a discussion of individual cases only to the identification of overarching similarities and differences between boys and girls affected by CSE. Key examples include the higher rate of reported disabilities among boys than girls and their different pathways into services.

“Crucially, the finding that one in three service users was male highlights the danger in thinking CSE only really affects girls. We hope our study encourages policy-makers, practitioners and the general public to do their utmost to protect vulnerable boys and young men from sexual exploitation.”


1) This media release is relevant to the UK. Statistical analysis included England, Scotland and Northern Ireland combined which could mask national variations.

2) Three strands of research were conducted, with a report produced for each.

a) Rapid evidence assessment – what information is already out there? A systematic assessment of relevant prior research on the sexual abuse of boys and young men (led by UCL)

b) Interviews with professionals working with males and females affected by CSE (led by NatCen)

c) Analysis of Barnardo’s database of 9,042 CSE service users (led by UCL with support from Barnardo’s

3) The boys whose case files were analysed as part of the research were aged from 8 to 17 years inclusive.

4) Child sexual exploitation is used to cover a broad spectrum of activity from seemingly ‘consensual’ relationships or informal exchanges of sex for attention, accommodation, gifts or cigarettes through to serious, organised crime.

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