New report on sexually exploited girls

Press release

10 July 2012

New report finds sexually exploited girls commit crime as cry for help

A new report Out of place: The policing and criminalisation of sexually exploited girls and young women released today by the Howard League for Penal Reform reveals that many sexually exploited girls commit crime to try and escape the men who exploit them or as a cry for help, and the charity is calling for local agencies to link together and develop new strategies to protect them.

Recent media coverage into cases such as the conviction of nine men in Rochdale of sexual exploitation and the ongoing inquiry into child sexual exploitation by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, which published early findings last week, focus on the sexual exploitation of children by gangs and in groups. While this is an important aspect of the problem, the research published today explores the extent to which economic necessity drives girls into commercial and other forms of sexual exploitation.

Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook, said: “While recent discussions of sexual exploitation understandably focus on the perpetrators, there is an urgent need to recognise the role that poverty itself has to play in how young women become victimised.

“Sexually exploited girls will usually be economically and socially marginalised, often not in school, training or employment and sometimes in the care system. They will spend a lot of time hanging out in parks, outside fast food restaurants and wandering the streets. They enter into sexual relationships with men in order to obtain money, cigarettes and phone credit and can find themselves out of their depth in exploitative and abusive relationships.

“Given the public spaces these young girls ‘hang out’ in, before long they are noticed by the police who want to move them on. The research also finds that many girls who are victims of commercial and other forms of sexual exploitation will be criminalised for petty offences that result as a consequence of their experiences, rather than for offences directly related to prostitution such as soliciting or loitering.

“In other words, these girls can commit crime as a cry for help. They will, for example, shoplift in front of security guards in order to be arrested and removed from their abuser.  Other offences are also warning signals for sexual exploitation, for example when girls are shoplifting alcohol or taking drugs as part of a coping strategy, or where the property of an exploiter is subjected to criminal damage in effort to obtain what they see as a form of justice.

“We should remember that these girls are children who are victims and not criminals. When they come to the attention of criminal justice agencies it is vital that their sexual exploitation is recognised and properly responded to.”

The research was carried out by Professor Jo Phoenix of the University of Durham, who said: “Sexual exploitation has recently received a lot of public attention but its exact nature is poorly understood. For example, there is a complete absence of the recognition in policy, law and practice of the economic drivers and the way that exploitation and prostitution are linked.

“Some of these girls will have extensive contact with the police and youth justice agencies, with the fact that they are victims of commercial sexual exploitation often remaining unknown to the professionals. 

“Other girls may receive support as a result of police contact from sexual exploitation services. But the support is not targeted with economic drivers to prostitution in mind. As it stands, there are also very few links between sexual exploitation services and youth justice agencies such as the youth offending teams. This is likely to get worse as local cuts are affecting what provision of specialist services there is.”

To combat these concerns, the report recommends:

  • Gender specific specialist services should be developed to provide appropriate support, addressing commercial sexual exploitation and other forms of sexual exploitation as well as the girls’ economic and housing needs.
  • Links between sexual exploitation agencies and youth justice need to be improved. Too often the youth justice system fails to recognise girls and young women as victims of sexual exploitation because existing legislation allows them to be punished for crimes committed as a result of their victimisation.
  • Criminal justice agencies should be more sophisticated and child-centred in their approach to girls who come to their attention and should introduce more training to enable girls to be referred to more appropriate services.
  • Criminal law is rarely an effective or appropriate response to children and young people under the age of 18 found loitering or soliciting for the purposes of prostitution and the responsibility for the sexual exploitation of children or young people lies with the abuser: either the person who pays for sex, in some way, or the person who grooms the child and/or organises the exploitation. The persistent returners’ clause that currently allows children to be prosecuted for prostitution-related crime should be abolished.

CASE STUDY: Kim’s story

Kim, who is now 18 years old, is one of the youngest of seven children and still lives in her family home. When Kim was 14 years old, her father and oldest brother were in prison. Kim’s mother and older siblings were rarely at home. Kim started ‘partying’ with older boys and men, often staying out very late and seldom going to school. No one reported her missing from home despite the fact that she would often be gone until the very small hours of the morning. The school referred Kim to a specialist sexual exploitation service who started working with her on ‘staying safe’ and ‘appropriate sexual relationships’. Her sexual exploitation case worker described her as “very difficult to engage” because at that time, she did not think there was anything wrong with what she was doing.

Her boyfriend would buy her alcohol, take her shopping and tell her he loved her. For Kim, this was the first time anyone paid attention to her. Kim’s ‘boyfriend’ was 35 years old. The first time she got into trouble for breaking the law, Kim was 15 years old. Her neighbour accused her, on a popular social networking site, of being a ‘slag’ and Kim went to her house and got into a fight.

About a year later, when Kim was nearly 16 years old, she told the case worker that some time ago her boyfriend took her to a house in a neighbouring city to meet another man. That man took her shopping and wanted to have sex with her. Kim refused and she was raped. Although she told no one about the rape, Kim decided to stop seeing her boyfriend. She went back to partying, which meant hanging out with older boys, drinking, having a good time and exchanging sex for MDMA, MCAT, cannabis, or £5. She didn’t think there was anything wrong with this.

By the time she was 18 years old, Kim was regularly exchanging sex for money, drugs and alcohol, had been raped several times by some of the older boys she partied with and by the ‘friends’ of her older boyfriends. She also had several prosecutions for being drunk and disorderly, for criminal damage (against the car of one of the men who raped her), was regularly fighting with other girls and continuously breached her youth justice orders. All of this was indirectly related to Kim’s sexual exploitation. Throughout Kim’s passage through youth justice, no one knew about her sexual exploitation.

Notes to editors

020 7249 7373

ISDN line number 020 7923 4196

Various spokespeople available for interview.

Professor Jo Phoenix is Chair in Criminology, School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University. She has been researching prostitution, sexual exploitation and youth justice for over a decade.

Professor Jo Phoenix will speak at the Howard League conference on policing and children in Birmingham on 6 December 2012.