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Is it consensual, is it abuse? – making a judgement.

In your professional judgement, and after listening carefully to the young person’s views, does the relationship constitute sexual exploitation / coercion / control or abuse?

Definitely not
Yes/Probably

Is it consensual? Is it abuse?

While recognising that sexual activity is unlawful where either participant is under the age of 16, it is not the role of professionals covered by this protocol to ensure that the law is used to prosecute mutually-agreed sexual activity involving teenagers unless it involves abuse or exploitation.

There are some circumstances which are clearly abusive. They include:

  • Rape
  • Forced participation in other sexual acts
  • Overt Aggression
  • Any sexual contact where:
    • the partner is a close relative or is in a position of trust in relation to the young person
    • the young person is being exploited, coerced or controlled (whether sex is exchanged for cash, drugs, alcohol, accommodation or other goods or services). It may appear that they are being used as if they were a prostitute. (<--link)
    • the young person is learning disabled to the extent that (s)he is incapable of consenting to sex
    • The young person is under the age of 13

There may be variety of “softer” signs that all is not well. None of these “prove” sexual abuse, but they may give you cause for concern, and reason to probe further. You may not need to consider all of the following issues every time. Much will depend on the young person sitting in front of you and on the individual circumstances that have brought them to you.

Lack of understanding/consent: if the young person didn’t really understand the sexual behaviour they were involved in and hadn’t agreed to it at the time this is likely to point strongly to an abusive situation

Age or power imbalance - age gap is often perceived as an issue for concern, but there can be circumstances where a small age gap can be as problematic as a wider age gap. Remember: age is not the only form of power imbalance. Abuse of power can also involve differences in size, material wealth and/or psychological, social and physical development. Gender, race and levels of sexual knowledge can all be used malevolently to exert power. It’s really a question of degree. You need to listen carefully to the young person’s story and use your professional judgement to determine whether the age gap/power imbalance is sinister in this particular case.

Young person denies, minimises concerns – older young people may not see why you would be worried. However, people at the lower end of the age group should at least understand why you might be concerned. You need to make a professional judgement as to whether, if the young person dismisses your concerns, this is valid, is an attempt to conceal sexual abuse, or indicates they’re being abused but aren’t themselves conscious of it. They may be under coercive control. <- link

Child on Child Protection Register or sexual partner known to Agencies – if you are directly involved with the young person you are likely to know if they’re on the Register. If you think it might be an issue, ask the young person. If you still have concerns, your organisation's Designated Person for Child Protection will be able to get this information for you. If other aspects of the relationship give you grounds for concern, this may clarify matters.

Misuse of substances – Young people do experiment with drink and sometimes drugs and they may have sex after drinking or taking drugs. This may be incidental or could be part of a pattern of abuse, particularly where the sexual partner has provided substances with a view to overcoming resistance to sex or where the sexual partner has taken advantage of a young person under the influence of substances.

Coercion/bribery/grooming – This might include bribery, threats, aggression and/or coercion, for example isolating the young person from his or her peer group. Grooming could include attempts to gain the trust and friendship of the young person by indulging or coercing him or her with gifts, treats or money, by befriending his or her family, or by developing a relationship with him or her via the internet. However, many of these can also be part of normal romantic relationships. You need to listen to the young person and use your professional judgement to determine whether the situation they are describing departs from the normal spectrum of behaviour within relationships.

Particular vulnerabilities: a young person may be at higher risk of coercion/bribery/grooming and sexual exploitation if (s)he is at disadvantage within society. Young people who have disabilities, young women, young gay men and women, those affected by poverty, those experiencing homelessness, looked-after children and young people, those living away from home and survivors of sexual abuse can all be particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse or exploitation.

However, the fact that a young person falls into one or more of these categories does not necessarily mean they are being exploited. Paradoxically, taking an automatic view that young people within any of these categories are more likely to have been coerced may have the effect of making it more difficult for these young people to access appropriate services, thus disadvantaging them further.

If a young person in one of these categories is involved in underage sex, you should seriously consider the possibility they might be victims of sexual exploitation as, indeed, you should in relation to all young people. You must also be clear in your discussions and practice that vulnerable young people will not face additional barriers in accessing the services they need to keep them safe.


Attempted secrecy – young people may, in any case, want the details of their relationship to be kept confidential. But secrecy is often demanded by an abuser. Professional judgement and good working with the young person is needed to determine which is which.

Regularly visits risky places: Young people often congregate in social groups in town centres and other spaces where they may or may not arrange sexual encounters with each other. This is quite normal. However, you should be concerned if a young person, male or female, is regularly visiting places that are used for public sex or anonymous sex and where the young person may be at additional risk such as risk of physical assault.