Child Sexual Exploitation: Why Theory Matters: Our first ‘virtual’ reading group

Over twenty researchers and practitioners joined the SHaME team for our first online reading group on Monday 18 May 2020. The discussion centred on Jenny Pearce’s recent edited collection Child Sexual Exploitation: Why Theory Matters (Bristol: Policy Press, 2019).

Over twenty researchers and practitioners joined the SHaME team for our first online reading group on Monday 18 May 2020.

The discussion centred on Jenny Pearce’s recent edited collection Child Sexual Exploitation: Why Theory Matters (Bristol: Policy Press, 2019). Its contributors consider how a range of theoretical approaches can help policy makers, those designing services and practitioners to respond more thoughtfully to the sexual exploitation of children and young people. The book tackles a range of conceptual approaches to sexual exploitation including, for example, discourse analysis, intersectionality, feminism, neuroscientific approaches to adolescence, and psychodynamics. Most of its contributors come from social work or sociology disciplinary backgrounds.

We considered what its theoretical analyses have to offer researchers in sexual violence. How useful are these arguments and their applications to scholars working in different disciplines? SHaME researchers started the discussion.

Group of trees. Alternate Title: Baumgruppe. Photo courtesy of LACMA.

Stephanie Wright introduced Jo Phoenix’s ‘Child sexual exploitation, discourse analysis and why we still need to talk about prostitution.’

Phoenix understands discourse analysis in a Foucauldian sense that is, it refers to the relationship between language, knowledge and power. This approach can enable us to better see how social problems such as child sexual exploitation are defined, regulated and governed. How have certain discourses come to set the boundaries of ‘normal’ (and therefore ‘abnormal’) adolescent behaviour, while also bracketing off certain ‘unspeakable’ aspects of adolescent behaviour, namely child prostitution? The benefits of moving away from a discourse of ‘child prostitution’ include avoiding problematic questions of whether informed consent is sought and given. However, it also forecloses debates about how economic necessity and poverty may shape the choices of women and girls, and how prostitution might be the only plausible option for deprived individuals and communities, especially in austerity Britain.

Wright found Phoenix’s conclusions striking, especially when read alongside Alexis Jay’s report on child sexual exploitation in Rotherham.[1] In Jay’s report, the ‘child prostitution’ discourse of the 1990s and early 2000s epitomises victim-blaming tendencies and missed opportunities for the safeguarding of vulnerable children. Jay welcomes the move away from the ‘child prostitution’ discourse, which often serves to disregard vulnerable children on the grounds that they are making a free choice to sell sex and therefore are not in need of protection. Is the child sexual exploitation discourse sufficiently comprehensive to protect vulnerable children who might be dismissed as ‘prostitutes’? Do we need a franker discussion of ‘prostitution’ to enable us to better understand the broader socio-economic circumstances that might lead young people to pursue transactional sex, which then puts them at greater risk of exploitation?

Wright’s own historical research is on sexual violence in Francoist Spain and she considered how discourse analysis could help us understand structures of power in that context. It is clear from Francoist court records that the language of sexual violence is inseparable from the language of honour and ‘virginity-taking’ (dishonour, deflower, dishonestly abuse). Through this attention to language, it is possible to see how sexual violence in the Francoist context is not understood as an assault on the individual, but rather a crime against the honour of the clan and, more specifically, an assault on white, patriarchal authority.

Ruth Beecher considered Carlene Firmin’s ‘Contextual Safeguarding: theorising the contexts of child protection and peer abuse.’

Firmin deploys the constructivist structuralist concepts of Pierre Bourdieu to examine peer abuse and the way in which it exists outside traditional child protection systems. Historically, child protection systems were established to protect children from abuse within their families. Peer-on-peer sexual exploitation happens in other environments, such as in schools, communities and online forums. Firmin applies Bourdieu’s theory of the reflexive relationship between structure and agency to data accumulated through multiple studies of peer exploitation in the UK.

Individual agency is informed by social rules within different environments or social fields (peers, families, communities). Individuals draw on social, cultural, economic and symbolic capital to engage with these social fields. The desire for social status drives their engagement with social rules even if those same rules are harmful to the individual. With the arrival of adolescence comes a desire for autonomy, for new relationships and for time away from parents and elders. Simultaneously, young people are biologically vulnerable as emotional regulation is not yet firmly established. Adolescents often cannot consider to the longer-term consequences of their actions. As well as the family, they move in different social fields where they may be exposed to gangs, violence in intimate relationships, and harm due to drugs, criminal or sexual exploitation. There is a risk of both immediate harm and longer term negative impacts on their self-worth, mental health and life prospects.

Firmin points out that the history and regulation of social work makes the child and the family the target of statutory guidance and legislation. Social workers assess risk and offer support to the child and family. Other agencies are responsible for the social fields in which adolescents spend their time, including community safety, transport, housing and the police. Peer on peer sexual exploitation is a collective endeavour of young men who portray a ‘hyper-masculinity’ and a loyality to group norms. Young women who facilitate abuse align themselves with male peers and by that means hope to avoid victimisation themselves. Firmin notes that the fear of social isolation seems to not only drive exploitative behaviours but also to prevent wider networks from intervening. Peer networks ‘function independently of adult oversight.’  Bourdieu’s framework helps identify a mismatch between safeguarding structures and the needs of young people at risk of sexual exploitation.

Beecher commented that although it may seem obvious that structures have failed young people and that agencies need to adapt to safeguard children outside the home, attitudes and bureaucratic state structures are slow to change or indeed to invest scarce resources in the face of newly recognised risks. ‘Contextual safeguarding’ has been missing not just because we lacked a theory to explain that peer sexual exploitation exists in a different social  field to the family, but is also due to the wider tendency to perceive young people as threatening, to criminalise them and treat them in the context of the juridical rather than as young people whose own welfare is jeopardised.

Anna Weedon read Helen Beckett’s “Moving beyond discourses of agency, gain and blame: reconceptualising young people’s experiences of sexual exploitation.“

Beckett explores the relationship between victimhood and agency, focusing on the ‘unhelpful binary ways in which it has often been conceptualised’ within the discourse on child sexual exploitation. In other words, Beckett observes that when children and young people are perceived as having agency, they are less likely to be seen as harmed. Weedon contends that the structural perspective helps to move away from a preoccupation with the individual (victim) towards a wider consideration of the context in which abuse or sexual violence takes place. It makes us think about what social factors create and perpetuate sexual violence, rather than fixating on individual agency. Reading Beckett’s chapter made Weedon think about sexual violence and agency in the context of Margret Atwood’s Gilead and the way in which structures and agency are negotiated and intersect in constrained or limited abusive contexts by women occupying different roles.[2] For example, in the context of child sexual exploitation, some young people are involved in the recruitment of others for exploitation. They do not fit the ‘innocent child victim’ model – because of their actions, they are considered culpable. Professionals characterise their agency and collusion in ways that ignore the confines within which young people operate and are bound by. It also ignores their developmental stage.

Beckett highlights that, for fifteen years, there have been calls for a more nuanced approach to understanding CSE from theoretical perspectives yet there continues to be a remarkable gap between theory and how policy and practice respond to CSE. As a practitioner, Weedon is very familiar with this chasm between theory and practice and she has frequently heard dichotomies such as ‘innocent vs promiscuous’ and ‘deserving vs undeserving’ children bandied around, including occasions when practitioners have spoken in this way to young people themselves. A shift away from the ‘puppet on a string’ symbol of a young person experiencing CSE would have significant effects in clinical practice. It would highlight the complexity of the situations young people have to navigate and see their actions as steps they take to minimize the harms suffered within abusive contexts. It would call on practitioners to consider the child or young person’s trauma histories and understand their negotiations through that lens. It would also shift the emphasis to the context and the wider constrains within which they act. Practitioners could approach the situation contextually rather than being distracting by the perceived culpability of a young person. Whether a young person has agency does not mean that they do not need support.

Adeline Moussion provided insights on Kristine Hickle’s ‘Understanding trauma and its relevance to child sexual exploitation.’ 

Hickle provides an overview of recent research in relation to child sexual exploitation and complex trauma. She addresses two categories of people: sexually abused children and the professionals who support them. Critics have denounced ‘secondary victimisation’ and ‘re-traumatisation’ through medical, judicial and social work practices. Hickle argues that trauma-informed practices would prevent this as well as increasing professionals’ wellbeing and the argument could also apply to what is sometimes called ‘vicarious trauma.’

Hickle describes a variety of trauma responses and coping strategies, which are sometimes misunderstood by professionals and lead to victim-blaming attitudes. Trauma theory, she claims, offers a paradigm for professionals to better understand their public. She provides a list of ‘good practices’ tied to this paradigm, which could improve ‘safety, trust, choice, collaboration, and empowerment’.

Moussion notes that within Hickle’s chapter, ‘trauma’ holds various meanings which reveal a conflation between individuals and the socio-political context. The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) model enables Hickle to show how the health of children and professionals can be negatively affected during the process of seeking justice. The trauma model, alongside ideas of control, choice, and safety, applies to both service users and professionals at work. Thus, both professionals and traumatised children would be in need of the same trauma-informed practices. What strikes Moussion forcefully is that Hickle equates the effects of professional, state mandated practices with the consequences of sexual abuse. This enables her to critically engage with how the state produces discrimination instead of reparations. However, her definition of trauma conflates harm and broader social dynamics. This appears in the text when she moves from a definition of trauma as PTSD to less clearly defined uses of the term to denote a kind of harm.

Making discrimination visible through trauma is useful in seeking victim-centred reforms. However, Hickle seems to conflate trauma and discrimination. She argues, for instance, that racism can be ‘a form of trauma,’ or can add to existing traumas. Yet, it is not clear that traumatic responses to racism are the only way to denounce racist law enforcement. Especially if, as she acknowledges, individuals react differently to traumatic events.The trauma theory enables Hickle to denounce discriminatory practices, which must be addressed. One issue Moussion sees is that Hickle relies on the same term to define a problem and a solution – trauma – but the term bears various meanings. Moreover, one body of knowledge only, that is, trauma theory, cannot improve systemic issues such as children’s judicial reparation or professionals’ working conditions. Willing and trained professionals can improve the quality of the relationship with children, thier individual experience, but this does not tackle the discriminatory functioning of the justice system. These issues bring political engagement and economic inequalities to the fore.

The problem Moussion sees in this text is not the individual focus, nor the emphasis on suffering qualified as trauma. Suffering or trauma are indeed tools of politicisation. Rather, the problem is that Hickle seems to conflate and replace political issues with individualised criteria of harm. For instance, talking about ‘secondary traumatisation’ insists on the psychological features of harm and overlooks the material conditions affecting professional responses. Psychologically-framed responses to political issues isolate psychological reactions instead of putting them in their economic, social and political context. Individuals’ experiences should rather be addressed as collective, social practices in need of political solutions. Political issues cannot be solved by individualised reactions and medicalised understandings of harm.


Participants in the reading group came from a range of disciplinary backgrounds including history, anthropology, clinical psychology, social work, sociology, philosophy of science, international relations, theology, law and public health. Their research and practice focused on the UK, Europe, the Americas, and South Africa. A wide-ranging discussion ensued which included:

  • a critique of current ‘trauma-informed’ approaches to child sexual exploitation and sexual violence more widely;
  • the tendency to doubt that children and young people or others considered ‘vulnerable’ (e.g. with an intellectual disability) can be ‘reliable narrators of their own lives’ because to ‘professionals’ their behaviour may not ‘make sense.’ With the suggestion that the notion of trauma can help to practitioners to understand the psychological and somatic consequences of trauma and ‘explain’ behaviours;
  • recognition that some assumptions about child sexual exploitation – how it is practised and perceived – do not ‘travel’ to other countries. CSE looks and operates and is responded to differently for example in South Africa due to its very different history and context;
  • the fragmentary responses to sexual exploitation. Children and adults’ presenting needs are viewed in isolation. Agencies respond in line with the primary duty of their respective agencies, creating a split in service provision;
  • the feeling that agencies remain reactive rather than pro-active;
  • practitioners’ attention is often focused on the most visible problems; case history is not adequately explored;
  • fixed thinking can become an issue, whereby an opinion is formed as to how the sexual abuse has occurred and other possibilities are eschewed;
  • the stereotype that sexual abuse is predominantly intrafamilial remains strong;
  • it is difficult to track and protect young people from peer abuse in the wider community;
  • the interface between safeguarding and offending is problematic. Whose responsibility is it to protect these young people? Tensions often manifest between the police and social care.

[1] Alexis Jay, “Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997-2013,” (Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Counci, 2014).

[2] Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (Toronto: MacClelland, 1985).