Child sexual exploitation among world’s most lucrative crimes

A world-first study into the key risk factors in child sexual exploitation has found high-risk sexual behaviours and abuse are the most likely indicators of a child’s vulnerability to sexual exploitation.

Researchers from Deakin University’s School of Psychology found early exposure to risky sexual behaviours, such as condomless sex, sex in public or meeting strangers from an online chat for physical sex, increases a child or young person’s risk of exploitation by up to six times.

While the study found little evidence that girls were more likely to be exploited than boys, it did find that unresolved trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder could increase a child or young person’s vulnerability to child sexual exploitation significantly.

Research lead Jessica Laird, a Doctoral candidate in the School of Psychology, said the findings provide a clearer focus for early intervention and prevention efforts.

“Previous studies identified hundreds of potential factors that increased a child or young person’s risk of exploitation but that created a lot of ambiguity,” Ms Laird said.

“This is the first research to gather all existing literature on child sexual exploitation risk and protective factors, and statistically quantify and rank the factors that are truly important.

“A history of family violence has often been seen as a key risk factor and this research shows that it can certainly be a contributing factor but high-risk sexual behaviour and sexual abuse is a greater risk.

“Surprisingly, the majority of tertiary and primary health settings fail to screen for sexual exploitation in their risk assessments, leaving many children and youth to fall through the cracks and continue to be exposed to this type of violence.

“We know children and young people are not likely to disclose sexual abuse, due to fear, shame, and victim-blaming. By understanding key risk factors, caregivers, professionals and the community are better able to identify the vulnerability of these children and young people and put measures in place to protect them.

“Sexual exploitation is the world’s second most lucrative crime, estimated to affect up to five per cent of the general child and youth population worldwide, with increasing numbers detected globally over the past decade.

“Online child sexual exploitation reports have surged during the coronavirus pandemic, prompting the authorities to warn that, statistically, every Australian would know an abuser.

“Trauma can erode an individual’s capacity to understand healthy equal relationships but children and young people affected by child sexual exploitation should not be perceived as ‘naughty youth acting out sexually or violently’ but individuals who need long term specialised therapeutic support to heal from trauma and re-wire healthy relationship connections,” Ms Laird said.

Demographic and Psychosocial Factors Associated With Child Sexual Exploitation: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis has been published on JAMA Network Open.

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