Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people


“She doesn’t have to get in the car…”: Exploring social workers’ understandings of sexually exploited girls as agents and choice-makers.



Dr Sarah Lloyd is a CSE trainer at Sheffield Futures within their sexual exploitation team and their Alexi project. She also works as an evaluator and is currently involved in the evaluation of two CSE projects in South Yorkshire and one project in Calderdale which works with women facing extreme crisis. Previously, she spent just under four working at PACE (Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation) supporting parents whose children were being sexually exploited in the main, by groups of extra-familial males.

One of the biggest challenges I found when working at PACE was trying to encourage safeguarding professionals to understand that CSE was not primarily (or at all) about a problem within the family; or about a ‘troubled’ young person. Rather, this was a problem with perpetrators outside the home. Perpetrators who had groomed, sexually exploited, trafficked, raped, beaten, manipulated and psychologically bewildered and traumatised a young person. However, this, it seemed to me, rarely received much focus. Instead, much more attention was given to what was wrong with the family, the home and the child. Moreover, the issue that kept arising when talking to safeguarding professionals, was their understanding that young people were making a choice to be in these situations and therefore there was nothing, or very little anyone could do to stop the exploitation and abuse. My colleagues and I attended numerous strategy meetings where we were told the same thing again and again- she won’t engage, there isn’t enough evidence, she can consent, she is choosing to do this. It was like banging our heads against a brick wall.

As a result of these experiences, and my frustration with the systems in place that in my view were failing to protect sexually exploited young people, I embarked on an ESRC funded PhD at the University of Huddersfield. I decided to explore social workers’ understandings of CSE and centrally, to look at how they understood sexually exploited girl’s ability and capacity to make choices or demonstrate agency within ‘their’ sexually exploitative situations. To further elicit their understandings, I also looked at how the social workers understood the agency and choice-making of girls sexually abused in the home, and I found that there was a stark difference. 

I interviewed eighteen social workers from three local authorities in one region in England. The interviewees worked in all areas of child protection: youth offending, duty and assessment, prevention into care, domestic violence, targeted youth support, children with disabilities, specialist CSE social workers and social care managers. I was very grateful indeed for the time they gave me. All the social workers told me that they were very busy, generally had large, unsustainable caseloads and little time for supervision or training. But, they clearly cared about the work that they did and found it frustrating working within the frameworks that they had, particularly when it came to CSE.

The social workers constructed sexually exploited girls as most likely to be from a socially and economic deprived background; girls who were lacking materially and emotionally at home and therefore actively looking for love, money and fulfilment from men.

The research findings showed that the social workers understood sexually exploited young people as agents and choice-makers. They understood girls as making choices to be in potential, or actual, sexually exploitative situations. For example, a girl getting into a car with five men and going to a park with them to drink and have sex. The term ‘putting themselves in risky situations’ was used repeatedly.  But, the social workers also understood sexually exploited girls as needing to make certain choices if they were to achieve certain things, especially if the CSE was to stop. Girls needed to recognise and understand that they were being exploited and want to get out of the situation. Indeed, the onus on the girls to ‘get’ what was happening to them, significantly determined the choices the social workers could make regarding potential safeguarding options for the girl, rather than the social worker’s response being directed by safeguarding procedures. Furthermore, the social workers also understood that girls had to give evidence if there was any chance of the perpetrators being stopped. Thus, the expectations on the girl were huge. Moreover, and somewhat worryingly, the implication of these understandings was that unless the girl understood what was happening to her - that she was a victim, and wanted to get out- there was very little they could do for her and, in all likelihood she would remain in the sexually exploitative situation.

The social workers did, in part, blame girls for being sexually exploited, but they knew that they shouldn’t blame them. Therefore, to reconcile this tension all the social workers invalidated any choices that they clearly identified girls as making which they understood resulted in her being sexually exploited such as, getting into the car with five men and ‘putting herself at risk’. They did this to alleviate the blame they placed on them. They constructed girls as only choosing to get into the car and seek out men because of the gain they received, which the social workers understood they sought out because of their (constructed) social and economic deprivation, their desire for love, affection and material things, because they were in love, because they are scared and so forth. All these ‘reasons’, for the social workers invalidated the girl’s choice-making and therefore she was not to blame and crucially, she could be re-understood as a victim.

Juxtaposed with this, was the social workers understanding of girls sexually abused in the home; viewed as victims in the truest sense- objects with no agency, trapped and terrified, in other words- such girls have no choices, whereas sexually exploited girls do. Girls sexually abused in the home (or the perpetrator) would be immediately removed from the situation. As already mentioned, this was a very different response to the one sexually exploited girls received.

The implications of these findings are that there is a need for social workers to separate out choice-making and blame and recognise that sexually exploited girls make choices in a context that may be limited, abusive and constrained but possibly not all the time recognising the transient, nuanced and complex nature of CSE but, whatever choices they make, in whatever context they are never to blame, and blame must always be placed unequivocally on the perpetrators. Furthermore, girls being agentic and having choices should be viewed as a good thing if it can be directed in positive and healthy directions.

Fundamentally, some sexually exploited girls, and let’s remember that they are all different, often subvert dominant understandings of what a sexually abused child ‘should’ look like. Findings from this research and indeed recent reports[1][2]have shown that they have been blamed for their agency and choice-making and as a result, have often been simply been left to it.

Sarah’s presentation from the RGS annual conference can be found here.


[2] Jay, A (2014) Independent inquiry in CSE in Rotherham 1997-2013. Commissioned by Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council


Posted: 04 Oct 2017

Author: Delphine Peace

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