Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people

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Alternative narratives of CSE

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As a Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) Social Worker my work is focused on safeguarding young women affected by CSE. But how do we do that in a framework that is traditionally shaped by statutory child protection procedures? Carlene Firmin has convincingly argued that child protection systems are unsuitable for safeguarding children from sexual exploitation pointing to the harm located in the child’s environment outside the family home (Firmin, 2017). The threshold for child protection procedures is only met when a child is at risk of significant harm attributable to the care of their parents. Typically, in CSE situations, this is not the case as the harm is attributable to people outside the family. 

In acknowledging the particular challenges that safeguarding young people from sexual exploitation poses, Enfield Children’s Services set up a designated Child Sexual Exploitation Prevention Team. The team is made up of social workers, youth workers and police officers. As social workers, we work closely with dedicated CSE police officers to tackle harmful exploitative environments by identifying perpetrators and disrupting these relationships. In situations where CSE takes the form of a ‘relationship model’ and peer-on-peer abuse is not associated with particular groups or locations, we work closely with the police officers in our CSE team to disrupt these relationships that have elements of coercion or manipulation, even when the young person might say it was consensual. 

One of the major challenges in working directly with young people affected by CSE is striking the balance between respecting and amplifying young people’s voices and protecting them against harm. 

The term Child Sexual Exploitation creates an inherent binary distinction between the exploited victim and the exploiting perpetrator (Melrose, 2013). However, being exploited and being a victim potentially implies the passivity of the person and consequently take away that person’s agency in that particular situation. This distinction is utilised by professionals to criminalise and prosecute perpetrators of sexual offences such as CSE. However, if we as practitioners insist on a narrative and determine how young people’s stories are told, we risk repeating the behaviour of those people who exploited them. By superimposing a narrative of victimhood onto the young women we work with, we risk denying their agency and disempowering them. We also risk disenfranchising them. Young women might not identify themselves with the professional narrative that is offered to them. They might view themselves as young women making choices to find fulfilling and caring relationships. Enforcing the dominant professional narrative risks subjugating the alternative narratives told and lived by the young women we seek to support. 

 Social workers can help young women reflect and expand on their own self-narrative by exploring which elements of these relationships contribute to that narrative while challenging beliefs or experiences that might contradict it. Pull factors in young people’s environments alone do not result in a young person being exploited. Unsafe beliefs about romantic and sexual relationships and harmful gender norms are some of the push factors that make young girls more vulnerable to exploitative relationships. 

 We need to create spaces where we can explore how constrained choices (Pearce, 2013) and exploitation are intertwined by considering the context and conditions within which these choices were made. 


This blog was written by Dyonne Pennings – CSE Social Worker with the London Borough of Enfield, Frontline Fellow


Firmin, C. (2017). Abuse between young people (1st ed.). Oxon: Routledge.

Melrose, M. (2013). Young People and Sexual Exploitation: A Critical Discourse Analysis. In: Critical Perspectives on Child Sexual Exploitation (eds M. Melrose & J. Pearce), pp. 9–22. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Pearce, J.J. (2013) Contexualising consent in child sexual exploitation. In: Critical Perspectives on Child Sexual Exploitation (eds M. Melrose & J. Pearce), pp. 52–68. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Posted: 16 May 2018

Author: Delphine Peace

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