Exploitation of young people – working with boys and young men

01 July 2019

Jeanie LynchJeanie Lynch

Until recently, much focus has been on protecting children affected by sexual exploitation (CSE), but with the recent increase of county lines and related gang activity across the country, and in line with government guidance, the focus has widened to look at all factors of child exploitation, including criminal exploitation.  

I began working in CSE in 1997. Until as recently as 2010 our emphasis was focused on the needs of girls, with the need for work with boys being acknowledged, but as a side issue apart from small dedicated support services delivered by agencies like Barnardo’s who have been doing excellent work with boys for several years.

So why did we shy away from boys’ work? I think it comes down to our basic view of boys and young men in society. ‘Boys will be boys, man up, boys don’t cry’ – these are still expressions that are perpetuated either implicitly or explicitly by many of us. We look at presenting behaviours and, particularly for young boys, these may be externalising behaviours such as displaying harmful sexual behaviour, challenging and aggressive behaviours (Fisher et al, 2017). We don’t always look at the reasons behind the behaviours or recognise them as indicators of harm and distress. Thus we can miss risk of harm to them and instead label them as being a risk to others. We still separate ‘child abuse victims’ from these forms of exploitation where young people can appear complicit in their situations. It can make us uncomfortable to dig deep and as a result, we create a ‘paralysis through analysis’ response and get stuck. While terminology helps us to recognise different abuses, children whose experiences don’t fit neatly into ‘child sexual abuse, harmful sexual behaviours or ‘CSE’ can be invalidated/harm not adequately responded too.

When I worked in sex and relationship education (SRE), there was a strapline that read ‘Boys are seen as part of the problem, but they’re also part of the solution’. SRE focused on biology, holding little space for wider work around attitudes, values, knowledge and skills. It certainly didn’t allow for any healthy or safe discussion around the exploration of sexuality, and as one young man told me: ‘You can’t ask for the help or information you need, so you just go out there, find other men and get on with it.’ That was 20 years ago but LGBTQ lessons are still seen as problematic.

Working with boys and young men

Let me tell you about Brian* aged ten. He was in foster care and had been a regular attendee at our youth group. I didn’t see him for a while and then one day walking home, a tall, gangly young person with a breaking voice said ‘Hi Jeanie’. I realised it was Brian, all puberty and awkwardness. We began to see him regularly and then one day he bounced in and informed me he had something exciting to tell me. ‘I’m gay! I’m so happy, I can be myself.’ He said he had informed his social worker and carer and all was great. His social worker told me that Brian’s friend’s dad was gay and was mentoring him. This didn’t sit easily with me, but my concerns were dismissed.

A couple of weeks later Brian stopped going to school due to being bullied. The school blamed Brian by describing him being ‘too gay’ as the problem. He started disappearing during the day, and his foster carers began to struggle. He arrived home one evening to find his belongings packed and his social worker waiting. He was moved to a local authority children’s home. Within a week he was off out the bedroom window and straight into the arms of a man who took him to London. He was missing for several days and on his return was placed back in care. He didn’t run off again for a while, but was regularly meeting local older males and then he began encouraging other boys to take part in activities, quite possibly on the instruction of the men involved.

Suddenly Brian was no longer a boy in need of support. He became viewed as a perpetrator. All empathy was replaced by blame, even though he was only 16. We were able to refer Brian to a Barnardo’s service that supported boys and young men on CSE issues.

Protecting boys and young men

In 2019 I recently rejoined a regional forum focusing on the needs of supporting vulnerable children on the edges of care, including those who go missing and who are vulnerable to child exploitation. It is interesting to return after 18 months and observe the changes, or lack thereof.

Children’s names are on forms, their stories presented by concerned professionals, responses systems based, with each stakeholder following their agency role with associated protocols and resources. But are the children’s voice and views being heard?

A disjointed system was a criticism raised in the Serious Case Review for CJ, who died after being shot at close range. The tendency is to try and join the dots between agencies without looking at the whole picture. In addition, boys are mainly presented as predatory perpetrators due to their behaviour, with few being viewed in need of support and protection too.

So how can we better join-up our work to support and protect boys and young men like Brian, who are criminally exploited?

Serious case reviews suggest that elements of the system that attempt to support boys and young men still don’t understand the nature of exploitation. Criminal harm frameworks and agencies work in a silo structure, leading to delays in effective responses, with key factors for needed changes include a shared culture and consistent approaches, both structurally and operationally.

There is still a clear need to clarify approaches towards supporting and protecting boys and young men. In my Webinar, we explore some of the routes needed to simplify and join-up system structures, create shared languages and improve pathways for supporting boys and young men who are at risk of exploitation and their families.

*pseudonyms have been used. 

About the author

Jeanie Lynch has spent much of her working life managing services for vulnerable children and young people, with a specific focus on developing child sexual exploitation support both strategically and operationally.

Related resources


Exploitation of boys and young men: Recorded Webinar

Public awareness of young people’s exploitation mainly concerns the abuse of girls by older men, whereas adolescent boys can be perceived as a threat in relation to gang involvement. The experiences of boys and young men as both ‘perpetrator’ and ‘victim’ of abuse raises challenges for practice systems and responses designed in binary terms. What does practice, policy and research tell us are good approaches and how can we apply this learning in practice?

This session focused on the risks and experiences of exploitation of boys and young men, highlighting the importance of a holistic engagement and looking beyond stereotypes.

Please note. Research in Practice Partners are able to access Recorded Webinars. Please login to your account to access.


Safeguarding children and young people from exploitation: Podcast (open access)

Lead author Carlene Firmin (University of Bedfordshire) and Research in Practice's Director Dez Holmes discuss the briefing: Safeguarding and exploitation – complex, contextual and holistic approaches. They reflect on the holistic approach needed to protect children and young people who are, or who are at risk of, being exploited.

The current system is arguably not designed to meet the needs and risks that young people face outside the family home. They explain the rationale behind complex, contextual, transitional and holistic safeguarding approaches and how they overlap and complement each other. Looking at a case example, they outline how the child protection system needs to adapt strategically and operationally in order to respond to the harm that this young person faced. They also discuss the importance of working with parents as partners and the need to work with communities to enable an effective safeguarding response for young people facing harm outside of the home.


Child sexual exploitation: Practice Tool (open access)

Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours: Research Review

Safeguarding and exploitation - complex, contextual and holistic approaches: Strategic Briefing

Working Effectively to Address Child Sexual Exploitation: Evidence Scope


Bradford Safeguarding Children’s Board (2019) Jack SCR – Overview Report published June 2017. Available at: http://bradfordscb.org.uk/?page_id=60

Fisher C, Goldsmith A, Hurcombe R and Soares C (2017) The impacts of child sexual abuse: A rapid evidence assessment. Available at: www.iicsa.org.uk/key-documents/1534/view/iicsa-impacts-child-sexual-abuse-rapid-evidence-assessment-full-report-english.pdf

Newham Local Safeguarding Children Board (2018) Serious Case Review – Chris. Available at: www.newhamlscb.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Serious-Case-Review-Chris-.pdf

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