Channel 4 will highlight the harm that is being done to adult women through sexual exploitation and grooming, in an exclusive feature on Newsnight (tonight, 7pm). It has worked alongside Changing Lives and our STAGE partners to listen to the stories of the women we support.
Over the past two years Changing Lives has worked with other charities specialised in adult sexual exploitation – A Way Out, GROW, Together Women, Basis and WomenCentre (Kirklees and Calderdale) – on the STAGE project which supported women who have been groomed for sexual exploitation across the North East and Yorkshire. Learning from this project has been used to develop a toolkit for practitioners, as well as several recommendations for both local and national government.
Sexual exploitation occurs when an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a person into sexual activity. This can result from grooming over a period of time, where the perpetrator makes the victim dependent on them emotionally, physically and/or financially. The impact of grooming and exploitation of vulnerabilities can mean sexual activity that appears consensual or non-violent is anything but, and can escalate to the most horrendous forms of violence including torture, kidnapping and gang rape.
People are more aware of sexual exploitation of children due to several high profile cases, but this form of exploitation does not end when a person turns 18 and can indeed by initiated during adulthood. We have found that adult sexual exploitation and grooming is poorly understood and is rarely recognised in policy and practice. What this means in practice is that women are not being fully protected by the laws and systems that we have in place, and are often dismissed as “prostitutes” or “making poor choices”.
There is public support for ensuring that legal protection, through our justice and safeguarding systems, is given to adult victims of sexual exploitation as well as children.
A recent national poll found that the majority (72%) believed that the legal system, police and social services have a responsibility to help all people who have been victims of grooming, regardless of their age*.
As a country we are not just failing to protect women from exploitation, but we are also failing to support them to recover from trauma and to overcome the barriers that they face to areas such as justice, healthcare and housing. We can and we must do better.
The STAGE partnership recommends that:
- A statutory definition of adult sexual exploitation is established, that includes recognition that sexual exploitation of children may continue into or begin in adulthood.
- The Home Office lead on the development of a national strategy for tackling adult sexual exploitation and supporting survivors, working with experts including the voluntary sector to ensure that understanding of exploitation and its wider impacts are embedded in strategic thinking across relevant government departments. We would like this strategy to include at minimum:
- A review of the criminal justice response to adult sexual exploitation, including an assessment of whether the current set of available offences are fit for purpose.
- Reform of the guidance provided on the handling of complex sexual exploitation cases, as well as the tests used to determine the reliability and credibility of witnesses who report sexual exploitation.
- A plan to embed trauma-informed training, policies and practices in housing, healthcare and the justice system. This should include, but not be limited to, identification of sexual exploitation, understanding of grooming and its impact, how to respond to people who have experienced trauma, and how to remove barriers to justice, housing and healthcare for people experiencing multiple disadvantage.
- A plan to ensure adequate provision of appropriate accommodation options for women experiencing sexual exploitation, including gender-specific provision.
- A revised approach to adult safeguarding that recognises transition from childhood to adulthood as a journey rather than an event, and ensures adult safeguarding services recognise and know how to respond to sexual exploitation.
- Specific changes are made to the law that extends protections for people experiencing domestic abuse, as introduced in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, to people experiencing sexual exploitation:
- A statutory duty for specialist support services to be provided to victims/survivors of sexual abuse, including adult victims of sexual exploitation.
- Victims/survivors of sexual exploitation to be given automatic priority need for housing, including access to women-only accommodation, and/or the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities to be updated to include guidance on people leaving accommodation due to exploitation.
- All victims and witnesses of sexual exploitation to be automatically deemed vulnerable or intimidated, by nature of the alleged offence, and therefore eligible for special measures, including caseworkers and support agencies.
* Deltapoll interviewed 1,500 adults in Britain online between 4th – 7th June 2021. The data has been weighted to be representative of the British adult population as a whole. Deltapoll is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.