Topic Building Community Capacity 6

Improving awareness of sexual exploitation among adults

Published: 02/05/2018

Author: Rosie McNamara

Rosie McNamara explores the topic of sexual exploitation by looking through the definitions, identified risk factors and effects. She tries to understand why people still fail to mention the abuse they have suffered and what can be done to raise awareness.

Recent media coverage of high profile cases may signal a key shift in societal attitudes towards the sexual exploitation of adults, but it has also exposed a lack of clarity about society’s understanding of the issue; there is some confusion around the definitions of harassment, exploitation and consent as shown in recent reports. Sexual exploitation of adults is not new, but of late there seems to be a greater drive to discuss and understand it, so it seems timely to outline the definition of the sexual exploitation of adults and explore what it means in the context of practice.

In the recently published Brief Guide to sexua­l exploitation, it is defined as a form of sexual abuse. Sexual exploitation has occurred if sex takes place and:

  • it is in exchange for basic necessities, such as food, shelter or protection;
  • it is in exchange for something that is needed or wanted;
  • an individual has felt frightened of the consequences if they refuse (coercion);
  • the person who is exploiting stands to gain financially or socially.

It is important to remember that there are a number of scenarios that fall under this definition and sometimes sexual exploitation can be hard to identify. Both men and women can be sexually exploited. It can take place in a domestic, commercial (workplace) or public settings. Crucially, the individual that is, or has been, subject to sexual exploitation may not realise it, which makes it all the more important that practitioners are able to offer clear concise explanations and advice.

It is also worth being mindful of identified factors that increase the risk of sexual exploitation in adulthood including:

  • homelessness
  • use of drugs or alcohol
  • lack of mental capacity to consent to sexual activity
  • human trafficking
  • sexual abuse during childhood.

However, whilst research has highlighted certain risk factors in the sexual exploitation of adults, it is not possible or advisable to make an exhaustive list. Remaining objective and looking at every situation afresh will hopefully help to identify those perpetrators who have felt able to abuse ‘in plain sight’ on the assumption that they are less associated with risk than others.

When providing support, it is important to remember that those who exploit are always misusing their power (whether financial, physical or psychological) to abuse. This can have a profound long-term effect on the individual subjected to abuse. An individual who has been sexually exploited as an adult or in childhood is more likely to experience poor mental health. Compassion, sensitivity and patience are essential attributes for practitioners working with these individuals, not least because the perceived fear of a perpetrator’s power can take far longer to dissipate than the risk of physical harm.

There could be many reasons why an individual does not disclose that they have been sexually exploited and it may not be the primary reason that a practitioner is working with an individual. However, practitioners should be prepared to respond effectively should they become aware of the issue during the course of their casework. As well as addressing any immediate safeguarding concerns, they may need to outline what help and support is available from services. It is also useful to be aware of any local specialised therapeutic services available.

Lack of awareness and misconceptions around the sexual exploitation of adults can contribute to ongoing trauma for those affected by it; but the right information, advice and support has the potential to be the first step towards safety, healing and prevention.

Related resources

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Rosie McNamara

Rosie McNamara is an Associate of Research in Practice for Adults.