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Understanding Child Sexual Exploitation

Introducing Child Exploitation

Simply put, exploitation is the unfair use of something or someone for one’s own advantage or benefit. Worldwide, there are 40+ million victims of all agesand from a variety of backgroundswho experience exploitation in some form.

One in 4 victims of exploitation are children. In these cases, the term child exploitation is used to identify acts that violate the basic human rights of children. One facet of child exploitation is sexual exploitation, an umbrella term that describes situations in which a person younger than 18 years of age takes part in a sexual activity in exchange for something (eg, a gain or benefit, or even the promise of such). Sexual exploitation may involve the interchanging of gifts, money, drugs, food, or shelter between the child and a perpetrator or third party.

Commercial Sexual Exploitation

Commercial sexual exploitation is a form of sexual exploitation where the focus is specifically on monetary benefit. This often relates to organized criminality, in which the primary driver is economic gain for a third party, such as a pimp or trafficker. When this type of situation involves child victims, it is referred to as commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC).

CSEC includes a few different forms of exploitation: child prostitution, child pornography, and the sexual exploitation of children in the context of travel and tourism. Prostitution can involve a variety of scenarios, including when a child engages in sexual acts to afford essentials like food and shelter (also known as “survival sex”). Additionally, the term encompasses situations in which children exchange sexual acts to obtain nonessential goods for themselves or to acquire money or another valued good for a third party.

Child pornography, now more commonly referred to by advocates as child sexual exploitation materials (CSEM), refers to items that depict child sexual abuse or otherwise reveal the sexual exploitation of children. CSEM can include videos, photographs, audio, and more. The third type of CSEC, exploitation in the context of travel or tourism, is sexual exploitation embedded in travel. Formerly known as “sex tourism,” it can be used to describe situations involving either domestic or foreign perpetrators. This form of exploitation includes those who travelled for tourism, work, the military, and other purposes.

The key element of CSEC, as opposed to other forms of child sexual abuse, is that it involves a commercial transaction or exchange. In these cases, one or more involved parties makes a gain. The intended commercial gain does not need to be obvious, nor does it necessarily require money to change hands. In some situations, such as with child marriage, the exploitation involves contractual or commercial exchange, gain of prestige, land transfer, or other services.

Other Forms of Exploitation

Types of child exploitation such as trafficking, sales, and slavery may also involve sexual abuseeven if that was not the perpetrator’s original or primary intent for the child. For example, child trafficking refers to the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a child for labor or services. Trafficking is accomplished through the use of force, fraud, or coercion of the victim with the intention of using them for involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or slavery.

In some trafficking scenarios, the child may also be used for sex by the perpetrator or a third party (eg, someone the child is sold to for labor). This slightly differs from sex trafficking, a term that refers to the recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, obtaining, or soliciting of a minor specifically for a commercial sex act.

Child slavery is a form of trafficking that describes children who are exploited for another’s gain. These circumstances often arise due to threats or use of violence, such as when children are used for profit through prostitution or pornography. Victims may also be forced to beg and attempt petty theft, to take part in armed conflict, and to perform labor. This term encompasses child domestic workers and those in domestic servitude.

Child marriage is sometimes considered to be a form of slavery depending on the circumstances, as it can serve as a gateway for abuse and exploitation. The term refers to any formal marriageor informal unioninvolving someone younger than 18 years old.


For more information on child exploitation, please see STM Learning’s Medical Response to Child Sexual Abuse, Second Edition, the text from which the content of this blog was derived. We also have a set of electronic flashcards available to help medical and nursing students review vocabulary pertaining to child sexual abuse.

This blog was written by STM Learning’s editorial staff for educational purposes only. It is not intended to give specific medical or legal advice. For expert information on the discussed subjects, please refer to STM Learning’s publications

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