Skip to main content

Sexual Exploitation

Explore subtopics

What is Sexual Exploitation?

Sexual exploitation involves exploitative situations, contexts and relationships where a victim (or a third person or persons) receives ‘something’ (such as, food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, affection, gifts, money) as a result of them performing, and/or another or others performing on them, sexual activities. Exploitative relationships are characterised in the main by the imbalance of power and control to the victim(s) from the perpetrator(s).

Sexual exploitation includes rape, prostitution, sexual photography, subjection to pornography or witnessing sexual acts and sexual assault or acts which the adult has not consented or was pressured, threatened or coerced into consenting (in regard to Children please see Child Sexual Exploitation).

Adults can be sexually exploited in many ways. Examples include:

  • Rape, which can include rape by a partner (see Domestic abuse, if the sex is unwanted
  • Sexual assault
  • Being tricked or manipulated into having sex or performing a sexual act
  • Being trafficked into, out of, or around the UK for the purpose of sexual exploitation (such as, prostitution)
  • Being forced to take part in or watch pornography.

Research has identified factors that can increase the risk of sexual exploitation in adulthood. These include: homelessness; use of drugs or alcohol; lack of mental capacity to consent; human trafficking; sexual abuse during childhood. However, the authors advise that this is not an exhaustive list, and it is important to remain objective.

Victims may lack the capacity to consent or may being threatened or coerced into having sex. The process of grooming may have led the victim to become so dependent on the alleged perpetrator(s) that they see sex as something they have to do in order to survive.

Any adult, of any age, can be a victim of sexual exploitation, rape or sexual assault. The majority are women, but men can also be victims.

Mental Capacity Act (2005) applies to anyone over the age of 16 year and can in some instances cover sexual exploitation:

  • Impairment or disturbance in the functioning of the mind or brain.
  • A person’s capacity is decision and time specific.
  • A person’s capacity should be assessed by the “best placed person” in relation to the particular decision.
  • If someone lacks capacity, then a decision should be made in a person’s best interests.
  • Agencies need to work together to assess capacity.

When this applies, the sexual exploitation falls under the legislation for Safeguarding through the Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act 2014.

Sexual Offences Act 2003 protects adults at risk where sexual activity is founded on exploitation and abuse. Including those with limited mental capacity which is impeding choice, which covered those whose mental functioning is so impaired at the time of the sexual activity that they are unable to refuse; those who have capacity to consent but have a mental disorder which makes them vulnerable to inducement, threat or deception; and offences carried out by care workers on those without capacity to consent.

Modern Slavery Act 2015, section 2 provides the legislation around arranging or facilitating the travel of another person with a view to exploitation. Section 3 of the Act defines the meaning of exploitation.

Trafficking People for Exploitation Regulations 2013 protects those trafficked from criminal exploitations and puts in measures to protect victims.

Sexual exploitation is covered by the Protection of Children’s Act 1978 and Sexual Offences Act 2003.

Home Office has published statutory guidance on how to identify and support victims of modern slavery.

Social Care Wales: Safeguarding Awareness

Research in Practice: Improving awareness of sexual exploitation among adults

Help and Support

For victims, families and concerned people

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is a single framework centred on a multi-agency approach to victim identification and referral to appropriate support. Police, Immigration, Local Authorities and some non-government organisations can refer suspected victims to the Single Competent Authority (SCA) for a decision. The SCA is part of the Home Office. Referral to the NRM requires consent for adults.

Modern Slavery Helpline 08000 121 700.

Live Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 80 or email

There is also support provided through the Adult Safeguarding arrangements which are based within each Local Authority across Wales, details available on our Directory.