Lauren Hill and Clive Diaz from Cardiff University have carried out research into how gender stereotypes may impact on the support offered to young people who are at risk of child sexual exploitation. This blog provides a short summary of their findings. The full research paper can be downloaded below. 

As a result of high-profile cases in Rotherham and Rochdale in recent years, the general public is now more aware of what child sexual exploitation (CSE) is. CSE has also emerged as a key area of political and professional attention, and was even declared a national threat in 2015 by the Westminster coalition government. But historically, it remains a relatively new construct. Researchers have found that CSE may remain concealed in many cases as victims do not report their experiences, perhaps due to stigma, feelings of shame and/or fear, or because they do not identify their experience as exploitation and therefore do not recognise that they are a victim (Mason-Jones and Loggie, 2019).

Although the exact number of young people at risk of CSE remains unknown, Berelowitz et al. (2013) found that between August 2010 and October 2011, 16,500 children and young people in England were at ‘high risk’ of CSE. This estimate is in line with later statistics published by the Department for Education (2016). According to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOPC), the majority of known victims are aged 14 to 15 and ethnically white. Furthermore, numerous studies have found that the majority of known victims are female (CEOPC, 2013; Jay, 2014; Coy, 2016), with Hallett et al. (2019) finding that females are seven times more likely to experience CSE than males. 

Although genuine gender differences in CSE victimisation may exist, it is important to highlight that certain victim groups (such as males and those from minority ethnic groups) are likely to be under-represented within these figures as a result of barriers to reporting and accessing services. The identification of CSE by professionals may also be limited by the potential biases, prejudices and stereotypical beliefs they hold, which is something we explored in our research.

How gender stereotyping operates in practice

Practitioners rely on cognitive shortcuts (like stereotypes) in professional contexts, and research suggests this is just how humans work as stereotypes help individuals organise and simplify their social worlds. According to categorisation theory, first conceived by Allport (1954), the process of person perception involves subsuming individuals into the wider social categories (such as gender) to which they belong. In doing this, the stereotypical beliefs we hold about a particular social group are applied to all group members (Banaji et al., 1993). 

Stereotypical beliefs are developed via a process of socialisation. The socialisation process begins at birth, and involves exposure to gender norms, ideologies and stereotypes, which are transmitted within and between families, peers, wider social connections and culture (Carter, 2014). 

Are stereotypical beliefs keeping CSE victims hidden?

A number of comments given by participants in our study seem to back up previous research which found that practitioners are subject to unconscious biases within a professional context, and that this can influence factors such as decision-making and assessment (Kirkman and Melrose, 2014; Blumenthal-Barby and Krieger, 2015).

In 2013, researchers Berelowitz et al. (2013) collected qualitative data from 74 practitioners. The researchers found that practitioners often failed to identify male victims of CSE as they did not conform to their stereotypical beliefs that ‘only girls are subjected to these attacks’ (Berelowitz et al., 2013, p.56). The practitioners we interviewed indicated that they felt gender stereotypes may impact on how professionals work with victims of CSE. 

In particular, participants suggested that stereotypes about masculinity may lead practitioners to view males as less likely to be at risk of CSE and consequently less in need of protection and support. Participants felt that this can lead practitioners to be slower and/or less likely to identify males as victims of CSE, as well as less likely to provide male victims with effective support and intervention. Our findings also therefore align with the findings of McNaughton Nicholls, Harvey, and Paskell (2014), who found that practitioners often perceive males to be less vulnerable to CSE than females.

Despite being a small‐scale study, as the first study to specifically explore gender stereotypes within the context of CSE, this research project has contributed some new findings to the relatively underdeveloped evidence base in this area. 

How can we combat unconscious bias for better practice?

It has been suggested that one way to reduce the impact of gender stereotypes on practice is to provide practitioners with the opportunity to acknowledge and critically reflect upon these within a non-threatening and non-judgmental environment (Hannah and Carpenter-Song, 2013). Arguably, this reduces the likelihood of practitioners defending or denying their biases. This is important, as once practitioners have acknowledged their biases, they can subsequently develop strategies for reducing these (Teal et al., 2012).

The importance of critical reflection in overcoming biases was also highlighted by Munro (2011, p.90), who stated that ‘critical challenge by others is needed to help social workers catch such biases and correct them’. Munro (2011) recommended that critical reflection can best be achieved via discussions with others, for example, during supervision. 

An increased awareness of gender stereotypes can also be achieved through unconscious bias training, which aims to increase practitioners’ awareness of their unconscious biases and teach bias reduction strategies. Although there is a lack of research examining the effectiveness of UBT in social care settings, it has been found to be moderately effective in other professional contexts (Atewologun et al., 2018). 

We hope that by implementing such practices more readily, we can begin to overcome the gender-based discrimination in this area of practice to ensure that potentially hidden male victims of CSE can be discovered and supported so that all victims of CSE can be adequately safeguarded.

Download the report:


Allport, G. (1954). The nature of prejudice. London: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
Atewologun, D., Cornish, T. and Tresh, F. (2018). Unconscious bias training: An assessment of the evidence for effectiveness. Manchester: Equality and Human Rights Commission. 
Banaji, M., Hardin, C. and Rothman, A. (1993). Implicit stereotyping in person 
judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(2), pp.272-281.
Berelowitz, S., Clifton, J., Firimin, C., Gulyurtlu, S. and Edwards, G. (2013). If only someone had listened: Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups. London: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
Blumenthal-Barby, J. S. and Krieger, H. (2015). Cognitive biases and heuristics in medical decision making: A critical review using a systematic search strategy. Medical Decision Making, 35(4), pp.539-557.
Carter, M. (2014). Gender socialization and identity theory. Social Sciences, 3(2), pp.242-263.
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Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. (2013). Threat assessment of child sexual exploitation and abuse. London: Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre.
Coy, M. (2016). Joining the dots on sexual exploitation of children and women: A way forward for UK policy responses. Critical Social Policy, 36(4), pp.572-591.
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Hallett, S., Verbruggen, J., Buckley, K. and Robinson, A. (2019). ‘Keeping safe?’: An analysis of the outcomes of work with sexually exploited young people in Wales. Cardiff: Cardiff University.
Hannah, S. and Carpenter-Song, E. (2013). Patrolling your blind spots: Introspection and public catharsis in a medical school faculty development course to reduce unconscious bias in medicine. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, 37(2), pp.314-339.
Jay, A. (2014). Independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham: 1997– 2013. Rotherham: Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council.
Kirkman, E. and Melrose, K. (2014). Clinical judgement and decision-making in children’s social work: An analysis of the ‘front door’ system. London: Department for Education.
Mason-Jones, A.J. and Loggie, J. (2019). Child sexual exploitation. An analysis of serious case reviews in England: Poor communication, incorrect assumptions and adolescent neglect. Journal of Public Health, pp.1-7. 
McNaughton Nicholls, C., Harvey, S. and Paskell, C. (2014). Gendered perceptions: What professionals say about the sexual exploitation of boys and young men in the UK. Ilford: Barnardo’s.
Munro, E. (2011). The Munro review of child protection: Final report. London: Department for Education.