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BLOG: It’s time to wake up and listen to the victims of adult grooming and sexual exploitation

The Victims' Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, shares her reflections on the need for government to recognise and address sexual exploitation of adult women.

On 25 October 2021, Dame Vera Baird chaired an online event hosted by STAGE  partnership to call on the government to recognise the sexual exploitation of adult women in policy and practice. This blog was originally commissioned by Changing Lives to accompany that event and can be found on the Changing Lives website

The impact of grooming and sexual exploitation of adult women can be devastating. Yet, despite being repeatedly presented with evidence by leading charities, sexual exploitation of adult women is neither recognised nor addressed in government policy or practice. When sexual exploitation is not clearly defined or understood, it cannot be identified and dealt with. What this looks like in practice is women are denied support and protection not only in the criminal justice system but in other areas such as housing and healthcare too. It’s time to wake up and listen to these women.

Those of us working to support victims of crime have been calling for a long time for violence against women and girls to be taken seriously. It sadly took the brutal rape and murder of Sarah Everard to bring it to the forefront of public and political attention, but unfortunately this was just one case – of many – where women and girls are exposed to horrendous violence and we have failed to protect them. There is one area, though, which has been overlooked for far too long: the grooming and sexual exploitation of adult women.

For many, the words “sexual exploitation” may bring to mind high profile cases such as Rotherham and Rochdale, which involved many child victims and survivors. But what is often missed is that exploitation often continues once a child becomes a legal adult, and many women are initially targeted for exploitation after their 18th birthday. Once a woman turns 18 their safeguarding support diminishes. Simply by virtue of her having a birthday, rather than being seen as a victim of exploitation, she is seen as “choosing” to sell sex. Rather than being seen as groomed and manipulated, she is seen as “choosing” to return to her abusers.

Sexual exploitation occurs when an individual or group take advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a person into sexual activity. Perpetrators exploit victims’ vulnerabilities in order to subject them to sexual abuse, whether that’s for the perpetrator’s own financial benefit, for increased status, in order to exert power, or for their own sexual gratification.

This can result from grooming over time, where the perpetrator makes the victim dependent on them emotionally, physically, and/or financially. Whilst we now have a better understanding of coercive control as a central feature of domestic abuse, there is still much to be done to build the same understanding of grooming and control in relation to sexual exploitation.

Our rape conviction rates are so low and our court backlogs are so high that anyone would struggle to get justice in court. But what chance does a woman have if her abuse is not even seen as rape because services lack understanding of the impact that grooming has on a woman’s ability to consent? What chance does a women have if the very things that are often the result of her exploitation – substance dependence, homelessness, criminal activity – are commonly used to undermine her credibility as a witness?

I recently chaired ‘Seen and Heard’, a summit on behalf of the STAGE project, bringing together women’s sector charities Changing Lives, GROW, A WAY OUT, Together Women, Basis and WomenCentre (Kirklees and Calderdale) to provide trauma–informed support for women who have been groomed by groups of men for sexual exploitation across the North East and Yorkshire.

Their experience tells us that we need to wake up and listen to these women. The first stage is simply to acknowledge that sexual exploitation of adults is a real issue and make sure that it is clearly defined and prioritised. Then the real work can begin: to break down the barriers that these women face, whether that’s to justice, housing, healthcare, or anything else.