Sexual Exploitation – Overview

The Internet offers young people important opportunities to socialize with their friends and families as well as to find people who share common interests and communities that can provide emotional support. It is also inevitable that at an age where young people are starting to explore their sexuality offline, they will do so online in these interactive environments as well.

In fact, many teens feel safer and more confident flirting online than face-to-face. As well, hate groups and disinformation agents play on exaggerated fears of child kidnappings by strangers (of which there are only around 100 per year in the United States),[1] making things more difficult for legitimate anti-trafficking organizations.[2] It is important, though, for young people to be aware that not every relationship is a safe or healthy one.

Not all youth are equally at risk of online sexual exploitation. Instead, predators identify young people who are the most vulnerable and begin a process of grooming that may lead to exchanging sexual talk, photos or videos online or to meeting in person.[3] Most often, exploitative relationships begin with people who are not “strangers” but are already in young people’s lives – particularly people in a position of trust, such as family members, coaches and youth group volunteers – using digital media as a way of communicating privately with their targets.[4]

The majority of victims of sexual exploitation are girls, though boys who are gay or questioning their sexuality are also more likely to be victims.[5] An exception is “sextortion,” a form of sexual exploitation that involves persuading young people to share explicit photos and then blackmailing them with the threat of sharing those, and which is experienced more often by boys than girls.[6] With the advent of artificial intelligence capable of creating realistic images – including naked or sexual ones - of real people, youth may be targets of sextortion even if they have never taken or shared images of themselves.[7] In all forms of sexual exploitation, nearly all victims are teens,[8] with an average age of thirteen and a half.[9] There is some evidence that Black[10] and Indigenous[11] girls are at greater risk, as well.

In general, the young people who are vulnerable to online exploitation are those who are vulnerable offline as well: one study found that 96% of youth who reported online sexual solicitation “also reported experiencing offline victimization such as being sexually harassed, experiencing emotional abuse by a caregiver, assault, or rape.”[12] Youth who have experienced physical or sexual abuse, who suffer from depression, or who lack close relationships with family or peers are all more likely to be targeted by predators,[13] as are youth who have intellectual disabilities or autism spectrum disorder.[14] Young people who have not learned about normal sexual development and healthy sexuality, who have not been taught the differences between appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviour, and do not feel they can talk to their parents or guardians about sexuality are also at increased risk of being targeted, as are those who encounter pornography in the home and who are frequently unsupervised online or offline.[15]

Youth who are victims of online sexual exploitation most often report that they “were motivated to engage in risky online behaviours to seek approval, pass time, be liked by others and to learn about romantic relationships (particularly homosexual relationships).” Researchers have identified subgroups of naïve victims, who are at risk due to “curiosity around exploring friendships and romantic relationships”; chaotic victims, who “experienced deficits in many aspects in their lives” and are frequently victimized offline as well as online; and situational vulnerability victims, who become vulnerable due to family disruption such as parents’ separation or divorce.[16] Young people often see themselves as having willingly taken part in the relationship and as a result may have difficulty seeing themselves as victims. One, for instance, reported that she “initially thought she knew what she was doing and saw herself as an active participant in their relationship, as a girl who fell in love and wanted to build an amorous relation with someone,” only eventually “accepting and understanding that, contrary to her expectations, she had been lured into abuse.”[17]

With the exception of fully anonymous platforms, it’s not possible to identify particular games or social networks as being more risky spaces than others. Different platforms do, however, have varying success in limiting their use for sharing child sexual abuse material: research has found that of mainstream platforms, Instagram and X are most often used by youth sharing or selling self-generated CSAM, while it “does not appear to proliferate” on TikTok.[18] In almost every case, young people prefer to use online spaces to communicate with friends and family. However, would-be predators will often make their first contact with vulnerable youth in a mainstream space and then try to move the conversation either to private messages or to an online space where they will not be observed.[19] As well, young women in particular report being encouraged by online contacts and influencers to participate in the sex-oriented subscription site OnlyFans, which is often presented as “a fantasy that it was a safe way to do sex work and be spoiled and taken care of.”[20] Once they start making money from risqué or partially nude images, “young women are compelled to raise their game by sharing more and more of their bodies, and perform sexual acts requested by subscribers to maintain their interest, increase their popularity and earn more money.”[21]

It’s important to make young people aware of the risks of sexual exploitation without preventing them from taking advantage of the benefits of being online. This is particularly true for those who are most vulnerable, such as 2SLBTQ+ youth, who also gain the most benefits from being able to use the internet to explore their identity and sexuality.[22]

[1] Tiffany, K. (2022) The Great (Fake) Child Sex-Trafficking Epidemic. The Atlantic.

[2] Cotnrera, J. (2021) A Qanon Con: How the viral Wayfair sex trafficking lie hurt real kids. The Washington Post.

[3] Kloess, J. A., Seymour-Smith, S., Hamilton-Giachritsis, C. E., Long, M. L., Shipley, D., & Beech, A. R. (2017). A qualitative analysis of offenders’ modus operandi in sexually exploitative interactions with children online. Sexual Abuse, 29(6), 563-591.

[4] Zammit, J., et al. (2021). Child sexual abuse in contemporary institutional contexts: An analysis of Disclosure and Barring Service discretionary case files. Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse.

[5] Wolak J, Finkelhor D, Mitchell KJ, Ybarra ML. (2010). Online “predators” and their victims: Myths, realities, and implications for prevention and treatment. Psychology of Violence 1(5): 13–35.

[6] Patchin, J. W., & Hinduja, S. (2020). Sextortion among adolescents: results from a national survey of US youth. Sexual Abuse, 32(1), 30-54.

[7] Koltai, Kolina. (2023) AnyDream: Secretive AI Platform Broke Stripe Rules to Rake in Money from Nonconsensual Pornographic Deepfakes. Bellingcat.

[8] Mitchell KJ, Jones L, Finkelhor D, Wolak J. (2014.) Trends in unwanted sexual solicitations: Findings from the Youth Internet Safety Studies. Youth Internet Safety Survey Bulletin (February). Retrieved from [23 June 2016].

[9] Quayle, E., & Newman, E. (2016). An exploratory study of public reports to investigate patterns and themes of requests for sexual images of minors online. Crime Science, 5(1), 2.

[10] Wurtele, S.K. Understanding and Preventing the Sexual Exploitation of Youth. In Reference Module in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Psychology, Elsevier, 2017. ISBN 9780128093245

[11] Louie, D. W. (2017). Social media and the sexual exploitation of indigenous girls. Girlhood Studies, 10(2), 97-113.

[12] Madigan, S., Villani, V., Azzopardi, C., Laut, D., Smith, T., Temple, J. R., ... & Dimitropoulos, G. (2018). The prevalence of unwanted online sexual exposure and solicitation among youth: A meta-analysis. Journal of Adolescent Health, 63(2), 133-141.

[13] Wurtele, S. K., & Kenny, M. C. (2016). Technology‐related sexual solicitation of adolescents: A review of prevention efforts. Child abuse review, 25(5), 332-344.

[14] Normand, C. L., & Sallafranque‐St‐Louis, F. (2016). Cybervictimization of young people with an intellectual or developmental disability: Risks specific to sexual solicitation. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 29(2), 99-110.

[15] Wurtele, S.K. Understanding and Preventing the Sexual Exploitation of Youth. (2017). In Reference Module in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Psychology, Elsevier. ISBN 9780128093245

[16] Batool, S. (2020). Exploring vulnerability among children and young people who experience online sexual victimisation (Doctoral dissertation, University of Central Lancashire)

[17] Landini, T. S. (2018). Vulnerability and its potential perils–on the criminalization of online luring in Canada and court cases tried in Ontario (2002-2014). Contemporânea, 8(2), 543-568.s

[18] Thiel, D., DiResta,R., & Stamos A. (2023) Cross-Platform Dynamics of Self-Generated CSAM. Stanford Internet Observatory.

[19] Black, P. J., et al. (2015). A linguistic analysis of grooming strategies of online child sex offenders: Implications for our understanding of predatory sexual behavior in an increasingly computer-mediated world. Child Abuse & Neglect. Retrieved from

[20] Murkett, K. (2021) OnlyFans is an experiment in mass grooming. Unherd.

[21] Martellozzo, E., & Bradbury P. (2021) How the pandemic has made young people more vulnerable to risky online sexual trade. London School of Economics blog.

[22] Wurtele, S. K. (2017). Preventing cyber sexual solicitation of adolescents. Research and practices in child maltreatment prevention, 1, 363-393.