Adult victims of sexual exploitation in the North East and Yorkshire speak out in report

A young girl sits holding her legs on a sofa.
The report, by the STAGE Project, heard from 700 women and was launched in Parliament on Monday. Credit: PA

Survivors and victims of sexual exploitation across the North East and Yorkshire have spoken out as part of a call for urgent change.

It comes as a report highlighting the scale of grooming and adult sexual exploitation in the region was published.

The report, by the STAGE Project, heard from 700 women and was launched in Parliament on Monday 27 November.

Compiled by eight charities which support women in the region, it says adult sexual exploitation is widely misunderstood.

Among those to share their story was a woman living in the North East who experienced such abuse.

She told ITV Tyne Tees: "I was going from one exploitative relationship to another because that's all I knew.

"The police didn't recognise it. I was saying to them time and time again: 'It's my partner, you're not listening.'

"All those reactions and trauma and self-harm, taking overdoses, drinking too much, that was all built through me being exploited.

"It's like this vicious circle, but nobody's actually going: 'Why are you doing that?'"

What is sexual exploitation?

Sexual exploitation is made possible when an imbalance of power is used to coerce or manipulate someone into sexual activity.

The report shines a light on what it calls "false narratives", which are placed onto victims and survivors and which can perpetuate harmful victim-blaming and leave people vulnerable to further harm and exploitation.

It states that a lack of recognition that a crime has taken place, or that women are not making free choices, can prevent vulnerable people from accessing the support that they need and are entitled to.

What changes does the report call for?

The report, titled Changing The Narrative: Understanding the Realities of Adult Exploitation, calls for urgent change, including for:

  • The government is to consult on a comprehensive statutory definition of adult sexual exploitation and guidance for key agencies to be introduced through secondary legislation.

  • The creation of a national strategy focusing specifically on adult sexual exploitation in all its forms, bringing together a focus and actions from both violence against women and girls and modern slavery.

  • Giving space for those who have experienced sexual exploitation to share their story, and being ready to listen when they do.

It goes on to say the voices of exploited women have been "silenced for too long".

Vicky Hugill, service manager at Stockton-based A Way Out, one of the charities which helped produce the report, said: “Here at A Way Out our STAGE worker has supported numerous women across Teesside who have experienced significant Sexual Exploitation.

"We see the lasting impact that grooming, violence, abuse, rape, and assault have on women.

"It affects their physical health, mental health, substance misuse, breakdown of family dynamics and increases risk of self-harm and suicide.

"This is happening in our towns and villages, on our doorsteps. Sadly, we have seen the ultimate cost to a woman…the cost of losing her life as a direct result of sexual exploitation."

She added that the charity would continue to "break the taboo of shame" and help "raise up the voices" of women it works with.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Government is fully committed to protecting victims from, and tackling, the devastating harm associated with adult sexual exploitation.

“Adult sexual exploitation can consist of numerous criminal acts and due to its complex and varied nature, a tailored response is required to ensure victims receive the appropriate support to address their specific needs.”

If an individual is in danger or at risk of exploitation, the Home Office urges them to come forward so it can work with the police or support them through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).

Those who consent to receive support following referral to the NRM receive support from the Modern Slavery Victim Care Contract (MSVCC).

The MSVCC provides appropriate accommodation where necessary, financial support, and access to a support worker help victims begin rebuilding their lives, engage with the criminal justice system, and transition back into the community following their modern slavery experience.

Anyone who has been a victim of sexual exploitation in the North East and Yorkshire can find help and advice through the charities involved in the STAGE project - Changing Lives, A Way Out, GROW, Together Women, Basis, WomenCentre, Ashiana and the Angelou Centre.

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