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Why language matters: how the label ‘older boyfriend’ can mask child sexual exploitation

Last updated: 20 Jun 2023 Topics: Blog
A female walks with her arm linked with a male's

From the NSPCC'S Library and Information Service specialists

The teenage years can be a time of big changes, confusion, experimentation, and growing independence. It’s also a time when some teenagers start being interested in romantic and sexual relationships.

Although this is a natural part of growing up, there are situations where an age difference or power imbalance within a relationship should be a warning sign to professionals of potential safeguarding concerns around child sexual exploitation.

Case reviews highlight that, when professionals suspect that a child might be at risk of sexual exploitation, it’s important to:

  • ask questions that explore the nature of the young person’s relationship
  • be curious about the labels and language the young person and other professionals use to talk about the relationship
  • be clear about any safeguarding concerns when talking about or recording information about the relationship.

If professionals use the term ‘older boyfriend’ without assessing the risk, they may be legitimising an exploitative relationship and minimising the risk of harm to the young person.

> Read the Child sexual exploitation: learning from case reviews briefing

In this blog we are focusing on the term ‘older boyfriend’ as research shows that adult men are most likely to be responsible for child sexual exploitation (CSE).1 However, adults or young people of any gender can groom or exploit children, and children or young people of any gender can experience CSE.

Why is the term ‘older boyfriend’ unhelpful?

CSE often involves grooming young people into believing that they are in healthy and consensual relationships. A young person might refer to someone as their ‘boyfriend’, as they don’t recognise that they are being exploited, or they may not feel comfortable or safe enough to speak about it.

It’s important that professionals look beyond the language used by young people to describe the relationship. They need to establish the dynamics between the two people involved and identify any child protection concerns. For example, it’s important that professionals establish whether the person being described as a ‘boyfriend’ is also a young person, or whether they are in fact an adult.

If a professional refers to a child’s ‘older boyfriend’ when sharing information with other agencies or colleagues it risks implying that the relationship is a healthy one, that the child has freely chosen to be in. This can make everyone working with the child less alert to potential signs of exploitation such as manipulation, grooming, control or the coercion of the child or young person into sexual activity.

Hearing the child’s voice

Accepting a child or young person’s description of someone as their ‘older boyfriend’ risks reinforcing their perception that the relationship is appropriate. However, part of hearing a child or young person’s voice is acknowledging the language they use and understanding why they might be using a word.

Children and young people experiencing CSE may have been manipulated into believing that their ‘older boyfriend’ cares for them or they may have been threatened with harm if they share what is happening to them. They may not know how else to describe this person, other than as their ‘boyfriend'. In these circumstances, using the term ‘older boyfriend’ may be the easiest way for the child or young person to talk about what is happening to them. This can be recorded by professionals as the child’s words, while noting concerns around this relationship which need to be explored further.

Validating the child or young person’s experience is important, however you should still ensure that when talking directly with young people you: 

  • express your concerns around the person identified as an ‘older boyfriend’
  • discuss healthy and unhealthy relationships
  • talk about the process of grooming and coercive control.

What should professionals be thinking about when talking about potentially exploitative relationships?

Professionals can:

  • reframe the language to reframe the perspective and be clear about safeguarding concerns. For example, when recording concerns instead of using ‘older boyfriend’ it is better to say something like, "the young person believes that they are in a healthy relationship with an adult male approximately 10 years older than them. There are concerns about the potential for exploitation".2
  • be curious and continue asking questions about any relationship involving a child which you find concerning, regardless of whether or not the young person describes the other person involved as their ‘boyfriend’.
  • keep having conversations about CSE with the child or young person and build a trusting relationship with them so that they can talk about their experiences in their own time.


Home Office (2020) Characteristics of group-based child sexual exploitation in the community: literature review (PDF) London: Home Office
The Children’s Society (2022) Appropriate language in relation to child exploitation (PDF). London: The Children's Society

Key points to take away

  • The term ‘older boyfriend’ risks misrepresenting an exploitative relationship as a healthy one.
  • Question when a child or young person describes someone as their ‘boyfriend’ when there is an age gap, or other power imbalance. When talking to other professionals about the relationship use language which clearly and accurately describes any safeguarding concerns.
  • Recognise that children and young people may not engage with professionals because they may see the exploitative relationship as a loving one. Make sure you avoid using language which reinforces this perception.