Vulnerable young people are trading sex just for a place to sleep, a year-long research study by charity Barnardos has revealed.

The work focused on Sussex, and the vast majority of young people described in the case studies as ‘known’ or ‘suspected’ examples of sexual exploitation were aged between 16 and 18 years and were of White British origin.

One quarter was male and the majority of these young men identified as gay.

The sexual exploitation of young men was described as a hidden problem.

“Exchanging sex for somewhere to stay was a frequent form of sexual exploitation; services expressed concern that the true extent of youth homelessness was being hidden by a ‘sofa surfing’ culture, sometimes involving unspoken sex-for-shelter agreements,” the study found.

“In Brighton and Hove, young migrants to the city, attracted by its reputation as ‘London by the sea’ and the opportunity to experience a vibrant gay culture, were being forced into risky situations because of a lack of affordable and appropriate accommodation.”

The researchers said that sexual exploitation is poorly-recognised and there was “varying definitions of sexual exploitation amongst informants.”

These ranged from ‘child abuse’, to straightforward descriptions involving exchanges of sex for money, through to the clear identification of power imbalance and the coercive and manipulative aspects of sexually exploitative situations.

The report also said that young people binge drinking on the streets of Brighton are at increased risk of physical and sexual assault.

“Many young people appeared to be introduced to Class A drugs through their relationships with older boyfriends,” the study concluded.

“Substance use can act as a route into sexual exploitation, and evidence emerged of young people being coerced into sex by predatory adults in this way. “

A high proportion of young people at risk of trafficking go missing from the care of social services. These young people can remain undetected and highly vulnerable to exploitation.

“There was concern that the internet was driving the cruising scene underground so that vulnerable young men become harder for services to identify and to reach.

“Young men were regarded as difficult to engage with and reluctant to disclose exploitation, either because of feelings of embarrassment or shame, or from fear of being labelled as gay.

“Young men involved in or at risk of sexual exploitation tended to have a history of sexual abuse, family conflict or domestic violence.”

The report recommends intelligence-gathering, closer co-ordination between services and the development of a county-wide approach to safeguarding young people involved in sexual exploitation and trafficking.

It was carried out by researchers from Barnardo’s Policy and Research Unit between December 2005 and December 2006.