Published: 5 January 2016

Putting the spotlight on child sexual exploitation

A partnership with Hampstead Theatre is helping The Children’s Society educate and inform new audiences about the issue of child sexual exploitation.   

Tackling low levels of understanding 

Every year, The Children’s Society directly helps hundreds of children and young people at risk of, or experiencing, the devastating effects of child sexual exploitation. With our Seriously Awkward campaign, we are demanding changes in law to help older teenage victims get the help and protection they need, as well as the access to justice they deserve. 

Scandals in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and other towns have firmly placed the issue in the public’s mind. But despite the prolific media attention, understanding of how to identify the signs of sexual exploitation is still extremely poor. We consistently see young people being desperately let down, not being listened to or not getting the protection and help they need.

A story with the power to inspire change 

We partnered with Hampstead Theatre who produced a play called Firebird by Phil Davies. The play follows mouthy teenager Tia whose tough start in life dangerously draws her to AJ. The theatre contacted us to see if we would be interested in being involved and the partnership developed. Although this type of partnership was untested territory for us, it was a chance to live up to our brand value of being brave. 

We had nothing to worry about though. When we read Phil Davies’ outstanding script, it was clear that he had taken his research very seriously, and handled potentially devastating issues incredibly sensitively. The play exposed some of the most pressing problems that chimed with our own calls for change. We could see it was a play that would drive awareness of the signs of exploitation, from how money and gifts can be used to groom young people to the difficulty young people may have naming the perpetrators and recognising the exploitative situation themselves. 

One of the key challenges for a charity tackling child sexual exploitation is the issue of sharing real case studies of young people who have been affected, due to the highly sensitive nature of the crimes they have experienced. The play allowed the audience to connect with the issue without having to name survivors. 

The impact so far 

It’s been exciting to work with a company that is as committed to the issue as we are. This was really apparent in the joint post-show Q&A which is available to watch online. The Q&A night was an opportunity for us to invite key stakeholders, from donors to policy makers, to look at the issue up close and understand our frontline work better. We also decided to reach a wider audience with an online broadcast in association with Time Out London

More than 7,000 people have now seen Firebird and thousands more have heard about it. We’ve successfully reached new audiences and it continues to drive online discussion, with our own tweets reaching a million and a half users. Blogs such as this post detailing the reactions of young people to the play have been some of our most popular in recent months, giving us a new way to discuss sexual exploitation online. 

The reaction to both the live run and online broadcast of the play has been exceptional. 

Disturbing, hard hitting, honest…every teenager, parent, police officer, teacher, social worker should see it. I now have a much better understanding of how these awful events unfold – this deserves to be seen by a wider audience.
Adult audience member

It was phenomenal. I see the world differently now. I had heard about Rochdale but I didn't really understand before. I hated Tia in the first scene. I knew girls like that when I was at school but what happened to her was unbearable. She was just a lost kid who fronted everyone out. How could anyone do that to a young girl?  I feel a bit ashamed that I judged her so much at first.
16-year-old audience member

We’re pleased to announce that there's more to come. Firebird is transferring to Trafalgar Studios from 18 February to 21 March 2016 meaning it will be critically reviewed. We're hoping that by reaching more people and fresh audiences, Firebird will help The Children’s Society change lives. 

You can book a ticket to see Firebird here


Emma Wilson, senior communications officer, The Children’s Society

Emma Wilson is senior communications officer at The Children’s Society working on partnerships, events, and communications planning around campaigns. She has worked in both internal and external communications in the private sector as well as the children’s charity sector.