The children’s charity says new findings reveal up to a third of victims are male.
The figure, taken from analysis of more than 9,000 records, shows a deeper problem than previously recognised.
Barnardo’s says schools must teach boys about the dangers of grooming.
‘Urgent action required’
By analysing the records of 9,042 victims of child sexual exploitation (CSE) since 2008, University College London found almost one in three (2,986) was male. The eight to 17-year-olds included in the study had all previously been supported by Barnardo’s.
Earlier studies had suggested boys accounted for a far smaller proportion of children affected by such abuse.
Only 11% of the 1,943 victims who gave their gender in a 2012 report on child grooming from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England (OCCE) were boys. In the 2011 findings of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop), 12.5% of 2,083 individuals were boys.
Barnardo’s chief executive Javed Khan said “urgent action” was needed to ensure boys received the same protection and education as girls concerning sexual abuse.
He explained: “We need to be brutally honest with ourselves. Society is miserably and unacceptably failing sexually exploited boys and young men.
“The telltale signs are being missed because of a lack of awareness and stereotypes about the nature of this form of abuse.”
Mr Khan hoped the report would highlight the message that “it is not just girls who fall victim to this horrendous crime.
“All children must have the knowledge to protect themselves,” he explained.
A 20-year-old man, who does not wish to be named, shares his story of being sexually exploited at the age of 12:
“I was going through real difficulties in my life. I didn’t see it as grooming at the time… I thought we were together in an intimate, loving relationship.
He was very controlling and he constantly made threats that he would leave me.
He would buy me things like mobile phones which would later be used to arrange encounters with other abusive adults.
I felt like this had become my way of life. My drug use got very heavy. Eventually I just became so unwell… that I was taken into hospital. That is how I broke free.
Boys don’t fit this blueprint that professionals and the general public have about what victims of sexual crimes should look like.
Boys are expected to always like sex.”
‘Overlooked as victims’
But findings from NatCen Social Research have revealed that those dealing with children can be less protective of boys than girls.
The organisation’s interviews with 50 professionals from voluntary sector CSE services and specialist CSE units within police forces, social services and youth offending services suggested that opportunities to protect boys, or recognise when they are being exploited, were being missed.
Dr Carol McNaughton Nicholls, who led the study, said boys were “at risk of being overlooked as victims”.
“We need to ensure we understand and address these risks, and protect young people from harm, regardless of gender,” she added.
This has led Barnardo’s to call for schools to provide “high quality, age-appropriate sex and relationship education” so that boys are equally informed of the dangers of sexual exploitation.
Meanwhile, the NSPCC has urged people not to hesitate before intervening if they fear a child is at risk.
The children’s charity published findings from a survey of 2,797 adults which suggested almost two in three would worry about having their intentions misunderstood or being falsely accused if they approached a lost child.
“We need everyone to understand that taking action is always the right thing to do,” NSPCC director Peter Watt said.