Five myths about child sexual exploitation
Three years after the revelation of the biggest child sexual exploitation (CSE) scandal that shocked the country and one year after the publication of ‘Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation’, a comprehensive report that set out how the Government would deal with CSE and respond to the identified failures myths still persist about child sexual exploitation.
There has still been a rise of one third in recorded child sexual offences in the period between 2014 and 2015. Police recorded 47,008 sexual offences against children in the UK in 2014/15 which is the highest number of recorded sexual offences in the last decade. This may partially be down to increased reporting and more disclosures and victims coming forwards but there figures are still shamefully high. In 2015, Barnardo’s Scotland directly supported 266 young people who have been victims of or were at risk of being sexually exploited, but these figures may be the tip of the iceberg.
Research commissioned by the Scottish government, found that while 93% of parents have heard of child sexual exploitation, almost a third (29%) admit knowing little about it.
A YouGov survey of more than 500 parents and children also suggested 36% believe it will not affect their family. These figures are not available for the UK as a whole but it would be surprising if there was not a mirroring of results.
So what are the most common misunderstandings around CSE?
Myth #1: Child sexual exploitation only happens to children in care
Reality: The majority of victims of CSE (approx. 70%) are living at home. However, looked-after children account for a disproportionate number of victims and can be particularly vulnerable. In recent studies conducted by Barnardo’s nearly one-third of children who are sexually exploited in England are looked-after. The findings were taken from a survey of 498 children helped on one day by the charity’s 20 specialist sexual exploitation services.
More than three-quarters (76%) of victims in the North West were looked-after children. In London, eastern and south-east England 42% were in care while in the South West the figure was 39%. Overall, Barnardo’s found 29% were looked after, 16% had a disability and 5% a statement of special educational needs.
Myth #2: Child sexual exploitation only happens to girls and young women
Reality: Boys and young men are also targeted as victims of CSE by perpetrators. However, they may be less likely to disclose offences or seek support, often due to stigma, prejudice or embarrassment or the fear that they will not be believed. They may feel that they are able to protect themselves, but in cases of CSE physical stature is irrelevant because of the techniques of coercion and manipulation that are used. Statistics from the 2016 publication by the NSPCC – How safe are our children? (2016) reveal the following figures:
- Sexual assault on a male child under 13 – 2,252; sexual assault on a female child under 13 – 5,893.
- Rape of a male child under 16 – 606; rape of a female child under 16 – 4,241.
- Rape of a male child under 13 – 1,268; rape of a female child under 13 – 3,274.
Although sexual assaults on females are significantly higher, males are in no way free from risk.
Myth #3: Child sexual exploitation is only perpetrated by men
Reality: There is evidence that women can be perpetrators of this crime too. The Children’s Commissioner’s study found that:
72% of abusers were male but 10% of abusers were female. In 18% of cases gender wasn’t disclosed (Berelowitz et al, 2012).
Females may tend to use different grooming methods but they are known to target both boys and girls. Where women or girls have been identified as perpetrators, their role was primarily, though not exclusively, to procure victims. Women and girls who have been found perpetrating have tended to be young, had histories of being sexually exploited themselves and of abusing others in tandem with the group or gang that had previously sexually exploited them. Women and girls directly involved in sexually exploiting children were either in relationships with men who were perpetrators or related to, or friends with, men and boys who were abusers.
Myth #4: Child sexual exploitation is adults abusing children
Reality: Peer-on-peer child sexual exploitation happens too. Evidence indicated by the Children’s Commissioner’s study found that that the age range of abusers was from 12 to 75 years and again this can take various different forms. For example, young people are sometimes used to ‘recruit’ others, for example by inviting them to locations for parties where they will then be introduced to adults or forced to perform sexual acts on adults. Technology can also play a significant role with young people known to use mobile technology as a way of distributing images of abuse.
Myth #5: Child sexual exploitation only happens in large towns and cities
Reality: Evidence shows that CSE can and does happen in all parts of the country. CSE is not restricted to urban areas such as large town and cities but does happens in rural areas too. High profile police operations in areas as diverse as Rochdale, Cornwall and Oxfordshire are clear examples of this. Young people can also be transported between towns, cities, villages etc., for the purpose of being sexually exploited and this is known as trafficking within the UK (an offence punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment).
In 2013, 236 children were believed to have been trafficked for sexual exploitation. National Crime Agency and The National Crime Agency (NCA) collects information from a number of different agencies about potential victims of trafficking. This figure is likely to be an under-estimate due to the difficulties in recognising that individuals have been victims of trafficking activity.
The protection of children from this most despicable of crimes can come from two perspectives. One is on the Stopping perpetrators, supporting victims, securing justice and strengthening multi-agency responses. But the other is through preventing child sexual exploitation through education and awareness-raising.
This may be achieved by:
- Educating children and young people about healthy relationships, sexual consent and online risks.
- Raising awareness away from the stereotypes by teaching how to identifying, monitor and protect young people particularly vulnerable to exploitation regardless of ethnicity, gender, faith and sexual orientation.
- Eradicating the culture of denial by openly discussing and understanding the nature and risks of sexual exploitation among agencies, practitioners, children, parents, local government and the public.
- Increasing online safety awareness and implementing educational strategies across agencies.