Boys don’t cry? Young men can be victims of sexual exploitation, too
Earlier this month I attended an event at our Streetsafe project in Lancashire that raised awareness about the grooming and sexual exploitation of boys and young men.
As a society we know more about girls as victims of child sexual exploitation (CSE). However, the truth is that boys and young men are also at great risk of being sexually exploited.
Listening to the moving speech by Marilyn Hawes, the founder of Enough Abuse and the mother of twin boys who were sexually abused, I once again realised how much needs to change to protect boys from sexual exploitation.
Any boy can be at risk of sexual exploitation
While any boy could be sexually exploited, there are certain groups – those who have gone missing, been in care, are out of education, or involved in gangs and/or criminal activity – that are particularly vulnerable.
According to the most recent crime statistics, there were 1125 offences of sexual assaults on boys under 13 and 4301 on girls.
While this might appear to indicate that girls are more likely to be exploited than boys, that’s not necessarily so. It is well known that boys are less inclined to disclose abuse and their abuse is less likely to be identified by professionals such as social workers and the police. So the number of boys who are sexually exploited is likely to be a lot higher than we know.
Signs of abuse, reasons for silence
The event explored reasons why boys might not tell others that they had been abused, as well as the attitudes of professionals and society to boys as victims and perpetrators of crime.
Participants, many of whom had years of experience working with sexually exploited young men, explained that boys are often reluctant to talk about difficult issues. Boys are also more aware of the stigma of sexual exploitation, which is sometimes linked to issues relating to their own sexuality.
It is important for adults to be able to spot the signs of abuse and know how to support children in these situations. Training carried out by our projects and other agencies such as Enough Abuse educate parents and professionals about signs of sexual abuse.
It also helps professionals such as teachers, the police, social workers and parents learn about key risk indicators, such as:
- non-attendance at school (as explored in our recent report, Lessons to Learn)
- risk-taking behaviour, such as going missing
- delayed emotional and behavioural development
Tackling the barriers around CSE
We also need to do more to educate young people about the dangers of child sexual exploitation. Although young people receive the basics of sex education in school, they do not get relationship education on issues such as consent and healthy, safe, respectful relationships.
We have an opportunity to change this as the government is revising the PHSE (personal, social and health education) curriculum. We responded to their consultation and will continue to put pressure on them to ensure that information on safe relationships, CSE and running away is included in the new curriculum.
Sexual exploitation is sadly still seen as a taboo issue that we are often scared to talk about. In addition children are often not believed or are even blamed for their role in sexual exploitation, as found by the inquiry we supported into children who go missing from care.
Attitudes and practices are slowly starting to change as we begin to learn and talk more about the issue. But as a society we have a long way to go before sexually exploited boys and young men are given the support and focus they need. Events like this one in Lancashire are helping to draw attention to the problem.