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Old enough to know better?

Why sexually exploited older teenagers are being overlooked


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Old enough to know better?


Why sexually exploited teenagers are being overlooked

Becky on computer

16 and 17 are known as awkward ages, but the challenges for those who are sexually exploited are much more than awkward - they’re serious.

These young people fall through the cracks in the law, without the same basic protections as younger children to be kept safe, recover or get justice.

Sixteen is the legal age of consent to sexual activity. Although many laws declare that any person under the age of 18 is a child, the law protecting children from sexual crimes does not provide young people age 16 and 17 the same level of protection as younger children.

Our report examines why older teenagers are particularly at risk of child sexual exploitation, what can happen when a young person reveals they are being exploited and why existing protection is insufficient.

It uncovers a series of new findings based on interviews and case notes with specialist practitioners, and analysis of Crime Surveys and Freedom of Information responses.

 

What is child sexual exploitation (CSE)?

Child sexual exploitation is someone taking advantage of you sexually, for their own benefit. Through threats, bribes, violence, humiliation, or by telling you that they love you, they will have the power to get you to do sexual things for their own, or other people’s benefit or enjoyment, including: touching or kissing private parts, sex, taking sexual photos.
(Defined in collaboration with young people from The Children’s Society)

You can read more on our webpage: Knowing the signs of child sexual exploitation

Letter from a young person we support

If I could say anything to anyone who is a victim of sexual exploitation I would say that when you put a ‘welcome’ mat in the front of your house, no one blames you for being robbed, so there’s no point blaming yourself for what you wear or who you hang around with. None of these reasons are acceptable enough to be subjected to such wreckage.

Anyone can be a Prince Charming, but anyone can also be a sexual offender and a child exploiter – it’s just the signs of an offender isn’t as obvious as a Prince Charming.

Prince Charming can be in disguise for someone that will take your trust and take your innocence and use it to their advantage, and they won’t return it.

The only way to survive a situation like this is to save yourself or remain unsaved.

Everything that’s happened to me has left a scar, it’s not visible and it’s not irreversible, I just wish so much that I could have seen these people for what they really were and saved myself before it was too late.

Letter from a young person we support

If I could say anything to anyone who is a victim of sexual exploitation I would say that when you put a ‘welcome’ mat in the front of your house, no one blames you for being robbed, so there’s no point blaming yourself for what you wear or who you hang around with. None of these reasons are acceptable enough to be subjected to such wreckage.

Anyone can be a Prince Charming, but anyone can also be a sexual offender and a child exploiter – it’s just the signs of an offender isn’t as obvious as a Prince Charming.

Prince Charming can be in disguise for someone that will take your trust and take your innocence and use it to their advantage, and they won’t return it.

The only way to survive a situation like this is to save yourself or remain unsaved.

Everything that’s happened to me has left a scar, it’s not visible and it’s not irreversible, I just wish so much that I could have seen these people for what they really were and saved myself before it was too late.

16 and 17 year olds are the most at risk but the least protected

Only one in 10 mental health trusts fast track victims of child sexual exploitation for mental health support

Teenage girls aged 16 and 17 are more likely to be a victim of a sexual offence than any other age group, with almost one in ten saying they experienced a sexual offence in the last year.

 

Graph

Percent within age groups of females who have been sexually assaulted (including attempts) in the past year

Vulnerable children are targeted the most

We know from our own specialist services that people who sexually exploit children particularly prey on the most vulnerable 16 and 17 year olds. They will go to great lengths to target vulnerable young people, using gifts, affection, money, alcohol, drugs - or the promise of love. Victims are commonly teenagers in the care system, with backgrounds of abuse and neglect, learning disabilities or with mental health problems.

‘Kids like me deserve this.’

(Young person who disclosed abuse)

The law fails to give older teenagers the same protection as younger children

16 and 17 year olds can consent to sex in healthy relationships. But because of legal inconsistencies, there is a dangerous lack of understanding about how situations where they are being coerced or groomed into sex constitutes child sexual exploitation.  This means older teenagers are not seen as victims and don’t get the same protection or help as younger children. 

Huge numbers of sexual offences against older teenagers in England and Wales in the last year went unreported and unpunished because victims were gripped by the fear of not being believed, being scared of the process or thought the offence wasn’t worth reporting. 

We see in our frontline work how these vulnerable teenagers are often not recognised as victims of exploitation, professionals can be unsure or reluctant to intervene, and the police can find it very difficult to bring perpetrators to justice. 

Age 0-12

0-12 year olds are fully protected. Sexual offences against children under 13 are always crimes.

Age 13-15

As 13–15 year olds cannot legally consent to sex, they are protected (but only if the defendant could not reasonably believe the child was 16).

Age 16-17

Because 16–17 year olds can legally consent to sex, they are only protected in very limited circumstances - cases of sexual abuse by a family member or person in a position of trust, pornography and what used to be known as ‘prostitution-related offences'.

Justice still out of reach

 

50% feel it's not worth reporting to the police

 

Older teenagers very rarely get any type of justice for the sexual crimes committed against them. Of the many 16 and 17 year olds that don’t report sexual offences to the police, half say it is because they don’t think it is worth reporting.

75% of reported cases result in no police action

The police fail to take action against the perpertator in more than three quarters of cases of sexual offences against 16 and 17 year olds. Only a tiny of proportion of cases result in a successful prosecution.

50,000

The estimated number of females aged 16 and 17 who report having experienced a sexual offence in the last 12 months

 

4,900

The estimated number of sexual offences against 16 and 17 year olds reported to the police in England in the last 12 months

 

860

The estimated number of the reported sexual offences against 16 and 17 year olds where someone was charged or received a summons or community disposal

 

Question mark

How many get a successful prosecution when the journey to justice is so difficult for a vulnerable young person?

Just 1 in 10 affected is fast-tracked for mental health support

16 and 17 year olds fail to get the right therapeutic support to cope with their trauma. There is no consistent child protection response across the country for this age group and only one in ten mental health trusts fast-tracks child victims of sexual exploitation for help, meaning that many miss out on the help they desperately need whilst their life often become increasing chaotic and dangerous.

‘[The young person] told me several times, she deserves everything she has experienced because she shouldn't have been born and that when she tried to take an overdose, if she was successful then it would have been better for everyone.’

(From our case notes)

Young people groomed with alcohol and drugs aren't believed

We know from our own services that alcohol and drugs, including legal highs,are often used to groom young people for sexual exploitation, especially those who are 16 and 17. This creates long-term dependency and some young people will continue to use drugs and alcohol because they feel it is a way to help them cope with the experiences of abuse. This can lead to them not being identified as victims of child sexual exploitation and makes getting justice for sexual crimes incredibly difficult. The law needs to take the role of drugs and alcohol in grooming into account.

‘Young person said that the girls were all ages, but they didn’t really speak to each other as they were usually off their heads on drugs’.

(From our case notes)

We need action now

Twenty years ago, we published a ground-breaking report drawing attention to the scale of child sexual exploitation in Britain. Our subsequent ‘Game’s Up’ campaign (which ran from 1995 -1997) called for changes to legislation to recognise that children who are sexually abused and exploited need protection not prosecution. This year the law has finally changed. It is no longer possible to prosecute a child under the age of 18 for involvement in their own sexual exploitation, and ‘child prostitution’ has at last been renamed as what is really is ‘child sexual exploitation’.

Being 16 and 17 is known as an awkward age but for the most vulnerable it is seriously awkward that we continue placing responsibility on older teenagers for keeping themselves safe. The law needs to change to recognise their vulnerability. And that change needs to happen now.

It cannot wait another 20 years.

'At least you're on my side, everyone here is against me.'

(From our case notes)

 



Changes to the law are urgently needed to protect 16 and 17 year olds

What the Government needs to do now

The legal framework is not always on the side of vulnerable young people, particularly 16 and 17 year olds, when it comes to protecting them from exploitative adults. That’s why we are asking  the Government to strengthen the law so that 16 and 17 year olds don’t fall through the cracks in protection and support.

The law should send a strong message that sexual offences  against all children, including those aged 16 and 17, will not be tolerated.

We are recommending:

  • The Government must give police the same tools to intervene when a 16 or 17 year old is being targeted and groomed for exploitation as younger children.

  • Clear guidance must be put in place so professionals such as police, teachers, social workers and NHS staff can all identify a 16 or 17 year old as a victim of sexual exploitation and work together to put support and protection in place.

  • Older teenagers who experience this awful trauma must receive urgent mental health support so they can stay safe and rebuild their lives.

Support the Seriously Awkward campaign

This isn’t just awkward, its seriously awkward and it has to change. We want 16 and 17 year olds who are being sexually exploited to be protected from harm, get the help they need and the justice they deserve.

Help us call on the government to change the law to protect 16 and 17 year olds from harm, abuse and neglect by supporting the Seriously Awkward campaign. 

Your gift could keep a child safe from sexual exploitation

The Children's Society works with the thousands of vulnerable young people at risk of sexual exploitation across the country. By donating today, you could help us reach a child before their abuser does.

 

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