4 Nov 2015

Huge numbers of sex crimes against older teenagers in England and Wales in the last year went unreported and unpunished because many victims were gripped by the fear of not being believed and suspicion of the justice system, a new report by The Children’s Society reveals.

The staggering scale of under-reporting is highlighted in new figures obtained and analysed by The Children's Society, as part of its Seriously Awkward campaign, which underline the appalling number of sexual offences against 16 and 17 year olds in the last year.

Through freedom of information requests, the charity found that police in England recorded 4,900 sexual offence cases — including sexual exploitation, rape and sexual assaults — against 16 and 17 year olds in the last year. But in stark contrast, the organisation’s analysis of the Crime Survey for England and Wales reveals that an estimated 50,000 girls alone say they have been victims of these crimes. More than for other age groups.

The report shows that half of those young people who did not report sexual crimes to the police did not report it because they either did not consider it worth reporting, feared going to court, or because they did not want the perpetrators punished. It is a picture that is reflected by the charity's front-line staff who work with children and young people across the country who have been sexually abused or are at risk of sexual exploitation.

Many do not go to the police, fearing they will not be believed or that they will be judged. Others because they fear the perpetrators or are uncertain about what constitutes crime, consent and sexual exploitation. 

The report, Old Enough To Know Better?: Why sexually exploited teenagers are being overlooked, also found that of the cases reported to the police, fewer than 1 in 5 resulted in a charge or summons.

Older teenagers who have experienced sexual exploitation face huge obstacles in getting the protection and help they need. Despite their being more vulnerable than other age groups, there is often less protection and support available because they are seen as being 'old enough to know better' because they have reached the age of consent. As a result, they are often blamed for putting themselves in risky situations even when they have been specifically targeted and groomed through the use of drugs and alcohol.  

The Children’s Society is calling on the Government to make sure that police have the means they need to protect 16 and 17 year olds from sexual exploitation and that consent to take drugs and drink alcohol is never confused with consent to engage in sexual acts.

It is also vital that the Government recognises vulnerable young people at this age, including those in care, recovering from trauma and those with mental health and learning disabilities, as being particularly at risk of sexual exploitation by adults.

All 16 and 17 year old victims of sexual crimes must get access to the appropriate therapeutic or mental health support they need in order to recover from this horrific abuse. And have it continue as needed as they move into adulthood.

Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said: 'Too many children are being left to suffer sexual exploitation in silence. Despite 16 and 17 year olds being at the highest risk, they often receive the least support. Dangerous inconsistencies in the law and services need to be changed. These young people are still children and the Government must make sure that the police and other agencies have the means they need in order to keep them safe.'  

The Children's Society revealed in its Seriously Awkward campaign, launched earlier in the year, that too often 16 and 17 year olds are being let down by the law and do not receive basic protection to keep them safe and healthy because of their age and the misperception that they are old enough to look after themselves.  

Media enquiries

For more information, please call The Children’s Society media team on 020 7841 4422, 07775 812 357 or email beth.herzfeld@childrenssociety.org.uk.

For out-of-hours enquiries please call 07810 796 508.

Notes to editors

  • Read the summary, full text and interactive version of 'Old Enough to Know Better?: Why sexually exploited older teenagers are being overlooked'.
  • Our figures are based on two main sources of data: Freedom of information requests and analysis of the Crime Survey for England and Wales.
  • Freedom of information requests were sent to 39 police forces in England enquiring about sexual crimes recorded where the victims were aged 16 and 17 as well as the number of cases where 16 and 17 year olds were flagged as being at risk of sexual exploitation and for policies on when young people at risk of child sexual exploitation turn 18. Out of 39 requests for information sent, we received 30 responses.
  • We assessed and analysed the Crime Survey for England and Wales’ data in relation to 16 and 17 year olds from the last three crime surveys: April 2011-March 2014. Among respondents to the most recent survey (2013-14) 8.6% of girls aged 16-17 say they had been a victim of a sexual offence during the last 12 months. This was a considerably higher proportion than any other age group included in the study (younger children were not included) and represents the weighted percentage from a base number of 224 respondents. All findings were checked with the Office for National Statistics. We have extrapolated this figure to the number of 16 and 17 year old girls in the population to show that, if these findings were reflected across the population at this rate, it would equate to around 50,000 16 and 17 year old girls who had experienced a sexual offence in the last year in England and Wales.
  • The Children's Society’s Seriously Awkward campaign is calling on the Government to make sure that the proposed Policing and Criminal Justice Bill includes specific measures to protect 16 and 17 year olds from abuse, harm and neglect. 
  • The Children’s Society is a national charity that runs local services, helping children and young people when they are at their most vulnerable, and have nowhere left to turn. We also campaign for changes to laws affecting children and young people, to stop the mistakes of the past being repeated in the future. Our supporters around the country fund our services and join our campaigns to show children and young people they are on their side.