The normalisation of underage sex is leaving children unprotected, says national family charity

Date published: 09 May 2017

The normalisation of underage sex is exposing children and young people to the risk of sexual exploitation, according to a new report from the national charity, Family Education Trust.

Based on an analysis of high profile cases of child sexual exploitation, the study highlights an aspect of the debate which has so far been neglected.

The 152-page report examines the findings of serious case reviews of child sexual exploitation in several parts of England, including Rochdale and Oxfordshire, alongside Professor Alexis Jay's Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham.

It finds that the failure of professionals to detect the abuse of so many young people in different parts of the country cannot be accounted for by the incompetence of individual officers or inadequate systems at the local level. Rather, it has to do with a culture in which underage sexual activity has come to be viewed as a normal part of growing up and seen as relatively harmless as long as it is consensual.

The report's author, Family Education Trust director Norman Wells, commented: "The evidence from recent serious case reviews clearly demonstrates that fundamental flaws in professional attitudes towards underage sexual activity have directly contributed to exploitation and abuse."

The study finds common themes emerging from the serious case reviews - themes which have been largely overlooked by agencies and governmental bodies charged with protecting young people from sexual exploitation and abuse:

  • A presumption that sexual activity involving children of a similar age (or with an age gap of just a few years) is consensual and will not normally involve child sexual exploitation.
  • A failure to recognise that sexual activity between young people of similar ages may still involve abuse or exploitation.
  • A culture in which underage sexual activity is not challenged and hence becomes normalised.
  • A failure on the part of professionals to raise questions about underage sex or even about the identity of the father when presented with a pregnant teenager under the age of 16.
  • A culture in which the response of professionals to underage sex is frequently limited to the confidential provision of contraception in order to reduce the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection.
  • A disparity between the age at which children may access contraception and the age at which they are legally able to give consent to sexual activity.
  • Confusion over the interpretation and implementation of guidelines in relation to the routine provision of contraception to under-16s, contributing to child sexual exploitation.
  • An expectation that under-16s will be sexually active meaning that access to sexual health services under the age of consent is regarded as normal and positive, and therefore fails to trigger any consideration of the possibility that the girls might be suffering abuse.
  • Young people feeling let down by professionals prioritising patient confidentiality over safeguarding.
  • A tendency to dismiss parental concerns and to regard parents as part of the problem.
  • Children being treated as adults, with the competence and autonomy to make their own choices in relation to sexual activity.

Norman Wells remarked: "Relaxed attitudes towards underage sex has led to what can only be described as a paralysis in child protection agencies as far apart as Rochdale in the north, Torbay in the south, Thurrock in the east and Liverpool in the west.

"Even though the normalisation of underage sex has been identified repeatedly in the serious case reviews as a reason for the complacency of child protection agencies, there is no indication of a willingness to address these underlying issues either at the local or the national level."

The Family Education Trust study raises serious questions about the government's plans to combat child sexual exploitation by making relationships education a compulsory part of the primary school curriculum and by making relationships and sex education a statutory subject in all secondary schools.

The report argues that the approach to relationships and sex education favoured by the leading campaigners will prove counter-productive and do more harm than good. It comments that: "The message that children and young people must be left free to decide for themselves ‘when they are ready’ to embark on a sexual relationship is failing them and exposing them to the risk of sexual exploitation."

The report further observes that the Oxfordshire serious case review noted that the reluctance in many places, both political and professional, to have any firm statements about something being ‘wrong’ had contributed to an environment where it is easier for vulnerable young people/children tobe exploited. It also makes it harder for professionals to have the confidence and bravery to be more proactive on prevention and intervention.

Norman Wells commented: "The evidence from the serious case reviews suggests that the relativistic approach advocated by the leading campaigners for statutory sex education isnot the solution, but is rather part of the problem.

"We should be wary of any approach to sex and relationships education that is reluctant to declare anything ‘wrong’. Children, young people and professionals alike all need a clear moral compass in order to safely negotiate the confused and confusing landscape that lies before them."

Bearing the title 'Unprotected', the report argues that high levels of child sexual exploitation cannot be addressed by improved communications or there structuring of local authority and police departments, nor by statutory relationships and sex education. It demonstrates that the root causes that need to be addressed are social, cultural and moral. Unless the government, together with professional bodies and child protection agencies, is willing to grasp the nettle and reverse the normalisation of underage sex, children and young people will remain exposed to the risk of child sexual exploitation.

Professor David Paton of Nottingham University Business School described the report's findings as ‘utterly damning’. Writing in the Foreword, he insists: "With the publication of this report, policymakers and professionals working in sexual health no longer have any excuse to ignore the evidence... It isof the utmost importance that the government takes the findings of this report seriously and undertakes an urgent review of its approach to confidential sexual health services."

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