At our meeting in March we were joined by Jenny Pearce, Professor of Young People & Public Policy, University of Bedfordshire and visiting professor at Goldsmiths University. Her professional interest is in the procedures and mechanisms available to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation (CSA/E).
She said that sexual abuse takes many forms: abuse within the family, online abuse, the exchange of sexual favours for some alternative benefit, trafficking for sexual exploitation, early and forced child marriage, and female (and to some extent, male) genital mutilation. Online abuse is a more recent and rapidly expanding danger. It is distinct from earlier manifestations of abuse in that the victims are generally younger, it has wide reach, the events occur rapidly and are difficult to trace, group influence builds up very quickly (bullying and trolling), and it is beyond the experience of most adults.
Who are the perpetrators? CSA/E can occur within any community but victims’ marginalisation or financial pressure are common features. Financial gain is often a trigger – human trafficking, along with drugs and arms sales, are the three biggest earners for organised crime. The perpetrators can be individuals or groups, children or adults, and are generally known within the family or community. 10-15 year olds were estimated to have experienced 465,000 incidents of violent crime in 2013, of which 79 percent had been carried out by someone also aged 10-15.
Jenny quoted many statistics demonstrating that child sexual abuse/exploitation is both much more widespread than most people would like to believe and is increasing rapidly, particularly online. She explained that there are many problems with recognising CSA/E. For a start, victims are often very reluctant to reveal that they’ve been exploited, the violence is hidden because of personal guilt, or shame for the family or community, or for fear of being perceived as ‘different’. Research suggests that, typically, it takes over seven years for an episode to be disclosed and the younger the victim the longer the delay. There are many explanations for this delay. These include ‘trauma-bonding’, where the victim has a strong sense of loyalty towards the abuser (‘our little secret’), the ‘survival brain’ phenomenon that prioritises attachment in response to fear, and even negative feelings towards potential rescuers. And even when the activity is exposed the child is frequently not believed or the damage is not taken seriously.
There are many problems with monitoring the prevalence of CSA/E. Different countries use different definitions, and different agencies, for example the police and social services, record it under different headings that are difficult to reconcile.
Most societies have private or public bodies that are set up to protect and rehabilitate children and also to manage public anxiety about CSA/E. The problem is that it is embarrassing and discomforting for us to tackle instances of abuse so we pass the problem to the agency that is supposedly responsible for dealing with it and then forget it. But these agencies are generally under-resourced and over-worked, with the result that many cases are missed or ignored (remember the ‘Baby Peter’ case in 2007?). We ‘idolise’ the system – meaning we expect it to take care of the problem, but then get annoyed when it doesn’t work.
However, Professor Pearce ended on a more optimistic note. She described several projects involving academics, police and social workers with actual or potential victims, where control of the project is given to the victims: they determine what to investigate and what the outcomes should be.
Professor Pearce’s slide set:
Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse website
Review by SELHuG Secretary Tony Brewer