Empowering young people with sexual rights, knowledge, skills and confidence can help protect them against abuse.
The Waterhouse Report revealed a shocking catalogue of sex abuse in children’s homes in north Wales, prompting demands for new measures to crackdown on abusers and protect the vulnerable.
Most of these measures have focused on better vetting and monitoring of care workers, new systems of inspection, further surveillance and restrictions on convicted sex offenders, and even the wholesale termination of institutional care.
While all these proposals have their merits, they one-sidedly prioritise action to identify and exclude potential abusers. This strategy overlooks a key element in the child protection equation: helping young people protect themselves.
Sexual abuse of young people rarely involves explicit coercion or violence. Psychological pressure and manipulation are more common. It is therefore astonishing that sexual assertiveness training is not part of the sex education curriculum.
The issue of abuse is not even discussed in most schools – let alone in children’s homes. It should be talked about, but it isn’t. Teachers and care workers don’t tell young people how to deal with sex pests and what to do if they are molested. Advising them to phone Childline is not enough.
Fending off a predatory older person is not easy, even for adults. It is an acquired skill, and it requires a degree of confidence. Young people – especially those ‘at risk’ in children’s homes – therefore need to be taught the ability and assuredness to resist and report unwanted sexual advances.
This is, of course, a difficult task. Institutionalised kids are often damaged and disturbed. They tend to have low self-esteem and lack confidence, which makes it hard imparting assertiveness skills. Nevertheless, although not every child will benefit, some will. If abuse education can save only a minority of children from falling victim to sexual exploitation, then it is still worthwhile.
But we also need to look at the bigger picture: the social values that often unwittingly underpin the sex abuse of children. Sex-negative attitudes are a contributory factor.
People who sexually exploit young people often get way with it because the victims feel guilty about sex and are therefore reluctant to complain. This guilt and reluctance is reinforced by the dominant cultural mix of prurience and puritanism, which tends to still regard sex as something sordid that should be kept hidden and private. This anti-sex mentality is a godsend to abusers. They rely on guilt and secrecy to carry out their molestation undetected.
To undermine the sexual shame that inhibits the exposure of abusers, sex education lessons should encourage young people to have a more open and positive attitude towards sexual matters. Teenagers who feel at ease talking about sex are more likely to disclose abuse. Early disclosure is the key to ending the cycle of systematic, decades-long institutional exploitation documented in the Waterhouse Report.
The other problematic social value is adult chauvinism, best summed up in the old adage that children should be seen and not heard. This, again, plays straight into the hands of abusers. Not infrequently, they get away with acts of sexual interference by relying on the young victim’s reticence to challenge adult authority.
Despite the UN Year of the Child and a number of child-centred legal reforms over the last three decades, the reality of children’s rights remains ambiguous – especially in the realm of sexual rights.
According to the law, a person under 16 is incapable of consenting to a sexual act. They are deemed unable to understand the implications of having sex. Any sexual relationship with such a person, even if freely entered into by both partners, is therefore categorised, in law, as an indecent assault. By saying that the under-16s are not allowed to consent to a sexual relationship, the unspoken message is that they have no sexual rights – which is the precise mind-set of the abusive adult.
Curiously, the age of criminal responsibility is ten. From that age onwards, the law says that a person who commits a crime, such as murder or robbery, can be assumed to know what they were doing and can therefore be held responsible for their behaviour. But it is not until the age of 16 that the law acknowledges young people’s ability to give sexual consent. The implication is that a decision to have sex is more complex and grave than a decision to kill or rob.
The ten-year-old killers of James Bulger were declared old enough to be responsible for their actions and be convicted of murder. But if they’d had sex with each other and said they had consented, the courts would have ruled that they were too young to understand what is involved in a sexual relationship.
This case sums up the legal muddle over the sexual rights of youth. Parliament seeks to safeguard against abuse by setting the age of consent at 16. But by denying the under-16s the right to consent to sex, it reinforces the idea that they have no right to make their own sexual choices. Isn’t this what child sex abusers believe? Doesn’t it help legitimate the attitudes that allow abuse to flourish?
To combat abusive relations, schools and children’s homes need to positively encourage a culture of young people’s rights, including the right to control their own bodies. This affirmation of teenagers right to sexual self-determination, and their education and empowerment to assert that right, should be given a much higher priority in the fight against abuse.
Published as “Power to young people”, Community Care, 23-29 March 2000.
Copyright Peter Tatchell 2000. All rights reserved.