This is a summarized version of a longer think piece by Stuart and colleagues; the longer document can be found at http://www.nota.co.uk/media/1304/think-piece-preventing-adolescent-harmful-sexual-behaviour-24317.pdf. Kieran
On 9th October 2017 the BBC reported that the number of reported sexual offences by under-18s against other under-18s in England and Wales rose by 71% from 4,603 from 2013-14 to 7,866 from 2016-17. The number of reported rapes among under-18s rose 46% from 1,521 to 2,223 over the same period, according to 32 police forces that supplied a breakdown of figures.
These are deeply shocking figures. It’s unclear whether this upturn represent a growing prevalence of harmful sexual behaviour amongst children and young people or whether we’ve always had a social problem of this scale and the upturn is because children and their parents are more likely to report sexual crime than they were in the past. Clearly abuse perpetrated by adolescents online and the influence of online pornography on some children’s sexual development suggest that the nature and context of harmful sexual behaviour is changing, even if we don’t know whether prevalence is genuinely on the increase. The figures in relation to young people charged with rape are especially concerning, but we also can’t make simple assumptions about the nature of adolescents charged with sexual crimes. A recent report on youth justice trends in England and Wales notes that just 3% of indictable incidents involved harmful sexual behaviour last year, and although many of these incidents were very serious in nature, 35% of sexual offences attracted a youth caution or youth conditional caution, suggesting that they were below the level of seriousness that requires prosecution in the public interest (Bateman 2017). One of the challenge of responding to this social problem is that normative, experimental or thrill seeking adolescent sexual behaviour is sometimes categorised in the same way as offences that are profoundly harmful to both victims and their families.
None the less, youth sexual violence is a significant and serious social problem and there is growing public debate about how we address this issue. The media focus of late has – in my view rightly – focused as much on what we need to do to stop these kinds of incidents happening in the first place as it has on whether we’re getting it right for both victims and perpetrators after these incidents occur. However, we need to ensure that these debates are anchored in what we know empirically about this subject rather than being driven by lazy media stereotypes of young people with brains addled by online porn that has eroded any awareness or understanding of consent or even respect. These are issues in some cases, but the problem is more complex than this. This is something we concluded earlier this year when I and a group of colleagues published a NOTA think piece on prevention of harmful sexual behaviour drawing on what we know from research about the pathways into these behaviours, the heterogeneity of different kinds of children and young people who display these behaviours and the different contexts abuse occurs in (http://www.nota.co.uk/media/1304/think-piece-preventing-adolescent-harmful-sexual-behaviour-24317.pdf).
What conclusions did we draw? We suggested that we need to think about a range of different sites for prevention that relate to the different sites or situations where abuse takes place: domestic environments, community settings (where particularly peer on peer sexual exploitation may be an issue, online space and organisational contexts such as schools , youth clubs residential units where young people come together and interact. Different settings might need different approaches to prevention, and we need to think about both primary prevention (the general messages we get across to all adults and young people themselves) and secondary prevention (engaging with those who may be at more elevated risk of displaying these kinds of behaviours) in each of these different settings.
We also concluded there is no one quick fix here. Young people being taught about consent and how the law applies to sexual relations, as well as minimising the developmentally disruptive impact of pornography on youth are important goals, and there is some research telling us that young people who have sexually abused others believe that these are the building blocks of prevention that may have deterred them from harming others (McKibbin, Humphreys et al. 2017)). However the evidence would suggest that harmful sexual behaviour emerges not solely from distorted or unhelpful attitudes to what is acceptable in relationships, but rather the interaction of such attitudes with emotional, social and sexual regulation skills. Prevention might be as much about skills and resilience as it is about the knowledge, information and experience that young people have.
We also need to think about this subject holistically and give parents the information and support they need to promote messages about prevention. Introducing concepts such as child and adolescent sexual development and how to support your child’s healthy sexual development in work with families who present to services with a complexity of need may be beneficial. Addressing such concepts through widely used evidence based parenting courses such as Triple P, Incredible Years or Parents Plus may be a way of targeting vulnerable families in a non-stigmatising manner to help promote sexual abuse prevention in home environments.
This is key, as ultimately we need to recognise that prevention of child sexual abuse is tied into the warp and woof of how as a society we bring up our children and encourage them to grow and develop. Prevention needs to take place within the context of a culture where sexual abuse is recognised as a significant public health problem and where care and thought is given to the promotion of political, cultural and social messages that amplify power differences between genders and between adults and children. This is vital as these messages – whether promoted by politicians, the media, professionals, family members or by children themselves – implicitly or explicitly promote attitudes that are the backdrop to abusive behaviour towards children.
Bateman, T. (2017). The State of youth justice 2017: an overview of trends and developments, National Association for Youth Justice.
McKibbin, G., et al. (2017). ““Talking about child sexual abuse would have helped me”: Young people who sexually abused reflect on preventing harmful sexual behavior.” Child Abuse & Neglect 70: 210-221.