I cannot imagine there are sensible adults who want to live in a culture in which child sexual exploitation is a new social norm in some or any communities. Yet there are sensible adults who are not doing all they can to make sure we develop a healthy and positive culture about young people, sex and sexuality. Today’s important report from Ann Coffey MP Real Voices, into child sexual exploitation (CSE) across Greater Manchester is another reminder of why this has to change.
The report echoes all of the previous evidence including the Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s inquiry into peer on peer exploitation. It is right for us to be really worried. And if we didn’t know already what we have to do, then we do now. It is important to remember that publishing the report is not the task itself – it tells us our task.
The Real Voices report on CSE is very welcome (here’s Brook’s statement on its publication). It is refreshing to read a report that takes children and young people’s views so seriously – unsurprising given the young volunteers from Brook who met Ann to inform the report said that they felt really listened to. Real Voices is pretty grim reading. It reflects our failures to take children and young people seriously and meet our obligations to protect against abuse and exploitation under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The report includes a wide range of sensible recommendations that national, regional and local policy makers must take heed of, and quickly.
Ann states child sexual exploitation is becoming the new social norm in some communities. This sums up the important task we have yet to grasp effectively. We must never allow CSE to become the new social norm in any community. CSE is deeply rooted in inequalities, misogyny and sexism as well as a cultural lack of trust of young people which manifests itself in systematic abuse and violence.
So we can easily agree we don’t want CSE as a new social norm. As a country we are less clear, it seems, about what we do want for young people and setting about working in partnership with young people to establish a culture that realises this ambition.
We are at best ambivalent and more likely downright confused about the social norms we do want for young people’s health and social behaviours. Just a month or so ago I read an article reflecting on the positive downward trends in teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol use amongst young people. Instead of welcoming and rewarding their responsible behaviours it asked whether this generation of young people are boring. How galling that would be if you are 15, 16 or 17?
So then, imagine what it feels like to be a young person growing up in 2014: we condemn them for ‘sexting’ and chastise them for learning about sex from porn. We wave our hands in despair because young people are supposedly having sex earlier and earlier and teenage pregnancy rates are going through the roof – despite the evidence that neither is true – and when data is published showing HIV infection rates have almost doubled amongst gay men 15-24 years old in the last decade, the news is met with almost universal silence.
Young people tell us what they want from their sex and relationships education decade after decade, and instead of providing it we are still arguing about whether schools must provide good sex and relationships education instead of how. We know young women often feel unsafe and experience disproportionate violence and exploitation and we don’t do nearly enough to address the systemic inequalities that enable that to happen.
Ann Coffey’s report emphasises the importance of listening to the real and lived experiences of children and young people. That requires us to trust them and value them. That requires significant culture change. We must stop messing about, name and call out the behaviours, the incoherent policy, failures to invest early enough and the lack of action that let all young people down. It is our collective responsibility to do all we can to tackle the inequalities that breed all types of violence, as well as provide extra protection to those who experience particular vulnerability to abuse and exploitation such as children in care.
If we are to make the rhetoric of Ann Coffey’s report a reality, we will have to accept CSE is not isolated to one or two cities, and we have to recognise that just talking about it isn’t enough. We will need to ensure that there is proper investment in early intervention and prevention, good quality education, targeted support and sexual health services, despite the financial landscape. The economic and social costs of nottackling the root causes of child sexual exploitation are too high for the young people involved and for society as a whole.
If we are to make the change we all want we must trust young people, value their sexuality, understand healthy sexual development, and address the root causes of violence. This report is yet another reminder that it is time for us to grow up and adopt a no nonsense approach to supporting young people and their developing sexuality, and a no excuses approach to violence and exploitation that at Brook we know will deliver results.