“It’s just easier that way,” says Phillip Mitchell casually. “We tend to see girls as the weaker sex, the more vulnerable sex, so we look out for them more. It’s much easier.”
The project worker is discussing an often-overlooked problem when it comes to child sexual exploitation (CSE) and abuse – why female victims are always the first, and often only, concern, disproportionately represented in awareness-raising campaigns.
His comments are timely. This week, research by University College London (UCL) found one in three victims of CSE is male. It is already prompting questions about how practitioners and campaigners should protect, and engage with, male victims and boys at risk.
Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo’s, says: “We need to be brutally honest with ourselves. At the moment society is miserably and unacceptably failing sexually exploited boys and young men.”
Mitchell’s experiences working with children and young people affected by CSE have reminded him that, “most people are thinking about girls”. It is a bias he is now challenging through his work at the BLAST project, a male only CSE support and awareness-raising campaign.
Campaigns and outreach programmes usually focus on girls, agrees Martyn Sullivan, chief executive of Mankind Counselling, an organisation that counsels men who have been victims of rape, sexual assault or sexual abuse in either childhood or adulthood.
“This happens all the time, any advertising is always directed towards girls even though the project might be for boys as well,” he says.
The UCL research, supported by Barnardo’s, looked at 9,042 records of children and young people affected by CSE since 2008 and found 2,986 (one in three) of those were male.
Claire Lilley, head of child safety online at the NSPCC, also revealed ChildLine has spoken to over 3,000 boys about CSE in the last year.
The researchers identified that stereotypes meant boys were overlooked in protection proceedings, a fact that wouldn’t shock Mitchell. “When I go to a meeting and you’re talking about protecting children and young people there is always someone who says, ‘yeah we’ve got to look after these girls’, and it’s like, ‘right, ok’, even though you know you’re saying words that are inclusive of boys and girls, most people are thinking of girls,” he says.
Dr. Ella Cockbain, one of UCL’s researchers, hopes the findings will prompt a positive shift from girl-centric policy and practice, Lilley agrees: “Any campaigns about sexual abuse should be aimed at both girls and boys because the risk is not exclusive to one gender.”
Yet questions remain over the inclusivity and efficacy of campaigns, teaching tools and public discourse in informing boys and young men that the risks of sexual exploitation apply to them.
“The message that girls are vulnerable to sexual abuse has been hammered home over the years but, for some reason, it may not be so clear about boys facing the same risks,” Lilley says.
Differences in typical male and female behaviour may offer some explanation as to why practitioners or awareness strategies may not notice boys as victims. “Girls will report things more, girls will engage better with services than boys, girls will make more disclosures,” says Mitchell. Looking out for boys requires you to “challenge your own perceptions”, he adds.
Khan adds: “The tell-tale signs are being missed because of a lack of awareness and stereotypes about the nature of this form of abuse.”
Challenging perceptions is particularly important when one considers the profound impact of such crimes. A recent report by Barnardo’s found the impact on victims, both male or female, can include substance abuse, self-harm, depression and suicide.
Yet research by Mankind into 67 services claiming to work with both male and female victims (of rape and sexual abuse) revealed 61 (91%) did not mention boys or men on their website.
This gender-bias can leave male victims feeling isolated, Sullivan warns. “Obviously if something’s happened to you and you look out into the world and you see something has happened to somebody else but they are a different gender, and you can’t find anyone else the same as you, you start to feel very different. You’re thinking, “Ok what actually happened to me is out of the ordinary,” he says.
Lilley points out the risks of not meeting boys’ needs: “If they don’t start getting this crucial information at an early age it could leave them defenceless against sexual exploitation.”
Progress is being made in some areas, however. Police in Jersey recently launched a campaign to raise awareness of CSE, which – despite only featuring female victims in the advertising – is targeting boys and girls.
“I fully acknowledge [boys] can be victims too,” says Alison Fossey from Jersey police, “and indeed all the accompanying material and training we have rolled out to accompany the campaign fully acknowledges that”.
BLAST has been driving forward progress too, presenting resource materials, focused on male victims, to safeguarding boards, schools and local authorities.
Mitchell shares his advice for connecting with boys. “We know this through anecdotal chat: if a girl sees a story of a boy being groomed and exploited, the girl is able to relate to it. If it was the other way round, and the boy was watching the story of a girl being sexually exploited, the boy will says, ‘it’s a girl so obviously it doesn’t happen to boys’. That’s one of the key differences.
“Instead of having a campaign that talks about children, have a campaign that talks about girls and another that talks about boys. Because even when you’re talking ‘children and young people’, you can say you’re being inclusive but people read it thinking of girls.”
A BLAST project advert raising awareness for male victims of CSE.