Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph ran a story with a headline that was disturbing by any measure. It read “‘Chilling’ levels of child-on-child rape in Middle England.” The story takes its cue from the launch of three reports from the Children’s Commissioner for England, published yesterday as part of the agency’s wider inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups.
It is hard to imagine a more disturbing crime than the sexual exploitation of children by other children. Moreover, it is plausible to argue – as the reports do – that the problem is at risk of being overshadowed by concerns about other forms of child sexual abuse. Nonetheless, the claim that such crimes are widespread is striking.
You might be inclined to question the Telegraph’s version of the statements from the Children’s Commissioner inquiry. (It would hardly be the first time this newspaper has chosen to paint a distressing portrait of the nation’s youth.) But other news coverage has taken a similar tack. For instance, the BBC website stated that the inquiry “warned that the problem [of child sexual exploitation by gangs and groups] was prevalent in every area of England, and was not restricted just to low-income, inner-city neighbourhoods but ‘in every type of neighbourhood, rural, urban, deprived, not deprived.’”
In fact, it is hard to find any evidence in the Children’s Commissioner’s reports to support statements about the level or spread of child-on-child sexual exploitation. There are three main sources of information for the inquiry’s evidence base. The first is material from the police and other agencies. The inquiry’s final report does discuss this data, but draws no conclusions about the level of child-on-child abuse. This is not surprising. It is all but impossible to make meaningful estimates of prevalence from these sources, given well-recognised problems of under-reporting, varied and changing definitions and the particular challenges in investigating such crimes.
The second source of information is a piece of qualitative research by the University of Bedfordshire. This focused on six neighbourhoods that are described as ‘gang-affected.’ It involved interviews with 188 children and young people, most of whom were recruited because they had direct involvement with gangs. Given its small, unrepresentative sample and tight geographical focus, this research cannot tell us anything about wider trends or prevalence. Indeed the report itself warns that “the nature of the sample… must be borne in mind when considering the wider implications of the findings.” (p.15)
The third information source is a study of young people’s attitudes to, and understanding of, sexual consent. This study did not gather any data on young people’s own sexual experiences (it used video material to prompt discussion). So it cannot shed any light on their personal experiences of sexual exploitation, let alone provide the basis for wider claims about the scale of the problem.
Hence it is hard to see how the evidence presented in the reports can justify quotes like these, from Deputy Children’s Commissioner Sue Berelowitz:
“While we have published chilling evidence of this violence in gang-associated contexts, we know too that it is more widespread than that. This is a deep malaise within society, from which we must not shirk.” (Quoted in the Daily Telegraph piece)
“We have shown for the first time the scale of sexual violence being perpetrated by some of our children and young people against other children and young people – particularly in gang-involved neighbourhoods but I have to say we have anecdotal evidence that this is happening in other areas as well.” (Speaking on BBC Breakfast News – see video link from the BBC website.)
It may seem harsh to criticise the Children’s Commissioner over numbers in the face of such an obviously disturbing phenomenon. But surely a charity whose role is to be the champion of children and young people’s rights and perspectives needs to be cautious and balanced when venturing into such emotive territory.
The picture of widespread child-on-child sexual exploitation feeds into wider debates about children and young people’s sexual attitudes, behaviour and morals. Much of this wider discourse fuels what child psychologist Tanya Byron has called ephebiphobia: the irrational fear of young people. In a 2009 article (for the Telegraph, ironically) she describes an ephebiphobic society as one that “views young people in negative and judgmental terms, where the media report (with barely disguised glee) the latest hideous crimes and abuses of our young.” The social historian Hugh Cunningham – whose book The Invention of Childhood offers a rich, thousand-year overview of British children’s lives – has spoken (at a debate on childhood organised by the National Children’s Bureau) of the emergence of what he called a ‘declinist narrative’ about children – in plain terms, the growing dominance of the view that today’s children are going to hell in a handcart. Such a view is distorted and damaging, and needs to be challenged.
At a more practical level, if agencies and decision-makers are to respond effectively to sexual exploitation, including child-on-child sexual violence, they need a sound picture of its patterns and prevalence. In a world of limited resources, we risk wasting time and effort if we leave agencies poorly informed about the geographical or socio-economic scope of the problem.
We need to make sure we tackle the range of threats faced by children and young people – including the threats that some of them pose to others. But we do them no favours if we make alarming claims about the scale of these threats without the evidence to back them up. It is also crucial that children’s agencies think carefully about how such claims might provide rich pickings for those in the media who, when reporting on the state of the nation’s youth, like nothing more than to scapegoat and scaremonger.