Official figures reveal that the number of suspected victims of sexual exploitation in England last year reached almost 19,000. Experts believe this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg, with the true figure much higher. We are in the grip of an epidemic.
Perhaps this staggering increase is partly down to the fact that we are now much more aware of child sexual exploitation. For decades, the sexual grooming of children on a massive scale in places like Rotherham went largely unchallenged. Authorities often assumed consent and were more concerned about contraception and ‘safe sex’. There was a culture that feared asking awkward questions and being judgemental about young people’s ‘lifestyle choices’. The damning report after the Rochdale child sex grooming scandal in 2013 revealed the shocking prevalence of harmful prejudices, dismissive attitudes and misguided assumptions.
Professor Jenny Pearce of the University of Bedfordshire argues that consent is complex, and it must always be considered in context since there are all kinds of social and environmental factors that constrain people’s capacity to make free and empowered choices, and as a result compel them to make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t.
Ideas about consent can be distorted where there is a power differential between the individuals, with the abuser taking advantage of a young person’s relative vulnerability- their inexperience, lack of maturity or their unmet physical or emotional needs, for example. In situations like this, we need to start recognising that coercion does not equal consent.
But there are also abusive contexts where societal attitudes about violence and sexual relationships suggest that exploitation and violence may be inherent and therefore expected as ‘normal’. In our culture there is a growing normalisation of the sexual desire for children. The explosion of online pornography in our society is full of young-looking women acting as babysitters, dressing up like schoolgirls and hugging teddy bears. Depressingly, ‘teen porn’ isn’t a niche fetish but a category that’s consistently in the ‘most searched for’ lists..
All this is against a cultural backdrop of increasingly widespread sexual objectification. The idea that a women’s worth resides in her sex appeal is enforced by advertisers, film makers and the pop music industry. It influences how girls see themselves and how boys see girls. They’re groomed by culture to self-objectify and to respond positively to sexual advances.
Girls are also growing up in a world where sexual violence is increasingly normal. There are a growing number of cases of peer-on-peer sexual abuse, often perpetrated by boys who’ve been brought up on online pornography in which violence against women is ubiquitous. For some, the only sex they know involves calling women names, pulling her hair, chocking, gagging and slapping. Reinforced by music lyrics, gang culture, violence and coercion are an intrinsic part with sex.
Adolescence can be tough. Young people want to fit in and readily absorb the cultural messages that help them to know what’s expected of them. Unfortunately, our young people are growing up in a porn culture that exacerbates vulnerability and inspires harmful sexual practices. We can’t hope to tackle the mounting epidemic of CSE without challenging the wider culture that objectifies women and commodifies sex. While we must hold individual perpetrators of CSE to account, we should never imagine that this issue has nothing to do with us.