Social commentary

How society and government policy facilitate sexual abuse – by Ruth Woodcraft

Photo: iStock

Newcastle joined an infamous list of UK cities in August with the conviction of 17 men and one woman for rape, supplying drugs and conspiracy to incite prostitution.

The media dissected events and the conclusions were critical of Northumbria Police. Early opportunities were missed to investigate the abuse, and thousands of pounds had been paid to a convicted paedophile to gain information.

But all the discussions missed one angle: the utter acceptance of under-age sex.


Our society has so normalised underage sex that children are experiencing a kind of state sanctioned abuse which allows criminals to abuse them further.

That may well appear a startling statement, but an overview of the evidence supports it. Below are extracts from serious case reviews, or public enquiries into abuse that took place from 2013-16:

  • Torbay: the sexual health (service focused on) providing a confidential service with a view to preventing pregnancy
  • Liverpool: Child D was seen as….an adult making her own choices on issues such as…pregnancies
  • Rochdale: the drive to reduce teenage pregnancy…is believed to have contributed to a culture whereby professionals may have become inured to early sexual activity in young teenagers
  • Rotherham: children as young as 11 were deemed to be having consensual sexual intercourse
  • Thurrock: national and local policy agendas have driven practice…to have a stronger focus on sexual health and teenage pregnancy rather than on sexual abuse
  • Oxfordshire: a professional tolerance to knowing young teenagers were having sex with adults…developed
  • Hampshire: school staff made aware of sexual activity by GP, judged it to be consensual
  • Bristol 2016: a confused…stance in national policy about…sexual activity, leaves professionals…struggling to recognise and distinguish between sexual abuse, exploitation and/or underage sexual activity; this risks leaving some children at continued risk of exploitation in the mistaken belief they are involved in consensual activity

Our attitude to children and sex

Putting aside individual errors, and acknowledging that people bent on committing a crime will commit crimes, professionals reviewing abuse cases are repeatedly proving that our attitude to children and sex is a major factor in why children are not extracted from abusive situations.

In the Hampshire case, the school involved was one for children with learning needs and disabilities. The child’s sexual autonomy was held in such regard that abuse continued to take place despite school staff having been informed of the sex a pupil was having, as they deemed it ‘consensual’.

And many of the children involved in these cases were under local authority ‘care’. All were called ‘vulnerable’, regardless of whether they lived with their parents. In some instances, the views of parents were dismissed; concerns they raised were swept aside as teenage sex was just expected to occur.

Green light to dangerous sex

The Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool is a resource designed to help professionals make decisions about safeguarding, respond to sexual behaviour and distinguish the safe from the unsafe. A green light is given to ‘oral / penetrative sex with others of the same / opposite gender who are of similar age and developmental ability’.

Clearly, older men having sex with underage girls wouldn’t get a ‘green light’. But a child aged 13 could be given a ‘green light’ if engaging in sex with a 17 year-old. Models such as this show how easily dangerous sexual activity is seen as safe.

Playing into the hands of abusers

Contraception is routinely available to underage pupils in many schools in the UK, without the knowledge of their parents. In 2016, it was reported that rates of teenage pregnancy in the UK halved in the past two decades and are at their lowest levels since record-keeping began in the late 1960s. As non-barrier methods of contraception are widely used, STI rates have risen.  Chlamydia statistics show rates almost tripling in 10 years.

The reduction of teenage pregnancy rates by medicating girls may contribute to exposing children to conditions that could have other lifelong implications. Through the policies of schools and social services, an attitude is facilitated that plays into the hands of the abuser who preys on the vulnerable: the belief that underage sex is ‘normal’.

Ruth Woodcraft lives in South London. This first appeared in

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