Thursday, 30 October 2014

Child sexual exploitation, social norms and social change (Updated 14th December)

I was both surprised and delighted to learn Guerrilla Policy had named this blog as one of their top 10 social care blogs of 2014. I believe passionately that we must realign thinking, feelings, policy and practice: we need to all understand our aims, values and expectations if we are going to reduced and eliminate child sexual exploitation.  As a starter we must have unequivocally high expectations for young people's relationships so they can have high expectations for themselves. 

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 not tackling 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.


merchiron said...

I agree with just about everything that has been written by Simon Blake and Brook is one of those organisations which could help young people to step forward and ask for help with regards sexual abuse, violence and exploitation. Many do and how do I know this? I worked as a counsellor at Brook for fourteen years and during that time many young people disclosed sexual abuse to me. Then they received counselling as well as support through the Courts. However, when I left Brook the counsellors who supported both the drop in and the one to one counselling work, were sadly the 'poor relations', under valued, rarely listened to and under pressure to get the work done 'quickly'. They were the first group to have their hours cut when there were funding problems. Working with sexual abuse is time consuming and intensive. This vulnerable group need trained, experienced and well supervised counsellors to work with them. The work cannot be rushed. As the Chief Executive of Brook, Simon Blake could do something about this. First look at how much of a priority working with this vulnerable group is or should I say is not, how little resourced it is at Brook and how few experienced counsellors work at Brook Centres. In my experience Brook Clinics (the word clinic suggests where priorities lie) have in the past provided a wonderful safety net for this vulnerable group but the work has become less of a priority as the years have rolled past. This work needs to be fully funded, supported and supervised. The counsellors on the drop-ins need to be listened to and consulted with since they have been on the front line. Brook should be at the forefront in dealing with sexual abuse and exploitation. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg with what has been revealed recently. Having worked as a counsellor I know this because sexual abuse and violence as well as exploitation was something I heard about weekly at Brook although no one seemed overly concerned about prioritising support for this vulnerable group.. Words, rhetoric and blog messages are hot air. Immediate action is required.

Simon Blake said...

Thanks very much for your message. I am unsure when you left Brook, or indeed where you worked. And you are absolutely right in some of our services, we have had reduced funding to provide counselling.

However we have some really important work going on in this area and if you want to find out what is happening in our Brook services in relation to counselling and support for young people I would be very happy to update you - my email is

merchiron said...

I do hope that this is the case! However, I don't wish to rain on Simon's parade but if 'really important work' includes online counselling then I rest my case.

There are no short cuts when carrying out work with sexually abused/exploited young people. What Brook needs is 'fully trained', 'experienced' counsellors on all the drop ins so that they can pick up these very vulnerable young people during the normal consultations. Unfortunately, too many drop-ins operate more like medical centres now and are 'nurse led' sidelining counselling and the important role the counsellor plays.

Simon you did not address the issue of 'fully trained' and 'experienced staff' which is not surprising since some of the workers at Brook Centres have little of either and yet are let loose on these vulnerable young people. It's very sad really because Brook could be doing so much more.