Old Enough to Know Better?

By Peter Grigg, Director of External Affairs, The Children’s Society

It is a sad and shocking reality that older teenagers’ needs are too often overlooked. Even in cases where they are victims of sexual exploitation, they do not always receive the justice or protection they deserve.

The complexities of coercion and control in the exploitative relationships that some older teenagers find themselves in, can lead to serious sexual abuse.  This is why we are supporting Sarah Champion’s Dare to Care campaign, which aims to raise awareness and stop the normalisation of violence.

As we know from our work, older teenagers are at greater risk than other age groups of violence — including sexual violence — in relationships. Our report ‘Old Enough to Know Better: Why sexually exploited teenagers are being overlooked’ revealed that police in England recorded 4,900 sexual offence cases — including sexual exploitation, rape and sexual assaults — against 16 and 17 year olds in the last year.

Yet, in stark contrast, our analysis of the Crime Survey for England and Wales revealed that an estimated 50,000 girls alone say they have been victims of these crimes. More than for other age groups. Our analysis of the British Crime Survey also found that older teenagers were the group most likely to suffer abuse from a partner.  However, very few report such crimes to the police, often because many fear not being believed and they are suspicious of the justice system.

Young people are often not able to recognise when they are in abusive relationships.  Every day our practitioners help young people — boys and girls — who are victims of sexual violence by their peers. Many do not even recognise themselves as victims of a crime, harm or victimisation, but see their treatment as normal patterns of sexual activity.

Violence in relationships, as well as coercive and controlling behaviour, feature prominently in cases of sexual exploitation of young people. Too often we see young people who are abused or controlled for sexual exploitation believing that their abusers are their boyfriends. Even where the young person recognises that what they experienced was abusive behaviour, they feel attached and loyal towards their abuser, which is one of the key reasons why they don’t report being abused.

As one of the young people we help, Megan (not her real name), said: “I was put in care and moved around different foster families, about 15 or 16 times. I didn’t know how to cope so I kept running away. Then I met someone called Nick. I loved him. I would go to his house every day.  Nick was 25. I felt weird about it but he was the only person I had in my life. He came and found me on my 15th birthday when he wasn’t supposed to. Our relationship continued and it became an awful thing. He was threatening, told me that if I didn’t get him drugs, he would beat me. I thought he loved me. When you’re in care and you’ve been ripped away from your family, it feels like everyone lets you down and nobody wants you. So when there is love on offer, you grab it.  And you don’t let go of it no matter what.”

The need to address violence, sexual and otherwise, against older teenagers is urgent. To stay safe, teenagers need to be taught about consent, relationships and how to seek help when they are in a violent relationship. At the moment, the quality and availability of such education is very patchy.

But it is equally important that professionals do all they can to identify teenagers who are at risk. There are many barriers to this, from professionals who work with children, including police, teachers and doctors, often seeing older teenagers as being resilient enough and therefore not requiring support, to the lack of powers for police and prosecutors to intervene. This needs to change. The latter is particularly a problem for 16 and 17-year-olds, who, because they can consent to sexual relationships, they often are not identified as victims when they face exploitation.

It is vital to that older teenagers get the protection they need to keep them safe, which is why we support Sarah Champion’s campaign to help make this happen. No child should ever experience abuse or violence.