In up to a third of sexual abuse cases perpetrators are under the age of 18 / Shutterstock

What drives a child to commit sexual abuse? And why do we continue to downplay this activity, asks Simon Hackett

A recent string of high-profile cases involving “celebrity perpetrators” along with a series of ongoing inquires into historical child abuse in the UK has brought sexual abuse into the public consciousness in an unprecedented way. Similar inquiries are also underway internationally – notably the ongoing Australian Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, which has spent the past four years hearing testimony from thousands of Australian survivors.

It is arguable that the media attention given to these high-profile cases has increased the number of people coming forward to disclose their experiences of abuse. But while this is obviously a good thing, the way these cases are often portrayed and covered, tends to reinforce unhelpful stereotypes. 

This includes the idea that all abuse is carried out by adult paedophiles preying on vulnerable children. And as a consequence, means that the issue of child sexual abuse committed by other children is significantly downplayed.

Juvenile abusers

Official figures indicate that between a fifth and a third of all cases of child sexual abuse in the UK involve “perpertrators” under the age of 18 – but the figures could in fact be much higher. In a random UK general population survey of more than 6,000 people, a staggering two-thirds of the sexual abuse reported by respondents in their childhoods, had been committed by other children.

Even when reports of child and adolescent perpetrated child sexual abuse gains media attention, it is often portrayed in a way that presents the children as mini versions of adult sex offenders, or “paedophiles in waiting”. The reality, of course, is somewhat different – with many high profile studies suggesting that most children and young people who commit sexual offences in their adolescence do not then carry on sexually offending in adulthood.

Protection versus criminalisation

For many of these child perpetrators, their own histories of abuse play a role in their offending behaviours. This is often part and parcel of an enmeshed experience of trauma, neglect and pain – which has also been shown in our research. We conducted the largest UK study of young people who had sexually abused other children. Of the 700 children we spoke to, we found that 50 per cent of young abusers had themselves been victims of sexual abuse. Our research also showed that 50 per cent had experienced physical abuse or domestic violence in their lives.

Seen through this lens, we need to respond to these cases carefully. Yes, we need to protect victims and stop these children from abusing, but our interventions shouldn’t stop there. We need services that can offer expert help to children and their families to prevent further victimisation and help them lead offence-free lives in the long-term.

Such services are sadly lacking at the moment, but the recently launched NSPCC operational framework should help agencies to get their acts together as this framework provides a structure for local safeguarding children boards to help them implement their policies and practise responses.

Realities of abuse

We also need to have better awareness of the realities of child sexual abuse – along with the issue of children and young people who harm others sexually. Because a lack of public knowledge around this promotes a distorted and stereotypical view of child sexual abuse. This can often lead to the overplay of some risks – such as “stranger danger” – while underplaying others.

Failing to understand the specific needs of children and young people, who present with harmful sexual behaviours, also means that they are more likely to receive inappropriate criminal justice responses that are designed with adults in mind. This can include being placed on the sex offender register or, in the US, “community notification schemes”. These publish details of young people and adult sex offenders, including their addresses, offence details and photographs online. Such measures, being inherently adult focused, at best fail to provide a balanced response to the issue of harmful sexual behaviour. And at worst, they may cause irreparable developmental damage to children who fundamentally need our help.

Simon Hackett, is a professor in the school of applied social sciences, Durham University. This article first appeared on The Conversation (theconversation.com)

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