Children in the UK are at risk of sexual exploitation because underage sex is considered a “normal part of growing up”, a report has warned.
The “normalisation” of underage sex is exposing children and young people to the risk of sexual abuse, as agencies prioritise sexually transmitted diseases and the prevention of under-age pregnancies, according to the research by the Family Education Trust.
It suggests that failure by professionals to detect the abuse of young people in cases such as those in Rochdale, Oxfordshire and Rotherham was the result of a culture in which underage sexual activity has come to be viewed as a normal part of growing up and seen as relatively harmless as long as it is consensual.
The report's author, Family Education Trust director Norman Wells, said “fundamental flaws” in professional attitudes had “directly contributed” towards the exploitation and abuse of children in the UK.
“The evidence from recent serious case reviews clearly demonstrates that fundamental flaws in professional attitudes towards underage sexual activity have directly contributed to exploitation and abuse,” he said.
Brook, a service in the UK that offers contraceptive advice to young single people under the age of 25, disputed the report's findings, accusing it of linking two "very separate issues" of underage sex and child sexual exploitation.
It argued that young people's healthcare services operate "robust" policies to safeguard every young person with whom it comes into contact.
The report, which is based on an analysis of high profile cases of child sexual exploitation, identifies a failure on the part of professionals to raise questions about underage sex or even about the identity of the father when presented with a pregnant teenager under the age of 16.
It accuses agencies responsible for protecting young people from sexual exploitation of creating a culture in which the response of professionals to underage sex is frequently limited to the confidential provision of contraception in order to reduce the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection.
There is an expectation that under-16s will be sexually active, the report adds, meaning that access to sexual health services under the age of consent is regarded as normal and positive, and therefore fails to trigger any consideration of the possibility that the girls might be suffering abuse.
Mr Wells said relaxed attitudes towards underage sex had led to a “paralysis” in child protection agencies, which he claimed they have shown “no indication of willingness” to address.
“Relaxed attitudes towards underage sex has led to what can only be described as a paralysis in child protection agencies as far apart as Rochdale in the north, Torbay in the south, Thurrock in the east and Liverpool in the west,” said Mr Wells.
“Even though the normalisation of underage sex has been identified repeatedly in the serious case reviews as a reason for the complacency of child protection agencies, there is no indication of a willingness to address these underlying issues either at the local or the national level.”
The report argues that the approach to relationships and sex education in schools, which it says encouraged children to decide for themselves "when they are ready" to embark on a sexual relationship would prove counter-productive, "exposing them to the risk of sexual exploitation".
It goes onto cite the Oxfordshire serious case review, which noted that "the reluctance in many places, both political and professional, to have any firm statements about something being “wrong”’ had contributed to "an environment where it is easier for vulnerable young people/children to be exploited".
Mr Wells added: "The evidence from the serious case reviews suggests that the relativistic approach advocated by the leading campaigners for statutory sex education is not the solution, but is rather part of the problem.
“We should be wary of any approach to sex and relationships education that is reluctant to declare anything ‘wrong’. Children, young people and professionals alike all need a clear moral compass in order to safely negotiate the confused and confusing landscape that lies before them.”
Commenting on the findings, Professor David Paton of Nottingham University Business School described the report's findings as "utterly damning", writing in the foreword: “With the publication of this report, policymakers and professionals working in sexual health no longer have any excuse to ignore the evidence.
"It is of the utmost importance that the government takes the findings of this report seriously and undertakes an urgent review of its approach to confidential sexual health services.”
Helen Marshall, chief executive of Brook, meanwhile disputed the report's findings, saying: “We are extremely concerned about the negative arguments made throughout this report linking the two very separate issues of underage sex and child sexual exploitation.
“Despite societal assumptions and the complex challenges that young people face today, the average age of first sexual activity in the UK is 16. Brook, like all young people’s healthcare services, operates robust policies and procedures in order to safeguard every young person with whom we come into contact and our education work in partnership with schools empowers them to make healthy lifestyle choices.
“By denying under 16s access to services like Brook, as suggested in the report, we remove the opportunity to safeguard them and for young people to gain the skills and confidence to explore healthy relationships.
“The priority for Brook is not to criminalise healthy behaviour but to continue to identify vulnerable young people through our confidential and accessible services”.
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