Peer Abuse

Sharp, Dorothea, 1874-1955; Where Children Play and Seagulls Fly
Where Children Play and Seagulls Fly by Dorothea Sharp

Peer abuse has been in the news lately, that is abuse of children by children. The assumption is that abuse by children has risen. I don’t know if we can conclude that or not. It may be true but it may also be that we haven’t been asking the right questions before.

What is or isn’t a crime is defined by our society and this has changed over time. When I was a child, in the 1970’s, being groped by another teenager at school was not seen as a crime. It was extremely common. It wasn’t reported to anyone.

Most surveys ask about abuse perpetrators who are 5 years or more older than the victim so they will miss some abuse by children. However when a more open question is asked the results can be rather different. In 1929 an American survey asked about childhood abuse. Perpetrators were reported as 38% adult males, 20% women and 42% adolescents or peers (1). A 2014 study of literature researching abuse of cared for children found that between 13-70% of reported child sexual abuse was by peers (2), so the percentage varies widely from one study to another. Does it actually vary though? 

The internet, social media and easy access to pornography may well have affected the amount and/or severity of children abusing children. There may also be more willingness to report such crimes. We do also need to ask the right questions to gauge the real extent of the problem.

 

References

  1. Hamilton, G., 1929. Research in Marriage, New York: Lear. Available at: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015002632910?urlappend=%3Bseq=348. (if you do visit this one be warned it is very much a product of its time i.e. it is sexist and racist)
  2. Timmerman, M.C. & Schreuder, P.R., 2014. Sexual abuse of children and youth in residential care: An international review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 19(6), pp.715–720. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2014.09.001.

 

Teenagers and Consent

There’s been a lot in the news lately about the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) denying compensation to victims of child sexual abuse (CSA) on the grounds that they consented. I wonder how many of these were teenagers because we do really seem to have a problem addressing CSA when teenagers are the victims.

There is a long history of this. Before the Victorian era the age of consent was generally set at the onset of puberty (between 10-12 years old) however children were engaged and married earlier, especially in the upper classes (1). In 1885 a new law was proposed to raise the age of consent to 16, for girls, to enable prosecution of people exploiting younger teenagers. However many MPs were opposed. Here’s a quote from Charles Hopwood, MP.

‘these girls who went wrong from an early age were just as familiar with the result of their actions as those of an older age. [“No!”] It was all very well to cry “No!” but those Members who did so were judging by their own families, who were carefully nurtured and preserved from contamination; but girls who went upon the streets came from a different class.’ (2)

So this isn’t just about the age of the victims but also class. Eventually the law was passed, thanks to a press campaign, but the exploitation of teenagers continued. In 1989 Wild (3) studied ‘child sex rings’ in Leeds and found 334 child victims in 31 cases with nine having a commercial basis. Thus we have child sexual exploitation (CSE) identified back in the 1980’s. I’m not sure what was done about this, if anything.

Now we have another opportunity to tackle CSE. I’d argue that the first step is to agree that a child cannot consent to sexual exploitation. Finkelhor (4) says that for:

‘true consent to occur, two conditions must prevail. A person must know what it is that he or she is consenting to, and a person must be free to say yes or no… children lack the information that is necessary to make an “informed” decision about the matter. They are ignorant about sex and sexual relationships…children have a hard time saying no to adults.’

Can we just agree this point, embed it in our government agencies and get on with sorting the actual issue out, rather than blaming the victims?

 

REFERENCES (apologies that these are not all available online)

  1. Ingram, M., (1987). Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570-1640, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Hansard, (1885). Commons Sitting of Friday, 31st July, 1885., London. Available here: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1885/jul/31/criminal-law-amendment-bill-lords-bill
  3. Wild, N.J., (1989). Prevalence of Child Sex Rings. Pediatrics, 83(4), p.553.
  4. Finkelhor, D., (1979). What’s wrong with sex between adults and children? Ethics and the problem of sexual abuse. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 49(4), pp.692–697.