Written by Jessica Eaton http://www.victimfocus.org.uk @JessicaE13Eaton
Today, I read this sentence:
“Education of young people is the key to prevention of child sexual exploitation.”
Last week I read this sentence:
“It is imperative that young people receive education to enable them to make informed choices about the relationships they choose to form, to help them to recognise exploitation and abuse.”
‘CSE prevention sessions’
‘Healthy relationships workshops’
‘CSE information workshops’
‘CSE sessions in schools’
I cannot stand this for a moment longer. This is your official warning that this blog is mainly a huge, well informed, accurately cited, evidence-based tantrum.
So, not dissimilar to the rest of my blogs, really.
Let me tell you why CSE awareness sessions with children will never prevent CSE. Let me tell you why those sentences I had the unfortunate experience of reading; are absolute rubbish.
- Educating children about CSE is important, but it is NOT a preventative strategy.
It is ridiculous to assert that teaching children about sexual exploitation prevents them from being sexually exploited. Calling CSE awareness sessions ‘the key to prevention’ is a new level of victim blaming that my brain cannot even process right now without spiralling into swear words. If we teach children about crossing the road safely, does that mean we can say that we have prevented them from ever being injured by a drunk or careless driver? If we teach children about war and violence, does that mean we have prevented them from ever being a victim of war or violence? If we sit some kids down and tell them about racism and sexism, does that mean they are now magically protected from being racially abused or oppressed because of their sex? Nah. Didn’t think so. You know why educating those children will never protect them? Because…
2. CSE doesn’t occur because a child didn’t have enough knowledge about sex
That’s right. This is where the ‘CSE sessions prevent CSE’ logic takes us. It leads us right down a path towards arguments that once you increase the knowledge of sex, abuse and violence with children, they will therefore have enough knowledge to somehow protect themselves from a sex offender. I know exactly what the rebuttal to my argument is because I’ve heard it a thousand times “But, but, if we teach children to recognise exploitative situations, they will recognise the signs and exit abuse…’ YEAH RIGHT, OKAY THEN. Gosh, how stupid we all have been. Here we are talking about the massive power imbalance there is in all forms of abuse and the answer all along was to educate children so they just get up, ignore the power imbalance, tell their abuser to eff off and wander into a police station. Simples. I can’t even begin to imagine how insulting that assertion is for victims and survivors of child abuse. Do not be surprised when defence solicitors and well-educated sex offenders start throwing your own logic back at you in court. “Is it not true that the child attended 3 sessions of CSE awareness raising, designed to prevent them from being sexually exploited and yet never chose to report my client? Is it not true that if the child was truly educated about sexual exploitation, they would have known they were being abused and told someone?” You just wait. How are you going to get out of that one? Actually, what about other forms of abuse, does education prevent others from being abused?
3. Education doesn’t even prevent adults from being abused so why exactly are we using this strategy with children?
For those of you who have been raped or abused as adults, how do you feel about the theory that, had you just had better education about rape or abuse; you would have just left? Yeah, thought so. Arguing that education of social issues prevents victimisation ignores the power imbalances, ignores oppression, is completely inappropriate and amounts to victim blaming. Most adults in this generation have received hundreds of messages, watched hundreds of TV shows, read or heard hundreds of stories of rape and domestic abuse in their lifetime and yet – lo and behold – 1 in 3 women will experience sexual or domestic violence in their life time and in some areas and cultures, this rises to 2 in 3 (WHO (2013) cited by UN Women, 2017). What are we saying about these women? That they all lacked education? That the ‘key’ to ‘preventing’ their abuse was some awareness sessions? Clearly, this logic is hugely flawed. So, why are we applying this faulty logic to children experiencing CSE at the hands of adults?
4. Organisations and public figures gain profit or status by asserting that educating children with their resource prevents CSE
I know right, conspiracy theory stuff!? Not really.
We have no evidence whatsoever that educating children prevents CSE – because we have never tested it. We also have no evidence that any type of sex education or relationships education has any bearing on sexual experiences or relationship outcomes (Bovarnick and Scott, 2016), despite showing some tiny effects that it may increase knowledge. So, no evidence – and yet literally hundreds of CSE resources, CSE session plans, CSE awareness raising programmes, CSE lesson plans and CSE films are being knocked out and marketed in the field as ‘prevention’ tools – some of which are sold for hundreds of pounds.
Why would organisations or individuals do this? 1. It acts as a self-generation income stream for charities and SEOs in the field of CSE at a time of unstable funding. 2. The tools tend to come with heavy, unwarranted praise for how brilliant and innovative the person or group behind the resource are (building status) – despite it never being tested or shown to be effective. I have watched police forces, local authorities, charities and companies scramble to make endless films and resources in CSE and then continually show them as ‘best practice’ with no evidence whatsoever. They then win awards or pat each other on the back for being super-brilliant-excellent-CSE-solvers.
Those same people claim to be ‘child centred’ and ‘child-focussed’. Let me be clear – there is nothing child centred or child focussed about banging out some ill-thought out, stereotypical, narrow focussed, untested resource to use with children and then market it to schools and practitioners as a ‘preventative resource’. The only person at the centre of that strategy is yourselves – for status or for money.
Want some proof? Have a look at the evidence emerging from reports such as the Women and Equalities Committee Report (2016) which found that resources around sexting, sexual exploitation and grooming were being used in the classroom to teach children to blame the child in the film for being victimised and then asking plenary questions such as ‘how could the child have avoided this happening?’ or ‘what could the child have done differently?’ or ‘what do you think led to her being sexually exploited?’ We are actively teaching children to victim blame – and who knows the damage we are doing to the children in the room who are being exploited or abused? I can’t imagine the feeling of watching a resource about a child being raped and then answering plenary questions about what the child could have done differently whilst sitting there thinking ‘but that happened to me… maybe I should do something differently… maybe I am to blame…’ That report showed the impact of using those resources and yet we are still using them across the country and we are still claiming that they amount to best practice to ‘prevent’ CSE.
You might be reading this thinking: ‘This is all a bit far-fetched – professionals and organisations benefitting from making ineffective resources and CSE ‘preventative’ tools? Why would they do this? They can’t all be doing this knowingly?’ And you would be right.
5. Humans like to find the solution to horrible things in the world, even if they are not correct. This makes humans feel safer and in control.
I have written extensively on this topic recently and will feature in upcoming publications I am preparing in the topic of victim blaming in sexual violence. Let’s break this down for a moment.
“CSE is current. CSE is common. CSE is ‘increasing’ (it’s not, but you know). CSE needs a solution. CSE is about risk. CSE is about vulnerability. We need to reduce those risks and vulnerabilities. CSE becomes about the child. Reduce the vulnerabilities of the child. Educate the child. The child now knows all about CSE. CSE is now prevented. Woohoo!”
This is obviously oversimplified but to be honest, it reads like almost every summary of every CSE resource I have ever read. But why would professionals believe this?
They believe this because it makes them feel in control and it makes them feel like they have a solution to offer to professionals and parents – rather than admitting that the risk is coming from the offender and any child can be targeted and abused, which is likely to make them feel incompetent, helpless or not in control. CSE is a well-publicised social issue and people are frantically searching for the ‘answer’ – essentially ignoring decades of research into CSA which shows that we still haven’t found the ‘answer’ to preventing child sexual abuse as a social issue.
Potentially arising from the way CSE evolved from the terms ‘child prostitution’ and ‘commerical exploitation’ and ‘abuse through prostitution’; children being sexually exploited are still perceived as having some agency and some role in their own abuse and a role in exiting that abuse. Leading on from this, children are now being seen as the solution to child sexual exploitation – change their behaviours, increase their knowledge – prevent CSE. This has meant that organisations and practitioners have erroneously moved further and further towards an educative response to CSE until we are in the position we are right now, with statements like ‘the education of young people about CSE is the key to preventing CSE’. We are now literally sat around tables discussing a child being exploited and trafficked and prescribing them six sessions of CSE awareness and healthy relationships lessons. A huge injustice. A massive facepalm.
The field feels as though it has arrived at a solution. Educate the children and the problem will reduce. Despite this definitely not being the answer, prevention is being focussed on the child and not on the sex offender, which brings me to my final point.
6. Sex offenders are the cause of CSE. Not children. You can educate as many children as you like – there will still be child sex offenders abusing them.
This is the most important point. Educating children about sex, relationships and abuse is important but it will NOT prevent CSE. Telling children about sexual exploitation will not stop child sex offenders from targeting and raping children. The assertion that preventing sex offending is as easy as a 40 minute powerpoint presentation to a bunch of year 9 kids is appalling. This field is so focussed on presenting the ‘risk’ as being within the child that the risk of the sex offender is essentially ignored. We have decades of research on the theories, methods, risk management and processes of child sex offenders, why does this field ignore them?
Child sexual exploitation is not new. The models and indicators are not even evidence-based and literally mean nothing. We know SO much about child sex offenders already in forensic psychology and criminology and yet I am reading report after report in CSE saying things like ‘we do not know enough about the offenders of CSE’ and ‘disruption of CSE offenders is very difficult because we don’t know enough about them’? EH? Read a book. Psychologists and Criminologists have been banging this drum for MUCH longer than the field of social work and safeguarding – learn from them. Utilise existing research findings. You can’t truly ‘tackle CSE’ if you refuse to learn about sex offenders and to learn from experts in other fields.
For those who will read this and not take it upon themselves to go and learn about child sex offenders, I can offer you a spoiler: There are no studies that tell us that sex offenders never abuse children who went to a CSE awareness session at school. There are also no studies that show that CSE awareness sessions with children ‘prevent’ sex offenders from targeting children.
For the love of humanity, will you please stop saying that educating children about CSE prevents CSE?