Warning of gender and morality biases in CSE workshops with secondary school pupils
Girls are “easy” and have low “worth” in themselves making them easy targets for groomers, and boys have “little respect for girls”.
These and other gendered attitudes were uncovered in recent research examining the design and delivery of child sexual exploitation (CSE) -awareness and prevention initiatives involving the police and social workers.
Researchers from Birmingham and Liverpool universities examined a CSE awareness programme delivered in three local secondary schools, and interviewed practitioners from a multi-agency team including police officers, a family support worker, residential care support worker, teacher, youth worker and voluntary sector worker.
They found there was a difference in attitude around what is “acceptable” or “risky” behaviour for boys and girls, leading to an impact on risk assessment in support of young people.
The paper, published in the British Journal of Social Work, examined how safeguarding practitioners bring personal morals and gendered assumptions into their view of childhood sexuality when running CSE awareness workshops for young people.
This is leading to a focus on teenage girls being made “responsible for preventing sexual harms”.
There is also a wider risk that young people will reject workshops and other CSE-awareness-raising campaigns, because adults are not allowing them any sexual agency.
Examples of the attitudes prevalent in the field were collected by researchers.
One participant, a CSE worker, said: “I think girls generally have lower morals. I think that they have little self-confidence. I think that they have little worth of themselves. And I say girls, I’m not generalizing, obviously, all girls, but we’ve got particularly vulnerable girls here who are easy and who are targets for these people who want to groom them.”
Another said: “Boys have so little respect for girls. Girls are expected to listen and obey, that's definitely where the world is heading these days. That's actually what's expected of a relationship now."
The report authors observed: "A concentrated focus on the activities of girls and young women in particular - relating to self-presentation, body weight, use of make-up, sartorial choices (clothes), relationships and friendship groups - may lead to the magnification of anxieties that transcend the ambit of professional modes of assessment."
The risk to young people of developing iatrogenic responses (where illness is experienced due to intervention) was underlined, as was the potential for causing them to reject awareness-raising altogether.
The report authors reflect: "The approach adopted by practitioners was strongly oriented towards harm reduction through preventative risk focused educational methods. A pronounced focus on deterrence was not roundly accepted nor well-received by the audience.'
The introduction in 2014 of the National CSE Action Plan led to the widespread implementation of CSE awareness raising programmes with young people.
The particular programme examined by researchers was described as a “police-led intervention” to “encourage young people to reflect on and, where appropriate, modify their behaviours”.
In the sessions:
- Young people were encouraged to self-regulate and avoid harm.
- Messages around being cautious of strangers and avoiding sharing graphic images of themselves were promoted.
- Presentations opened with a warning that the sharing of graphic images is illegal and that those sharing or possessing images were committing a criminal offence.
- Young people were warned about using social media sites inappropriately, such as sharing personal details or images.
- The risk of being befriended by perpetrators of CSE was underlined.
- A film was screened involving a real-life exploitation case where a girl was befriended via Facebook and subsequently raped and murdered.
There is a danger, researchers argue, that such approaches are alienating young people, and programme designers need to evaluate their own biases and morals, in order to create more effective CSE prevention strategies.
The research raised concerns about the history within CSE prevention work of “attending exclusively to potential dangers associated with teenage sex” and failing to include “recognition of young people's experimentation around sexual pleasure”,
Traditional generational concerns around “reckless and feckless youth” were also found to be a feature.
The researchers believe subjective attitudes towards gender, childhood and sexuality continue to influence both risk-based practices and intervention decisions.
More work is needed to encourage child protection practitioners to examine their “engrained gender assumptions” so that the blurring of professional and personal values can be better understood.
The report authors conclude: “Practitioners making decisions in this particular safeguarding context do so amidst the presence of 'respectable fears' about young people's behaviour and anxieties about their sexual proclivities which may tip the balance of risk too heavily towards precaution and delimit the agency of young people in their sexual behaviour and relationship choices.
“As such, those supporting young people should appreciate that they, like adults, are sexual agents, and not simply 'passive recipients’ of the adult sexualised gaze.
“Failing to approach young people at risk of CSE as 'active agents' may compound feelings of powerlessness, trauma and neglect.”