Does it matter less if a boy is sexually exploited than a girl? It certainly shouldn't. Remember, we're still talking about a child subjected to sexual violations that can leave lasting physical, psychological and social scars. Don't forget the additional stigma associated with being sexually victimised as a male - if real boys don't cry, they certainly aren't raped. Yet as the week goes on, I'm left increasingly frustrated that the vulnerabilities and support needs of boys have been so utterly side-lined in discussions of the implications of the Rotherham report. Amid vocal (and welcome) calls for improvements to child protection systems, the focus has been near exclusively on protecting vulnerable girls from abusive men. Don't get me wrong, plenty remains to be done to prevent girls from being sexually exploited in the first place, to support them when they are and to pursue the offenders wherever possible. But doesn't the safety and welfare of boys matter too? Although the report's author Alexis Jay said boys comprised a minority of the identified victims, she also expressed concern about the 'under-reporting of exploitation of young males'.
This sentiment was echoed in NatCen's interviews with 50 child protection professionals, also published this week as part of a Nuffield Foundation-funded research programme into the sexual exploitation of boys and young men in the UK. Their interviewees argued that boys were still far less likely than girls to be recognised as at risk of or victims of sexual exploitation - and were consequently missing out on protection and support. They also raised concerns about popular misconceptions that having sex with a man automatically makes a boy gay and having sex with a woman makes him a lucky stud. Neither stereotype is particularly conducive to professionals actively identifying risk or boys themselves coming forward to disclose abuse.
In UCL's accompanying study, records were analysed from those 9,042 children affected by child sexual exploitation supported by Barnardo's services across England, Northern Ireland and Scotland (mostly over the period 2008-2013). One third of these children were male - a much higher proportion of male victims than previous national studies into 'localised grooming' or 'group and gang related CSE' have found. In our new study, then, that's 2,986 boys directly affected by child sexual exploitation. As debate rages on about how best to avoid 'another Rotherham', I know I'm not alone in wishing some attention would also be paid to how best to protect boys from sexual exploitation. To date, policy and practice in this area have tended to be very girl-centric (as too has previous research, found UCL). One reason for our study was to explore whether boys have different risk factors, indicators and support needs than girls. We found that alongside some commonalities between the male and female service-users (e.g. a high prevalence of looked-after children), there were also statistically significant differences. For example, the boys were over twice as likely as the girls to have a recorded disability. When Barnardo's frontline services gave their feedback on our findings, many said boys were typically referred for support at a later stage than girls, meaning that risk of exploitation had long since progressed to acute exploitation. In overlooking the fact that it's not just girls who are sexually exploited, all those currently condemning Rotherham's 'wall of silence' risk creating another of their own.