What comes to mind when you read the phrase ‘sex offender’? Do you get a mental picture of a predatorial paedophile lurking outside a school? Or a single inadequate male sitting in front of a computer screen, grooming children online?
I run a Scottish charity working towards the eradication of child sexual abuse in Scotland. A part of what we do involves engaging with people who present a risk to children and ensuring that those risks are stamped out.
Having worked with people who cause harm to children for many years, I’ve come to realise that there is no textbook example of what a ‘sex offender’ is. Instead there is a wide range of different kinds of people who commit sexual offences. It’s impossible to pick out a sex offender in a crowd, but there are a few general things that we all need to know.
First, we need to get better at knowing where the danger to children is most likely to come from. Most of us would assume this to be ‘stranger danger’ – the scenario where children are abducted by adults they do not know. This does happen, but it’s comparatively rare. We think it happens more than it does because these are the cases that the media focuses on.
But if we really want to protect our children, we need to focus far more on the one place where we imagine they’re safest – at home. That’s because around two- thirds of all children sexually abused in the UK are abused in family environments by adults who are known to them. Many never come to the attention of the authorities. Tragically, most children do not disclose in childhood, often because the abuser is known to them. Only around one in eight cases are ever known to social work or the police. Second, we need to be much more aware that up to a third of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by adolescents. Victims can be peers, but also younger children, often involving immediate and extended family. It can cover all aspects of sexual offending: a recent freedom of information of request revealed that more 12-to-19-year-olds in Tayside had been reported to the police for possessing indecent images of children than any other age group.
Some of that might be youthful experimentation, but a lot of the behaviour we know about is very serious. South of the border, one fifth of those charged with rape of a child under the age of 13 are themselves under 18.
So what can we do about all of this? Child protection is vitally important, but we need to get better at preventing abuse before it happens. We need to accept that abusers come in all ages, shapes and sizes. It’s important for parents to let their children know that if they feel uncomfortable in a relationship – even if it’s a relationship with someone they are close to – that they can tell you about this. And if as a parent or a family member you have a gut feeling that something is not right in relation to your child’s safety, there are anonymous and confidential advice lines like Stop It Now that can give advice. After all, it’s the responsibility of all of us to keep children safe.
Stuart Allardyce is National Manager at Stop It Now Scotland, a charity that works to prevent child sexual abuse in Scotland (https://www.stopitnow.org.uk/scotland.htm). For advice on simple steps you can take to keep your children safe from sexual abuse, visit: www.parentsprotect.co.uk.