THE number of children facing sexual assault charges brought by prosecutors has doubled in the last year, new figures reveal.
The Crown Office has also revealed that the figure for boys charged with rape has reached a five-year high.
Campaigners warn that the figures, released through Freedom of Information legislation, reflect a worrying increase in sexual aggression among youngsters. They believe easily accessible online pornography, glamorising rape and sexual violence, are at least partly responsible.
And prosecutors said that although the legislation covering sexual offences changed in 2010, the increase is the result of a genuine rise in offending.
Sexual assaults by boys rose from 71 to 142 last year, while the number of rapes by under-16 males was also up to 58 – more than double the level of two years ago. The number of sexual attacks by girls under the age of 16 also doubled. However, experts are reluctant to draw conclusions from low numbers – up from seven in 2010-11 to 14 last year.
Sandy Brindley, national co-ordinator at Rape Crisis Scotland, said: “This does back up that there appears to be an alarming increase in sexual crime by young people, and young men in particular. Fifty-eight rape allegations is extremely concerning.”
The Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act, which came into force in 2010, widened the definition of rape to include offences against men and other forced sexual acts. Sexual intercourse with a child under 13, who is legally too young to consent, is also now automatically recorded as rape.
Brindley said: “It’s possible that part of the increase could be due to the broader definition of rape, but you would then expect sexual assault would go down as a result.
“In fact it has doubled, which definitely suggests there has been a real increase.”
She added: “One concern we have had for a long time is about the easy availability of internet pornography – which would previously have been classed as hardcore – which celebrates violence against women, who are being raped and seemingly enjoying it. If this is where young men are getting their information it’s nonsensical to think it’s not going to have an impact.”
There are widespread regional variations in the figures. Strathclyde and Fife recorded no change. Central Scotland saw a rise from nine to 22.
Grampian also saw an increase to 25 sexual assaults in 2011-12, its highest figure in five years, while rapes remained relatively stable.
Dumfries and Galloway has seen a slight rise in sex attacks. In Tayside, figures have remained relatively stable with three or fewer rapes per year and 20 or more sexual assaults by under-16s.
Similarly, Northern Constabulary reported seven rapes in 2007-8 and a peak of 12 in 2010-11.
Lothian and Borders reported 316 sex offenders aged under 16 in five years up to the end of 2011-12, which amounted to just under 14 per cent of the total crimes in this category.
Some cases may involve consenting teenagers, although a crime has still been committed, and some groups have concerns about criminalising children as a result of prosecutions.
Ruth Stark, manager of the Scottish Association of Social Workers, said: “I think it’s a myth that young people are becoming more sexualised. I would suggest we were equally worried about these things in the 1970s. The difference is we recognise it more now.
“It’s a concern that consensual sex is being criminalised. We need to be careful of that. Criminalising children instead of educating them about safe practices is a big issue.”