From February 2016:
It is a disturbing fact that nearly a third of female rape victims in England and Wales are aged under 16. One in 10 are nine years old or under. These statistics, released by the Office for National Statistics last week, are damning evidence that something is terribly wrong about the way our society deals with sexual violence. Chillingly, the Crown Prosecution Service tells us that 13% of suspects are also children.
Victims of rape are often some of the most vulnerable members of our society. When these victims are children, their sense of helplessness is even greater. Given that only 7% of reported rapes in London are carried out by strangers, it’s likely that children know their attackers. Indeed, perpetrators of violence against children are frequently the same people who are responsible for looking after them. Children rightly fear that they will be punished for reporting abuse. Coercion is routinely masked as love.
Admitting to being a victim of sexual violence can be incredibly difficult, especially for children raised in devout families or in minority communities. A 2013 study found that more than a quarter of all victims failed to tell anyone about their assault; 57% told friends or relatives but not the police. Given that adult women find it difficult to report their assault to the police, let alone access specialist services, is it any wonder that children might do so as well?
Child victims face other problems. Like adults, they have often assimilated the “rape myths” – the most important one being the idea that the victim is partially responsible for the attack. As a result, they often attempt to present their account of abuse in sanitised ways. Discrepancies in their stories can end up undermining their testimony. Victims feel ashamed of their own violation; young male victims might also be confused and humiliated by the constant refrain that the sexual abuse “of girls and women” is a public priority.
In contrast to repeated assertions that there is a “moral panic” around sexual child abuse, in fact there is also a great deal of complacency about it. In 2013, the office of the children’s commission reported that even people responsible for looking after children might deny the existence of child exploitation in their area while in the next breath admitting that young teens were “prostituting themselves up and down the high street”. Among young people there is widespread ignorance about what constitutes “consent” to sexual intercourse. A double standard in sexual behaviour is rife: a young girl coerced into having sex is a “slut” while the aggressive boy gains “man points”.
In recent decades, a great deal has been done to help young victims. In 1999, for example, the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act allowed for certain “special measures” in the case of young complainants, including live links to enable a witness to give evidence outside the court and screens to shield the witness form the defendant.
But these initiatives are not enough if we are to eradicate sexual violence. On 2 February, the CPS published a review of the Rape and Serious Sexual Offences Unit (Rasso). It is damning. They found that the Rasso is not even following its own victim guidelines in a third of cases. Young witnesses are being let down: they are even being interviewed without intermediaries. Of course, Rasso professionals are doing their best, but caseloads have grown dramatically in the past few years and, despite the distressful nature of the job, there are inadequate support mechanisms in place to help them cope with the pressure. The report concluded that the “level of care for victims and witnesses fell well short of what is expected”.
Such public admissions of the failure to deal with sexual violence against children as well as adults comes at a time when Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe announced that detectives might no longer be required to automatically believe people who claim to have been sexually assaulted or raped. He is commissioner for the Metropolitan police, which has one of the highest numbers of rape per head of any force but is ranked 33rd (out of 43) for its rape detection rate.
It is worth reminding ourselves that, contrary to the notion that men are at risk of being falsely accused, it is significantly more common for actual rapists to get away with their actions. Rape is never an easy charge to make – particularly for children. Recent governments have claimed that eradicating sexual violence is a priority. Isn’t it time that policies to make this happen are adequately funded?