The myth of childhood innocence dies hard. Many parents hope that their kids won’t have to deal with the complex world of sex until they are in their teens, keeping childhood as one of the last places untouched by adult desires. But such hopes seem illusory in the face of evidence that the scale of child sexual abuse in this country is much greater than we previously believed, and is increasing due to technology.
A rise in prevalence, as opposed to reporting, is the development that everyone working in the area dreads. Following the exposure of Jimmy Savile, police forces were inundated with reports of historic rapes and sex attacks, almost universally believed to reflect a greater willingness of victims to go to the police. It was widely welcomed, not because a woman revealing that she has been raped is ever good news, but because confidence in the criminal justice system is essential to stopping rapists.
Now, though, one of the country’s most senior police officers is saying something very different about the increase in recorded cases of child abuse. Simon Bailey, chief constable of Norfolk and the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, believes that technology has made it easier for predators to search for victims online, driving an increase of more than 30% in recorded cases last year.
According to the NSPCC, a total of 45,456 child sexual offences were recorded in the UK, with some victims aged five or under. Shocking though that is, the figure is low compared to estimates contained in a report last year from the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield. It suggested that there had been between 400,000 and 450,000 victims of child sexual abuse in England alone between 2012 and 2014.
There is always resistance to such estimates, which are based on different types of evidence including surveys of adult survivors, while the apparent mishandling of historical allegations against some well-known individuals has led to claims of a witch-hunt. But the NSPCC’s figures represent recorded cases of child sexual abuse and Bailey says that the police are seeing “exponential increases” year-on-year. He doesn’t believe that there has been a rise in the proportion of the population with a sexual interest in children, but technological advances have vastly expanded opportunities for paedophiles.
No one would argue that it is possible or even desirable to keep children away from the internet. But we are already living in a different universe in terms of child sexual exploitation: in 1990 it was estimated that there were approximately 7,000 indecent images of children in circulation in the UK and predators had to take enormous risks in order to share them. In 1978 a former diplomat, Sir Peter Hayman, was investigated by the police after he left a package of paedophile material on a London bus.
Now it is believed that there may be as many as 100m indecent images of children in circulation. There is so much material, in fact, that the police have been accused of unacceptable delays in getting round to interviewing people who have been flagged up as suspects. In 2014, Essex police were criticised for waiting nine months to question a deputy headteacher from Southend, who was later discovered to possess more than 400 films and still images of children undressing at his school and a local swimming pool.
Children cannot possibly be expected to anticipate this kind of behaviour from someone in a position of trust. That is why they need to be told about warning signs, making sure they know what to look for and who to tell if they are worried by someone’s behaviour. The obvious place for that to happen is in schools but a vociferous lobby exists, dedicated to opposing every attempt to introduce compulsory sex and relationships education on the ground that it would unnecessarily “sexualise” kids.
The truth is the opposite: denying children knowledge about the world puts them at risk from paedophiles who may inflict lifelong damage. But the present government flatly refuses to make personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) mandatory. Last month the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, rejected another call for compulsory PSHE, despite a campaign by MPs, peers and a coalition of 100 concerned organisations.
I regularly sit in meetings with senior police officers who deal with the horrors of child sexual abuse on a daily basis. They can’t say so publicly but they are tearing their hair out over our society’s failure to teach children how to spot predators. I’m afraid that childhood innocence may be something we can no longer afford if we’re serious about protecting kids from dangerous people.