Sexual violence and the abuse of our girls

One thing I have learnt through working in this field for so long is that every act of VAWDASV (violence against women, domestic abuse & sexual violence), however small or seemingly inconsequential is linked. No act is an isolated incident, and in fact they often directly link with each other or are inter-related. Like links in a chain. Building one upon the other until you have a full chain of entrapment around you.

The level of harassment and abuse which girls face on a daily basis, in school and outside of it is staggering. I need to make it clear here that adults, whether parents, caretakers or teachers, really do not understand the scale of the problem. If you think you do. Double it. Treble it. Girls experience abuse, violence and harassment in ways unheard of in the previous generation. Social media and technology mean they are vulnerable and accessible to abusers 24 hrs a day.

The evidence for the prevalence and kinds of abuse girls experience is overwhelming. At least we are at the point where we don’t have to debate the case anymore.

The 2019-20 Report, The State of Girls’ Rights in the UK – Wales Insights, told us that girls are ‘fed up and frustrated’ with the lack of progress on gender equality. They’re continuing to face threats to their safety in public, sexism in school and a lack of control over their bodies – and their experiences are still not being listened to. Conversations with girls showed that gender stereotypes, outdated gender norms and sexism are shaping girls’ schooling experience.

In the Report many girls were critical of the content of their RSE lessons, and it is evident there is much more to do in this area of work. The new Welsh RSE curriculum does not respond to these needs. How can it when it doesn’t even name girls as the recipients of this behaviour? The research shows that sexism is clearly fuelling girls’ frustration with their experience of school. 60% of girls reported hearing sexist language and many of the girls felt that teachers were ill-equipped to deal with sexism and sexual assault.

The cultural pressure on body image remains a key source of anxiety for girls. Girls missed school, work and health appointments because they were too self-conscious about their appearance. Body image issues can have serious consequences for their mental and physical health. Despite huge advancements in women and girls’ rights, sexism has not gone away. This Report would indicate that it is in fact as ubiquitous and virulent as ever.

In Wales, 52% of girls aged 14-21 have experienced public sexual harassment. Public sexual harassment affects girls’ mental health, self-esteem, sense of safety and seriously impinges on their right to equal access to public space.

The digitalisation of sexual harassment and other forms of abuse is prevalent in girls’ lives and a constant that they can’t easily remove or escape. Digital platforms and social media are where they live their lives, so telling a girl to get rid of her phone, not use a particular website or media platform is an unrealistic, impossible option. Such harassment and abuse includes boys, often unknown, ‘sexting’ – asking for or sending inappropriate pictures, or unwanted sexual messages and requests. Previously agreed to intimate photographs can be sent around the globe with the push of a button, ruining a young life that would struggle to manage the public exposure. (Sexual imagery of those under 18 is classed as sexual abuse imagery, consensual or otherwise).

The pornified and sexualised cloud that young girls grow up under has created the perfect storm for their grooming, manipulation and abuse. All inter-linked, all with the aim of grooming them for a life as a woman under the male gaze.

Child Sexual Exploitation

Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) is a type of sexual abuse. When a child or young person is exploited, they’re given things in exchange for performing sexual activities. These can be gifts, alcohol, clothes or even affection. They are often tricked into believing they’re in a loving and consensual relationship. This is the grooming element. They may trust their abuser and not understand that they’re being abused. This is often characterised as a simple narrative of organised grooming gangs and vulnerable young girls living in care homes. However, the landscape of grooming shows it has many forms, perpetrated by individual groomers as well as groups, strangers or family friends.

The growth of the internet, and in particular social media has created a new form of ‘stranger danger’, in the form of on-line grooming.

Dr Sophie Hallett found in her research that the truth is more complex and intimately bound up with other problems and difficulties young people are experiencing. For some young people the exchange of sex is a coping response, made within severely adverse circumstances. For professionals, a reworking of the grooming model may be needed to recognise that some children and young people can be aware of the coercive nature of their relationships. Hallett states that greater weight and attention should be given to the reasons why they may want to stay in exploitative relationships, and that tackling the underlying problems and difficulties experienced by young people is key to responding to CSE.

Dealing with sexual exploitation as an isolated issue may, conversely, end up leaving young people more vulnerable if these other problems (i.e. substance misuse, housing, mental health, familial abuse) are not also addressed. She believes the key to tackling this is creating opportunities for young people to build positive relationships and promoting young people’s active participation in their own support. The RSE schools’ curriculum is an important step in this process, but it needs to be robust enough for this to be implemented effectively.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) chaired by Professor Alexis Jay said “We found extensive failures by local authorities and police forces in the ways in which they tackled this sexual abuse. There appeared to be a flawed assumption that child sexual exploitation was on the wane, however it has become even more of a hidden problem and increasingly underestimated.” Swansea was one of the cities they reported on. This is happening here in Wales. The report said there was also evidence of missed opportunities for disruption of sexual exploitation of children in particular cases in Swansea. There is so much that can be done in schools, as well as by parents and others. This should not be left to the police and social services when, by the time they get involved, the damage has already been done.

Research has identified that people (overwhelmingly men) who watch child abuse material online are at high risk of going on to contact or abuse a child in real life. This peer reviewed study proves that watching online child sexual abuse can increase the risk of real-life contact.

Children have the right to be protected from sexual violence and removing child sexual abuse images from the internet is a vital step in this. The use of porn to groom young girls is now mainstream, and while porn is so easily accessible to children and young people, they are told ‘it’s normal, everyone’s doing it’ which of course they believe when it is everywhere to be seen around them. It is not only individual groomers or grooming gangs that groom using porn. Let’s be honest here: our girls are being groomed by a society and culture that uses porn on a mass scale to groom them into submission.

Prostitution

There appears to be no single route into prostitution. Often, there is a web of complex, inter-woven social factors such as childhood abuse, mental ill health, homelessness, domestic abuse, poverty and drug and alcohol misuse. The average age a girl is first exploited into prostitution is approx. 13 yrs. This supports the information I collected on the ground from women aged 18+ being supported in a project for those involved in prostitution. Most of them had entered prostitution in their teens, usually in their local communities, often for cigarettes or alcohol or small amounts of money. Once involved at such a young age it is very difficult to get out. Being exploited into prostitution is often a progression for girls groomed and sexually exploited at such a young age. The reality is, that the younger they are, the easier the target they are and the easier they are to manipulate.

The narrative around prostitution being a valid way for women to earn money and as a tool of sexual empowerment is, in itself the mass grooming of women and girls by a society and culture that places women and girls central to men and boys’ sexual needs and desires, available 24/7. The material reality for women and girls exploited by prostitution tells us a different story.

‘Only Fans’

Girls are growing up in a society where the cultural influences are overtly sexual and the overlaying message is that sexual prowess and sexual availability is the valuable, if not the most valuable thing girls can own.

Social media and the internet have created a complex situation where girls can be groomed and pulled into the sex industry at the click of a button. This ease of access from both the side of the groomer/pimp and the girl herself is frightening. This ease of entry, intertwined with a culture that puts value on a girl’s sexual availability above all else means we are seeing a plethora of so called ‘lower level’ entry platforms into the sex trade. One such platform is Only Fans. This is a subscription based social media platform where you can post content to be bought and seen by others. Inevitably this has meant that pornographic and sexually explicit content has become the main focus of the site and its biggest money earner. It is full of celebrities who claim to make millions of dollars from the site, but the reality for the overwhelming majority of users is that they make next to nothing, and have a host of other issues to contend with, such as stalking, abuse, depression, shame etc. The media is full of stories of how women have given up their mundane or difficult jobs as nurses, teachers etc and then went on to make more in a week on Only Fans than they did in a month working. Wales Online ran such a story last month. Not only does this media coverage tell girls that getting an education and a job/career isn’t worth it, but it is reinforcing the message that they are only of value if their bodies are available to be bought and used by men. These media stories are inevitably positive and once again don’t tell the reality of being a so-called ‘content creator’ on Only Fans.

Girls are groomed in ways that never existed in previous generations, and the reach of the internet, mobile phones and other technologies mean that there are opportunities for them to be groomed 24/7. The internet has given a step up to patriarchy and has put on speed dial the direct lines to all aspects of the sex industry.

Girls (and boys) need clear, firm, factually correct guidance and information about their bodies, autonomy and their value as human beings. We owe it to the next generation to get this right.

Ali Morris will be speaking at our webinar on Sat, 19 March 2022, from 10:30 – 13:00 GMT. Book your tickets here.