Where is the government’s strategy on harmful sexual behaviour?

Carlene Firmin heads up the MsUnderstood partnership, supporting local areas to improve their response to peer on peer abuse. In this post she argues that recent policy attention on harmful sexual behaviour is welcome, but shouldn’t mask the need for a coherent strategic framework at the heart of government that will recognise harmful sexual behaviour as a safeguarding issue, and invest in prevention as well as response.

‘I’ve done it to kids before, I’ve been saying ‘go in there, what’s up with him, here’s a girl’, you know what I’m saying, ‘I’m finished so you can go in’ and he’s like ‘I’ll go in there in a minute’ and then you notice ‘em , like you can see in their eyes that they don’t want to go in … when I first like beat a girl and that, I got like not peer pressure but it was like, that was, that was how I ever lost mine innit like’

(Participant N2, 16 year old young man: Beckett et al., 2013:41)*

This quote is just one of many captured by researchers in the past ten years as they have increasingly evidenced that a significant minority of young people in the UK have been sexually harmed by, and/or harmed, a peer. Surveys of young people suggest that up to a third of young women report experiencing sexual coercion from a partner before they turn 18, and in some parts of England peer-on-peer is the most readily identified form of sexual exploitation.

Far from being a very recent phenomenon, up to two-thirds of adult survivors of child sexual abuse surveyed have stated that the person who abused them in childhood was another young person and not an adult.  Over twenty years ago, in 1992, calls were made for the Government to develop a strategy for responding to, and supporting, young people who display harmful sexual behaviours.** Yet here we are in 2016 and the recommended strategy is yet to have materialised. Of course a strategy is far from the only solution for addressing sexual abuse between young people. But it creates a tone, an authorising environment, in which an issue is recognised as a priority, responses can be monitored, and (overtime) change effected.

In recent months there have been movements to develop policy responses to peer-on-peer sexual abuse. Two months ago NICE (The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) consulted on draft public health guidelines to address harmful sexual behaviour. Last month a Parliamentary Inquiry was launched into sexual violence in schools and a separate Parliamentary Inquiry was run on young people and harmful sexual behaviours. And this month the Sentencing Council have published draft guidelines for the sentencing of young people who commit sexual offences.

Yet amidst this flurry of activity there is a clear lack of strategic direction on the issue of harmful sexual behaviour. Inquiries certainly raise the profile of peer-on-peer abuse. And the current consultations may take us to the place where we can respond with health-based treatment or criminal justice sanctions to those who sexually harm peers. But we can’t arrest or treat our way out of this problem, and we need leadership that ties these two areas of work together and seeks to prevent harmful sexual behaviour in the first place.

First and foremost harmful sexual behaviour is a child protection concern, and therefore requires a ‘safeguarding-first’ tone and approach. The current Parliamentary Inquiry will create avenues to explore how schools can respond to, and prevent, harmful sexual behaviour, but the research tells us that no agency can do this on their own. When I have reviewed cases of peer-on-peer abuse, including rapes on school premises, it was poor multi-agency responses and the lack of a clear safeguarding pathway that hindered effective intervention.

If multi-agency responses are required at a local level, then a cross-departmental strategy is required at the top – providing a framework through which local innovation can develop. If the national focus is on criminal justice sanctions why would the local response be any different?

Earlier this year the Department for Education consulted on its guidance for ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’. This document arguably provides one route into considering the wider safeguarding response to young people affected by peer-on-peer abuse. And yet the section on peer on peer abuse was only two paragraphs long, compared to the ten pages dedicated to allegations of abuse against staff.

We responded to this consultation, the NICE consultation, and the Parliamentary Inquiry into sexual violence in schools – and will be doing the same for the Sentencing Council. But a key message that runs through all our responses is the need for central government leadership to bring these strands together and to ensure that harmful sexual behaviour is consistently viewed as a safeguarding, and multi-agency, concern. Growing interest in child sexual exploitation presents a critical opportunity to also address harmful sexual behaviour and thus a coordinated safeguarding response to peer-on-peer abuse. Through our work with local practitioners we are building an evidence base of local challenges, innovation and gaps – we now need a national policy framework that can do the same.

*’Beat’ means to have sexual intercourse