The sexual abuse of children is a national scandal. So why are schools doing so little to help combat it?
This neglect is outrageous, given that educating and empowering young people with sexual rights, knowledge, skills and confidence can help protect them against abuse.
The current UK anti-child sex abuse strategy focuses overwhelmingly on apprehending and prosecuting abusers. That's good and important. But it is a somewhat one-sided approach. It neglects the very important, effective role that young people can play in stopping abuse.
The shocking scale of child sexual exploitation proves that criminal sanctions are not enough. They aren't working. The already strong laws against abuse are being flouted, as shown by the constant stream of sex abuse trials. Tougher penalties are unlikely to deter or make much difference. More robust investigation and prosecution will definitely help a lot. But what's also urgently needed are new initiatives that help young people protect themselves.
Most sexual abuse does not involve explicit coercion or violence. Psychological pressure and manipulation are more common.
It is therefore astonishing that young people are not being advised about the warning signs of grooming and given sexual assertiveness training to deter and repel predators. These issues are not a mandatory part of a national curriculum that is obligatory for all schools.
Indeed, the issue of abuse is not adequately - if at all - discussed in most schools. It should be talked about as preventative education, but it isn't. Most teachers don't advise young people about sex abuse and what to do if they are molested. Telling them to phone Childline is not good enough.
Young people need guidance
Fending off a predatory older (or younger) person is not easy, even for adults. It is an acquired skill, and it requires a degree of confidence. Young people therefore need to be taught the ability and assuredness to resist and report unwanted sexual advances.
Assertiveness skills can be taught and, once learned, can empower teens to rebuff pressure from abusers, whether they are older or of similar ages. Although this may not work for everyone, it will work for some. Even if this education prevents only a minority of children from falling victim to sexual exploitation, it would be worthwhile.
We also need to look at the bigger picture: the social values that often unwittingly and unintentionally underpin the abuse of children.
Sex-negative attitudes are a contributory factor. People who sexually exploit youngsters often get away with it because the victims feel embarrassed and ashamed about sex and are therefore reluctant to report it. This shame and embarrassment is reinforced by a cultural mix of prudery and puritanism, which tends to regard sex as something sordid that should be kept hidden and private. This anti-sex mentality is a godsend to abusers. They rely on shame and secrecy to carry out their molestation undetected.
To undermine the sexual shame that inhibits the exposure of abusers, sex and relationship lessons in schools should encourage young people to have a more open, positive attitude towards sexual matters and to feel less inhibited about discussing them. Teenagers who feel at ease talking about sex are more likely to disclose abuse. Prompt reporting is the key to stopping sexual exploitation.
Issue of adult chauvinism
The other problematic social value that needs to be challenged is adult chauvinism, which is best summed up in the old adage that children should be seen and not heard. This, again, plays into the hands of abusers. Not infrequently, they get away with molestation by relying on the young victim's reticence to challenge an adult; especially if the adult has a position of authority over them or has prestigious social standing. The fear (and reality) of disbelief by adults when reporting abuse is very strong, as many victims have reported.
Despite child-centred legal reforms in the UK over the last three decades, children's rights remain somewhat contradictory and confused – especially in the realm of sexual rights.
According to the law, a person under 16 is incapable of consenting to a sexual act. They are deemed unable to understand the implications of having sex. Any sexual relationship with such a person, even if freely entered into by both partners of similar ages, is therefore categorised, in law, as a criminal offence.
By saying that the under-16s are not allowed to consent to a sexual relationship, the unspoken message is that they have no sexual rights - no right to control their own body and make their own decisions. This is the precise mindset of abusers.
Curiously, the UK age of criminal responsibility is 10. From that age onwards, the law says that a person who commits a crime, such as murder, can be assumed to know what they were doing and can therefore be held responsible for their behaviour. But it is not until the age of 16 that the law acknowledges young people's ability to give sexual consent. The bizarre implication is that a decision to have consenting sex requires greater mental maturity, and is more complex and grave, than a decision to kill.
The 10-year-old killers of James Bulger were declared by the courts to be old enough to understand, and to be held responsible for, their actions - and mature enough be convicted of murder. But if they'd had sex with each other and said they had consented, the courts would have ruled that they were too young to understand what is involved in a sexual relationship - and therefore incapable of giving their consent.
This points to the legal muddle over the sexual rights of youth. Parliament rightly seeks to safeguard against abuse. It sets the age of consent at 16. But by denying the under-16s the right to consent to sex, it reinforces the idea that they have no right to make their own sexual choices. Isn't this also what child sex abusers believe? That teens have no right to decide?
I am not saying that sex involving young people under 16 should be lawful. I am merely pointing out the inconsistencies; that the law seems to inadvertently help legitimate the disempowering attitudes that allow abuse to flourish.
To combat abusive relations, all schools should be legally required to educate young people about consent and abuse issues, give them sexual assertiveness training and positively encourage a culture of young people's rights; including the right to control their own bodies. This includes the right to say "no" to unwanted sex (whatever the age of the other person) and the right and responsibility to report attempted and actual abusers.
A useful sex and relationship education mantra might be: "It's my body. It's my right to decide."
This affirmation of teenagers' right to sexual self-determination, and their education and empowerment to assert that right against abusers, should be mandatory in every school. Over to you Education Secretary Nicky Morgan.
For more information about the Peter Tatchell Foundation's human rights work visit: http://www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org