Review of new briefing papers on child sexual exploitation
Written by Noel MacNamara
Much of the available research regarding the sexual exploitation of children and young people is explored through the prism of victim as female and perpetrator as male. As a result, considerable knowledge gaps persist in respect to the interplay between victim gender and their individual characteristics, the abuse process and official responses to them. It has also been suggested that CSE detection and disclosure rates are lower for boys than girls (Lillywhite and Skidmore, 2006), meaning that the true scale of male-victim CSE may be even more underrepresented in official data than that of female-victim CSE.
This series of three briefing papers by Dr Jacqui Montgomery-Devlin seeks to close that gap.
- Briefing Paper 1 – Potential impediments to the recognition of the sexual exploitation of young males under 18 (June 2020)
- Briefing Paper 2 – The Influence of Paramilitarism in Northern Ireland on the recognition of child sexual exploitation in young males (November 2020)
- Briefing Paper 3 – The association between youth offending and the recognition of child sexual exploitation in young males (March 2021)
The author undertook research, across the UK, to achieve an understanding of factors inhibiting recognition of young males as victims of CSE.
The overall study utilised a mixed-methods approach to achieve a valuable range of data, including:
- A detailed policy and literature review.
- Surveys and interviews with more than 90 professionals working within the field of CSE, or related fields across the statutory, voluntary and community sectors and throughout the UK.
- 30 one-to-one interviews
- Interviews with 10 young males who had experienced CSE or who had knowledge of it in their past or present social circles
- A survey completed by 1,158 young people within the public.
The study was underpinned by the theoretical framework of ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner 1995), supporting the concept that the sexual exploitation of young males, as a phenomenon, is not simply an expression of the individual male victim operating in a vacuum, but contextual to the prevalence and impact of other factors.
The central focus of these papers is to identify barriers to disclosure by young males and inhibitors to identification by professionals, encompassing exploration of the existence of any relationship between the two.
The author sought to:
- Identify inhibitors to disclosure by young males and potential solutions
- Identify impediments to identification by professionals and potential solutions
- Explore the existence of any relationship between inhibitors to disclosure and impediments to identification.
Two of the briefing papers (1 & 3) are particularly relevant to a wider audience.
Briefing Paper 1
demonstrates that there is both commonality and disagreement between the views of young people and what we already understand from the child sexual abuse literature relating to the non-recognition of males as victims. The paper summarises key themes emerging from the study and associated literature review, including findings related to stereotypical assumptions regarding males and masculinity believed to inhibit the recognition of males as victims. It also highlights the importance of recognising the role of gender constructs and socialisation in the negating of males as victims of CSE. As an example, the three top reasons cited by young men for not disclosing exploitation are:
- I should be able to protect myself because I am male.
- Fear of being labelled gay (if the abuser is male and victim heterosexual).
- People don’t believe this happens to males.
The research further reveals a level of dissonance between the views of young people and professionals regarding the relevance of barriers to recognition of CSE in young males which is concerning from a child protection perspective. It also highlights the implications of this for the interpretation and application of CSE policies and procedures to the identification of young males as victims, is significant. The research found that the top three reasons that professionals may fail to identify the sexual exploitation of young males are:
- A lack of knowledge about the sexual exploitation of males.
- Criminal behaviour can mask their victimhood.
- Thinking that males are the perpetrators rather than victims.
The paper concludes with recommendations to inform CSE policy and practice, specifically with regards to boys and young men.
Briefing Paper 2
presents an examination of the concept of paramilitarism and the complex dynamics within paramilitary controlled communities in Northern Ireland to which young males are exposed, particularly those who are sexually exploited. The ultimate impact of this cultural environment, which embodies masculine ideology, on the identification of CSE in males, and the reasons for their silence, is highlighted. While limited, it is evident from the findings of this study that there can be a direct impact on young males from sexual exploitation perpetrated by individuals with a paramilitary connection and also an indirect impact through the fear of living within such communities, as a victim of CSE.
Some of the work within this paper can be extrapolated out to other communities where there exists the impact of fear, control and constrained choices and where hyper-masculinity prevails.
Briefing Paper 3
summarises and explores the complexity of youth offending in relation to the sexual exploitation of young males; specifically, how it impacts the recognition of CSE. Five particular themes that emerged from the fieldwork are highlighted, and a number of recommendations made to inform policy and practice relating to CSE and youth justice.
It provides evidence to support links between youth offending and the sexual exploitation of young males, but more specifically how this impacts recognition of males as victims of CSE. The findings illustrated youth offending (or the perception of it) presents a variety of challenges to the recognition of CSE in males, all of which necessitate addressing if young males are to be protected. The five themes that emerged were:
- A perceived predisposition of professionals to focus on the offending behaviour of young males, rather than considering other behavioural motivators for the crime.
- The perception that a previous poor negative response has the potential to impede disclosures.
- The perception that male youth offending behaviours can be manifestations of CSE related trauma.
- Professionals’ misinterpretation of CSE related behaviours can impact both identification and disclosure.
- Imprisonment versus disclosure – a constrained choice.
This review highlighted evidence as to why it is important to examine the role of criminality in relation to the recognition of CSE in males.
Within these briefing papers, you can hear the voices of both young people and the professionals who work with them. There is a rawness in some of the quotes that will resonate with the staff and carers in the OOHC system regarding how trapped and lost so many young males feel regarding their exploitation and the inadequacy of the professional response.
Within the literature about child sexual exploitation, there is a significant gap regarding boys and young men. Dr Montgomery-Devlin’s study has helped to identify that the current female-centric approaches to policy, victim identification by professionals and service provision is not serving boys and young men adequately in the UK. I would argue that this is also the case in Australia. Dr Montgomery-Devlin’s work clearly points to the fact that gender should be factored into the design of research, policy and practice into child sexual exploitation.
- Register for our Responding to Child Sexual Exploitation online training here
- Research Briefing: What is known about child sexual exploitation in residential care?
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1995). Developmental ecology through space and time: A future perspective. In P. Moen, G. H. Elder, Jr., & K. Lüscher (Eds.), Examining lives in context: Perspectives on the ecology of human development (p. 619–647). American Psychological Association.
Lillywhite, R., & Skidmore, P. (2006). Boys Are Not Sexually Exploited? A Challenge to Practitioners. Child Abuse Review, 15(5), 351–361.