If Only

Upon reflection it is so easy to think ‘If only.’ If only I knew what was happening wasn’t right. If only I had said no. If only I could have talked to family or friends. If only I didn’t have to search for an escape route from all the things that were happening at home: the neglect, the alcohol, her mental illness, the beatings and the fear. If only I had someone to protect me.

If only someone had asked me if I was ok.

I look back on my experiences as a teenager with mixed emotions. I endured the stereotypical adolescent problems. The spots, the dodgy hairstyles, questionable fashion sense and the unhealthy obsession with musical legends (such as the Backstreet Boys, 5ive and 911). I struggled with the dilemma of what was more important, my homework or perfecting my new dance routine in front of my bedroom mirror? I flapped my way through the stress of exams and general school life whilst proudly decorating my work with doodles of flowers, love hearts and the names of my unrequited crushes. Like many young people before me, I rode the emotional roller coaster of puberty (shudder) and shared feelings of utter despair with the rest of the world when Jack sunk to the bottom of the ocean in Titanic (that door was big enough for the both of you, Rose!).

Yet despite these everyday trials and tribulations I experienced as a stereotypical teenager of my time, I was also beginning to be engulfed in a world that was as degrading and distasteful as it was soul-destroying: The murky world of Child Sexual Exploitation. So what is child sexual exploitation I hear you ask? You may not have heard of it since it is a relatively new concept which has only recently emerged. Don’t feel bad if you have not, even those working with children and young people are often confused as to what it is given its many different guises.

Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE)

A common definition of Child Sexual Exploitation (or CSE as it is commonly referred to) has been identified as a form of child sexual abuse where a child or young person is involved in: “exploitative situations, contexts and relationships where young people (or a third person or persons) receive ‘something’ (e.g. food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, affection, gifts, money) as a result of them performing and/or another or others performing on them, sexual activities.” (NWG, 2015). 

There is no set model for child sexual exploitation (or CSE as it is commonly known) making it difficult to identify and address. For instance, it may occur through gradual grooming processes which can happen face to face, online, with an individual perpetrator or a gang, and over various periods of time. It can occur as a one off event, say at a party, hotel, youth club or even in the back room of a takeaway. Often, such instances are recorded on mobile phones and subsequently distributed amongst peer groups, schools and gangs through the likes of social media and smart phones. While a one off event is common, once a child or young person engages in such an activity then they are much more vulnerable to future exploitation as they become trapped in its vicious cycle.

The ‘boyfriend model’ is one of the most prevalent forms of CSE in which a child or young person is lured into the belief that they are in a relationship with the perpetrator. Hereby the exploitation occurs through promises of love and affection, gifting of material goods, money and status in return for sexual favours. This model can be highly detrimental to the self-esteem and well-being of an individual as lines and judgements are blurred around what constitutes as a healthy relationship. Often a child or young person is hooked on the feeling of being wanted and are seduced by the attention that they ignore any negative or forceful behaviours of their so-called ‘boyfriend’.  In many cases, any attention is better than no attention.

The Trauma of CSE

While defining and identifying child sexual exploitation is often a complex task, its effects are all too apparent. Physically, those who are experiencing child sexual exploitation are exposed to a range of issues including STIs, injuries, self-harming, weight-loss or addictions. On a social level, they are often at risk of being socially isolated or involved in risky and dangerous situations. They are likely to have difficulties maintaining and forming relationships with family and friends or find themselves excluded from schools and/or without any form of sound education. It’s not just the physical or social impact of child sexual exploitation that can be detrimental to a child or young person.

Emotionally and mentally, the trauma of its occurrence can be hugely damaging. Those experiencing or have experienced child sexual exploitation are at greater risk of developing a  wide range of mental health issues such as anxiety, attachment disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. For me personally, it was the guilt, shame, anger, regret and fear, which are feelings all too common amongst those who have been sexually exploited. Being labelled detrimental names often came as part of the package, something that can take years to shake off. All too often, such experiences will have a huge impact on an individual’s emotional well-being and behaviours in later life. Breaking the cycle is never easy.

Having come from what you could call a volatile home where parental mental health issues, parental alcohol misuse, and physical and emotional abuse were a daily occurrence, the trauma of what was happening behind closed doors was heavily impacting on my own self-beliefs and values. I had formed what could be described as an ambivalent attachment style and would (subconsciously) seek out destructive and emotionally unavailable relationships founded by my deep rooted insecurities and practically non-existent self-esteem. As a result, I may well have walked around with a red flag on my head identifying me as ‘easy pickings’.

One of the many tricky things about CSE is that all too often a child or young person are unaware that they are being sexually exploited. Referring back to the boyfriend model, if a child or young person is emerged in this type of exploitation then it can be extremely difficult for them to understand or realise that they are being sexually exploited. Such revelations may not even occur until they are much older and they begin to realise the context of what a healthy, loving relationship should look like. Such revelations may never occur at all. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I became interested in the issue of CSE did I realise that many of my experiences as a young adolescent were pretty much a tick list of a young person experiencing CSE . I was that caught up in the cycle that I just didn’t know any different and went from one exploitative situation to another. Granted, I made somewhat of a name for myself amongst my peer group circles and upon reflection, I am actually horrified at some of the things I did during those years and from an outsider’s perception my behaviours may well have justified their label.

“A precocious child who appears flirtatious and sexually aware may forfeit her claims to protection because, if the violation of innocence is the criterion by which the act of sexual abuse is judged, violating a ‘knowing child’ is a lesser offence than violating an innocent child.” (Kirtzinger 1988: p. 80)
Much of the debates surrounding child sexual exploitation are engulfed by the perceptions of those involved. Sinking well beyond the labels attributed by peer groups, negative stereotyping and perceptions of children and young people experiencing child sexual exploitation are destructively held by a significant number of practitioners and professionals whose so called role is to protect the vulnerable.

I once attended a conference on the subject. It was meant to be a platform where we could gain a deeper understanding of how the CSE was being tackled within the city by those working on the frontline and behind the scenes. It was therefore much too our shock, distaste and utter despair when a policewoman, who stated she was working with a group of girls who were being exploited, implied that it was pretty much their own doing. THEY are the ones engaging in risky sexual behaviours, therefore, it is THEIR responsibility to make more positive lifestyle choices. A perception such as this unfortunately is not just limited to that lone policewoman, with similar views identified in high profile cases such as the Rotherham child sexual exploitation inquiry where it was discovered that professionals working with young female victims stated that they were ‘willing participants’ and ‘asking for it’.

Changing the Victim Blame Culture

Some of you may be sat there thinking well, they’ve got a point. If a young person is engaging in risky sexual behaviours and are doing so by their own choice then it is their own responsibility. So let’s look at it from another perspective, that of the child or young person. A qualitative research report ‘Running from hate to what you think is love’ published by Barnados, (2013) investigated the correlation between child sexual exploitation and running away through the accounts of young people who had themselves experienced sexual exploitation.

The document is littered with the apparent independence of some of the children and young people interviewed: “There would always be lots of alcohol and drugs. We knew we would be expected to do something sexual with the men but we just got wasted and got on with it… It would always make us feel popular and wanted, and we liked that.”

However it also highlighted the incredible vulnerability and need of protection for those that were being exploited: “It’s like they didn’t believe me and didn’t want to hear too much about it. … They just thought I was a problem child who behaved badly. … I don’t know why they didn’t try and help me.”

How can we effectively tackle the issue of child sexual exploitation (a form of child abuse) when some of the very professionals who are assigned to protecting these vulnerable children and young people are holding such attitudes? Sure, I think it’s safe to say that many adolescents are their own particular breed. They are complex creatures who demonstrate interestingly varied and potentially volatile behaviours as they fight for independence and survival in the big bad world. Yet despite this, they are still children and it is their fundamental right to be protected from harm, and it is our legal responsibility as adults, whether professionals, parents, or decent human beings to ensure that they are safe and supported. Our current understanding of CSE and research has continuously demonstrated that those who are at risk of being sexually exploited are often already extremely vulnerable for example, those living in care, living with parental mental health issues, domestic violence and other forms of abuse ,to name a few. But the sad fact of the matter is that any child or young person is at risk of sexual exploitation.

Children and young people have been sexually exploited for centuries regardless of gender, race, culture or socio-economic background. However due to the cultural and social shifts within recent years, we are now much more aware of its existence and the effects it can cause on a child’s well-being. I feel from my own personal experience that “if only” I had someone to talk to, who listened to me and who supported me around the time that things were bad at home then maybe I would not have experienced what I had. I had no idea how to handle the whirlpool of negative emotions and feelings that engulfed my everyday life growing up. I felt trapped, scared, sad, angry, lonely and desperate, and as a result I acted out in way where I was seeking love and validation from someone, anyone. I engaged in attention seeking behaviours. I lost all concentration in my school work, would frequently play truant and did terrible in my exams. I drank, I smoked, I took recreational drugs, I shoplifted…. anything to escape. I was the black sheep, a tearaway who ended up living in temporary accommodation for young people between the ages of sixteen and twenty, constantly living in a hurricane of self-destruction; mental health issues; unemployment; poverty; sexual exploitation and more. At the age of sixteen, not long after moving into a hostel, I was sexually exploited by a twenty five year old man that resulted in me having an abortion. I cannot put into words the impact that this had on me. Funnily enough a couple of years ago I was contacted by the same man through social media. I think he had found God or something and wanted to repent his sins, apologising for what he put me through. I accepted his apology and blocked him. I was no longer that vulnerable girl.

Hope for the Future

And now?

Well now, at the grand old age of 29 years old, I can proudly say that I graduated last year from the University of Birmingham with a 2:1 Bachelors (Hons) degree in Childhood, Culture and Education. I work for a community interest group called Our Place which provides support services to vulnerable children and families as a mentor co-ordinator and children’s mentor. In this role, I am able to be the person who I never had. I work with children experiencing some form of trauma whether it is living with parents who have mental health issues, living with domestic violence, family breakdowns, living in care, bereavement, abuse, attachment disorders and mental health issues. I spend time with a child listening to their thoughts, feelings and talking about their behaviours, encouraging a platform for self-expression whilst introducing them to tools and strategies that aim to help them discover their own personal identities and self-worth. It was through my work with Our Place that I came across another community interest group, Cherished.

Sharing much of the same values, Cherished is an organisation that equips young girls with the tools to blossom into young, resilient females full of self-confidence and esteem. You may have noticed when talking about child sexual exploitation throughout this piece of writing I have tried to refrain from using the word ‘victim’. This was a conscious effort as I feel to give someone this label enforces a sense of powerlessness which detracts from the overall objective of both Cherished and me: the empowerment of children and young people.

Empowerment of children and young people through organisations such as Cherished is a fundamental tool in tackling the issue of child sexual exploitation. By listening to their voices, their experiences, feelings and thoughts, we are able to work alongside them on the issues that are impacting on their own particular journey. Offering a space where a child or young person can feel nurtured and supported whilst they shape their own identities and character can positively impact on their future resilience and the choices that they make. If a child or young person has positive self-esteem, confidence and self-worth they are less likely to seek affection, attention or validation in other, often dangerous, spaces.

While I started this blog with a number of ‘if only’s’ I would not change anything that has happened in my life as it has made me the person that I am today. I am quite content with being a slightly neurotic individual with an obsession with cats and a penchant for Rose wine. I am also thankful that having experienced what I have, I am now in a position where I can use my voice to help raise awareness, to challenge people’s perspectives and to encourage children and young people to speak out about child sexual exploitation.

By Beth Thomas, CSE Public Speaker and Trainer

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