Reports have revealed a culture in which underage sexual activity is seen as relatively harmless

Television viewers who watched the recent three-part BBC real-life drama Three Girls were shocked by the nature and scale of the horrific abuse suffered by vulnerable children and young people in Rochdale.

And in the four years since the Rochdale Borough Safeguarding Children Board published its harrowing case reviews, many attempts have been made to improve the system. The government has called for changes in healthcare, social care, education, law enforcement, the voluntary sector, and local and national government. Numerous measures have been proposed and new initiatives have been introduced.

But there is a lesson in the Rochdale case, and other cases of child sexual exploitation (CSE), which it seems nobody wants to hear.

The problem is only getting worse. According to a recent report prepared by Stockport MP Ann Coffey, over the past three years Greater Manchester Police have identified more young people at risk of CSE than ever before. In October 2016, a total of 1,732 children and young people in Greater Manchester were flagged as being victims or at risk of CSE, up from 650 in February 2015. The number of people in the region flagged as known or suspected CSE offenders has more than doubled since 2014.

Clearly something is going wrong, but what? And more to the point, what needs to be done about it?

During the past five years, there have been serious case reviews in connection with CSE in Torbay, Liverpool, Rochdale, Thurrock, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, Bristol and (an independent inquiry) Rotherham. The consistency of the messages from all eight parts of the country is striking. They tell the story of a culture in which underage sexual activity is viewed as a normal part of growing up and considered relatively harmless provided it is consensual.

Again and again, we encounter a professional readiness to routinely provide contraception to young people under the legal age of consent in confidence, without considering the possibility that they may be suffering abuse. We also read of an inclination to treat children under the age of 16 as adults with the competence to make their own decisions with regard to sexual activity and a tendency to dismiss the concerns of their parents out of hand.

Some have argued that statutory relationships and sex education will prove the golden bullet; that if only children receive lessons on consent, all will be well. But the serious case reviews show over and over again that many of the victims thought they were consenting. The Independent Inquiry into CSE in Rotherham found that:

Typically, children were courted by a young man whom they believed to be their boyfriend. Over a period of time, the child would be introduced to older men who cultivated them and supplied them with gifts, free alcohol and sometimes drugs.

Children were initially flattered by the attention paid to them, and impressed by the apparent wealth and sophistication of those grooming them… Many were utterly convinced that they were special in the affections of a perpetrator, despite all the evidence that many other children were being groomed and abused by the same person.

Likewise in Oxfordshire, “The men were buying expensive gifts for the girls who believed them to be their ‘boyfriend’,” and the Bristol report notes that in cases of CSE a young person can perceive him or herself to be in a romantic relationship with a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”.

In this climate, something more than lessons on consent is required. In fact, an approach to relationships and sex education that teaches young people that they can decide for themselves “when they are ready” for a sexual relationship will expose them to increased risk of sexual exploitation.

A relaxed attitude towards the age of consent, combined with easy and confidential access to contraceptive and sexual health services, is giving young people the impression that sexual activity before the age of 16 is no big deal. Provided it is consensual and so long as the age gap is not too wide, the authorities are likely to turn a blind eye and the risk of prosecution is extremely low.

Such messages are leaving young teenage girls vulnerable to approaches from predatory males who shower them with gifts and attention and present themselves as “boyfriends”, frequently claiming to be younger than they really are.

The Oxfordshire report therefore warns:

The reluctance in many places, both political and professional, to have any firm statements about something being “wrong”, creates an environment where it is easier for vulnerable young people/children to be exploited.

It is not more evidence that is needed, but the political will to act on the evidence that is staring us all in the face.