Last Friday I attended a half day conference at Oxford Place in Leeds, hosted by BLAST, the UK’s leading male only sexual exploitation project. BLAST is a service that provides thousands of boys and young men (up to the age of 25) with support and information on male grooming and sexual exploitation. The project also plays an incredibly important role in raising awareness about this hidden issue.
I attended the event in order to find out a bit more about the provision of services for boys and men in Leeds. In terms of my research, which is concerned to explore the spaces and times across the life course where men’s care might be constrained and enabled, BLAST is a little outside my area of interest. Nonetheless, it was a fascinating afternoon that provided me with some useful insights; about how services in Leeds are supporting young men and boys; about how services are engaging with other statutory services and professionals to educate and inform them for the purpose of developing practice; and about how to create impact through research.
The afternoon began with a presentation by Phil Mitchell, the project co-ordinator. He reported findings from a scoping study into the child sexual exploitation of young men and boys, recently conducted by NatCen, Barnados and University College of London. As well as revealing that the the child sexual exploitation of boys is taking place on a much larger scale than previously thought (see an overview here), the findings revealed some fascinating insights into the way in which gender acts to obscure the issues that young men and boys face. In line with gender stereotypes, professionals interviewed for the study were much more likely to be protective of girls and young women despite the fact that the risk factors of CSE for boys and young men are equal to those of girls and young women. In particular, gendered assumptions are made that either boys can protect themselves better than girls or that their behaviours are simply a result of them being trouble makers, rather than a response to being exploited. These assumptions have significant implications for the referral of boys for support. Often, they are referred much further down the line than girls and young women, when their exploitation has been longer term and they are at a much higher risk.
Following the presentation we watched a video about Ryan. Based on a true story, the video was a powerful tool in telling Ryan’s story of sexual exploitation. It revealed how easy it was for Ryan to be exploited and how irrelevant his gender was to being vulnerable to sexual exploitation. The video was shocking but it visibly moved the audience and demonstrated the importance of using impacting media to make an impression and to encourage change in practice. I shall certainly be keeping this in mind when it comes to telling the stories of the participants in my research. An interesting aside by Phil was that casting for the role of Ryan was really difficult. Casting agencies were much happier to case a female to play a sexually exploited child than a male. This comment was really quite revealing of how deeply embedded gendered stereotypes and assumptions are.
It was also interesting to hear about PACE (Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation), a national organisation providing support and advice to families and carers whose children are affected by sexual exploitation. This organisation reminded me very much of the Family Rights Group, whose advice and advocacy service for families who come into contact with social services, I have helped to evaluate. PACE is an excellent example of a service that adopts a whole family approach because it recognises that children have relationships with others and that these relationships are impacted by the events that happen in their lives. PACE acknowledge that parents and carers play a vital role in safeguarding children and young people and that they too are affected when their children are exploited. While only 10% of the parents who access this service are parents of boys, they too experienced struggles to overcome assumptions about masculinity in reporting and seeking help for their sons.