Public Debate of Sexual Abuse is Long Overdue

The Guardian: During the first month of 2013, the issue of sexual violence and abuse has loomed large in the media and public consciousness. From reports into Jimmy Savile “grooming a nation” to the rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in India, there has scarcely been a day when the issue has not featured in public debate; and rightly so.

For the girls I have interviewed over the past seven years who have been subjected to sexual, physical and emotional abuse within their relationships, peer groups and street gangs, such concern is long overdue. Take 17-year-old “Becky”. She had been sexually exploited by a street gang who got her hooked on cocaine from the age of 13, and made her exchange sex for drugs; she had also been sexually abused by a relative at the age of eight – in neither case had she seen justice.

However, much attention has focused on rape and the treatment of women and girls in India, there remains much work to do in the UK. While the reports into Savile noted his offending was at its peak during the 70s, there was also evidence that he was abusing women and children up until 2009. Statistics published by the Ministry of Justice this month state that last year around 85,000 women and 12,000 men in the UK were victims of sexual violence, but that only 15% of women reported it to the police. So we must not lull ourselves into a false sense of security that changes over the past two decades have been sufficient to prevent the rape of thousands of men and women every year; after all, marital rape was only made illegal in England in 1991.

This year must be the year in which we build upon this heightened level of awareness and concern. The Sentencing Council is currently consulting on its new guidelines for sexual offences. The mayor of London, and the government, are both due to publish revised action plans to tackle violence against women and girls over the coming months. Later this year, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner will publish the final report of its inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups. The 2013 UN Convention on the Status of Women is tackling violence against women and girls. And an international campaign aims to get a billion people dancing in the streets to raise awareness of gender-based violence on 14 February. From the grassroots to the UK government and the UN, there is the potential for progress and for change.

To ensure change does happen we need to be willing to take steps to prevent sexual violence in the first place. We know that children and young people, as well as adults, are committing sexual offences: we need to understand why, and act to stem the problem. Broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom, recently fined Playboy TV for failing to prevent under-18s from accessing “hardcore” pornographic material. We need to fully grasp the journey towards sexual violence within our society, and explore all of the potentially harmful influences that may condone, support or entrench attitudes that women and girls are to be sexually objectified, or that masculinity is about domination – an attitude that research increasingly demonstrates is harmful to both boys and girls. It is encouraging to know these debates are happening. As a society it is important that we all play our role in preventing, as well as tackling, sexual abuse.