Sexual violence among young people revealed in university’s research

Sexual violence towards children and young people living in gang-affected areas is often seen as normal and inevitable, according to ground-breaking research carried out by the University of Bedfordshire, published today.

The study into gang-associated sexual violence towards, and exploitation of, young people in England has highlighted that there are significant levels of sexual victimisation within gang environments, and that for some children and young people, sexual violence – rape – is a simple fact of everyday life.

One 15-year-old girl told researchers: “He feels in control of the streets anyway …. so he’ll want things to go his way, so he won’t be thinking ‘this is rape’, when it actually is.”

The study, titled “It’s wrong…but you get used to it”, was commissioned by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) for England as part of its Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups.

Carried out between 2011 and 2013 across six sites in England, the research was conducted with 188 young people, half of whom were under 18, and 76 professionals. Of the young people interviewed, a range of ethnicities were represented and there was an approximately equal gender split.

Results highlighted that sexual violence is used in gang-affected neighbourhoods as a form of punishment, retribution and initiation – as one 18-year-old man said: “…once they’ve implemented that fear into them it’s easy to get what you want.”

Not only are the girls involved harmed by this, but they are frequently blamed for the violence they receive.

Nearly half the young people interviewed said that the victims of sexual violence ‘deserved it’ or ‘asked for it’. In particular, young women already identified as being sexually active were viewed as having less right to withhold consent.

Young people are not reporting incidents for fear of retribution – either in relation to enhanced violence and/or because they do not trust adults to do anything to improve the situation.

The research was carried out by the International Centre: Researching Child Sexual Exploitation, Violence and Trafficking, at the University of Bedfordshire. Its director, Professor Jenny Pearce, recommends that early intervention with education in schools is needed.

She said: “Gang-related sexual exploitation needs to be linked with child protection, with gun and knife and gang prevention interventions, with whole school approaches to preventing sexualised bullying and with outreach by detached workers in gang affected neighbourhoods.

“This research highlights that when we think of gang violence, we now must not only think of guns and knives, but sex and the sexual exploitation of young women too.”

Launching the OCC’s report, the Deputy Children’s Commissioner for England and Chief Executive, Office of the Children’s Commission, Sue Berelowitz, said: “I am profoundly indebted to the University for this extraordinary research, which confronts us with the appalling sexual and psychological violence occurring between young people living in gang-affected neighbourhoods.

“It would have been very difficult and painful for the team when listening to the young peoples’ accounts. They have been faithful to the many young people who participated in this research, truly seeing them, hearing them, and attending to them.

“This report is dedicated to all the young people who gave their time and shared their life stories. Despair is not an option because giving up on our young people is not an option.”

Last week the University of Bedfordshire was awarded the prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in recognition of its pioneering research into child sexual exploitation.

This prize is the highest form of national recognition open to higher and further education institutions in the UK and further enhances Bedfordshire’s widely-acknowledged reputation for its work in the area of social work and social care.