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00Nov23d Little boys

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Why little boys are not sex offenders

Dea Birkett

November 21, 2000, The Guardian

Yesterday the NSPCC published a report which should horrify every adult. Child Maltreatment in the United Kingdom surveyed almost 3,000 18-24-year-olds about how they were treated as children. One in 10 said they were forced or threatened into sex acts against their will before reaching 16. Only 14% of this abuse was said to be carried out by the person we would most readily point a finger at - the father. The most frequent culprit was, it was claimed, another child.

It is a phenomenal claim. Look around your children's class. According to this report, at least one of those schoolboy faces struggling with his five times table masks a sex offender. Then turn your eye towards your own sitting room. The child most likely to abuse your daughter is the boy watching the Tweenies with her. Forty three per cent of abuse was said to be perpetrated by a sibling. It's no longer big brother, but little brother we have to watch out for.

It is not surprising that the report's findings show physical abuse to be seven times more prevalent than sexual abuse. But the coverage has focused almost entirely on the sexual element. This focus on child-on-child sex abuse has arisen from exactly the same professional quarters that introduced us to the atrocities of adult sex offenders.

But you cannot and should not apply the same judgments and analysis to children's behaviour. A seven-year-old showing his willy to a four-year-old is not the same thing as a 40-year-old man flashing at a woman in the park.

Kiss chase in the playground is not a form of indecent assault. It's a game, even if occasionally an unwelcome or unwanted one. The intention, understanding, meaning and effect are entirely different.

The respondents to the survey endorsed this. They identified the most distressing form of abuse by far as not sexual nor even physical abuse, but bullying.

Of course, not all children's activities are harmless, but some are more harmless than others. The report encompasses a wide range of actions that could count as sexual abuse, from kissing and cuddling to forcible oral and penetrative sex.

What inevitably happens is that overall terrifying statistics are quoted, then, as an example, an incidence of the most extreme kind is given. The London Young Abusers Centre cites oversexualised five-year-olds, sexually abusive 11-year-olds, 14-year-old rapists and even sexual homicides. The impression is that a huge number of young teenagers are buggering little boys.

Yet even according to the NSPCC's own calculations, the more extreme examples only make up a small minority of the abusive actions that actually occur. The commonest form of sexual contact was "exposed their sex organs or other private parts of their body to you in order to shock you or excite themselves"; by far the least common was anal intercourse.

I hope this report's intention is to alert us to an under-reported problem. But my concern is, as with the attention given to "stranger danger" after the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne last summer, it will not make us more alert; it will simply make us more fearful. We will redirect our suspicion away from adult males to our own children. Brothers and sisters sharing baths, helping each other to dress, even showing each other their genitals will be revisited with an over anxious eye.

The case of 11-year-old Raoul Wuthrich, who was accused by a watchful neighbour in Colorado, US, of touching his five-year-old sister "in an inappropriate way" while helping her to pee in the garden, is a sign of just such presumptions. The case against him eventually collapsed.

There is one more worrying aspect of the report. It automatically assumes that the respondent is a victim, not a perpetrator. Of the 213 questions in the survey, not a single one asked the interviewee if he or she had ever committed abuse as a child. It all happens to you, and is never done by you. So who are these children who sexually abuse others of a similar age? The answer is simple: it wasn't you, and it certainly isn't your child. It's somebody else's family; somebody else's problem.

You should be afraid. You should be very afraid. But the fear should not be of our children, or those of our next-door neighbour, or the stranger's son with the lousy hair who lives up the street. We should be afraid that childhood has become the latest landscape to be invaded by often misrepresented statistics that can fill even the most stalwart and sensible parent with terror.

There is a real problem of child physical abuse. There is terrible emotional neglect. There is even some sexual abuse by children of children. Let's tackle it. But let's not try and make cheap points for our own ends and not the wellbeing of damaged children. It only makes us worry far more and helps far less towards solving the real problems.


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