Phil Mitchell is a Male Sexual Abuse Specialist with nearly 15 years’ experience in the field of sexual abuse and sexual trauma. He has delivered Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) services and provided support and interventions to hundreds of young people and adults. Phil sat down with us to talk about the issue of Child Sexual Exploitation and the additional risks to young boys who might identify as LGBTQ.
Why are boys overlooked when talking about CSE?
Well simply put, gender stereotypes and gender bias practice, I think as a society we still generally tend to view boys and men in certain ways, they have to be strong and tough, and are encouraged to not express their emotions.
There’s a really great book called ‘The Handbook of Male Psychology’ which talks about ‘gamma bias’ and how we can minimise things in boys when they’re at risk of CSE and sometimes maximise it with girls, which is quite interesting. Gender stereotypes and gender bias practice are important factors in recognising CSE.
One of the things that we struggle with is identifying boys at risk of CSE, and the reason we struggle is that we make an assumption on how we interpret CSE signs in boys.
For example, if there’s group of professionals working with a girl and they’re really worried about her. Say, she’s going missing all the time, not telling anyone where she’s been, she’s truanting from school and comes home with a bag of weed and a new phone, and she’s seen being dropped off at the end of the street by a man in a car: the stereotypical signs of CSE.
Professionals might think this could be CSE. There’s panic, worry and they have a strategy meeting.
But then when we talk about a boy, practically the same age and behaviours. Many professionals are less likely to consider the possibility of CSE, despite the fact that the same behaviours are there – and they put it down to ‘boys being boys’, youth offending and other things.
My argument is that if girl displays this behavior you consider CSE, but if a boy displays it, it’s not always considered. And if we look at the 2010 Equality Act, we risk giving boys a less favorable response based on the fact they are male, so in some cases you’re going against legislation.
Simply put that’s the reason why boys and young men get overlooked.
Are LGBT young people more at risk of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE)?
On sexualised culture
I’m always very delicate when I talk about this, I wouldn’t want to give the message that young men who are gay or exploring their sexuality are more at risk- some may disagree with me. I think they can be; it depends on the specifics. Sexual orientation alone doesn’t equal CSE – we have to consider the context and other factors.
You could have a young lad who has come out as gay, and says I’m out and proud it’s great, my parents are supportive, and I’ve got friends who are supportive. I think one of the things that I often say, is what do these young people believe in. Do they believe it’s OK to get a boyfriend who is 30 when they are 15? If they do then there’s something that requires attention, but the attention should be given in a way that doesn’t blame the child.
So if they see the front cover of gay times and attitude magazine, or have seen things on TV and have the impression that being gay or being part of the gay scene is very sexualised, it can be assumed that this is the norm or what they have to do or behave. It’s how they interpret these messages that can be a problem. Becoming overly sexualised at a young age can lead to all manner of problems.
On exploitation in relationships
The other thing they can believe, when asking them what they think is OK and not OK in relationships (and this is regardless of sexuality). Generally what I tend to find is that more young lads who have come out as gay, seem to have this belief that if they have an older boyfriend who’s older than them, and think ‘If I want to have sex with them and they want to have sex with me- then I don’t see that as abuse’.
I’ve worked with a number of boys and young men over the years who have been gay, who have thought that exact thing.
Bradford’s Safeguarding Children Board published a serious case review for ‘Jack’. This is a young lad that I worked with for a good few years, he was abused by about 39 different men.
He went through some pretty horrific times. He came out as gay, and because he lost all his male friends, he felt isolated, and that pushed him to seek sex, love and acceptance with older men.
For a time, and this might be a bit controversial, when Jack was with these men, he enjoyed the sexual behavior, it gave him a thrill and he felt loved, special and accepted- he didn’t see it as abuse.
Now of course everyone around him was panicking and thinking this is terrible but he had a different idea of what abuse was. Jack was isolated from his peers, if you are straight/heterosexual you never, ever have to ask yourself the question: where I can find people my age with the same sexual orientation as me? You never have to ask yourself that question.
On age-inappropriate relationships
Young people who come out as gay, will always ask themselves that question- it’s the answer that they can come up with that may cause concern. So, if you come out as gay and think you can go to a gay youth group, to try and make friends that’s fine. If you think well actually there’s cruising sites I can go to or lie about my age and go on Grindr to meet older men – that’s a problem.
We also have families with religious pressures, where it’s wrong to be gay and there’s lots of homophobia. These are all the additional vulnerabilities that boys and young men who come out as gay are more likely to face.
But some of them believe that age doesn’t matter – any young person can think that. But I do think that boys and young men who are gay have additional vulnerabilities. It doesn’t automatically mean they are going to be abused, just that they can be more vulnerable to abuse and CSE – just as they’re more vulnerable to bullying, and discrimination.
Do you think technology created an additional layer of risk for boys who might be LGBT?
Yes, without a shadow of a doubt. If you google search ‘boys Grindr groomed’ there’s a mass of articles on boys who have been groomed on Grindr. People say, Grindr has responsibility which they do, but the bottom line is, if a young lad is desperate to explore his sexuality and wants to do that in a way that he doesn’t necessarily see as risky – he’s going to do it whether Grindr is there or not. There will be other ways how that can happen.
But the problem is that if you’re a young lad who has just came out as gay, and you can’t speak to your parents because you’re worried you will get thrown out, or beaten up because of religious persecution or other reasons, and you’ve lost all your friends at school because they don’t like you being gay. Then it’s quick and it’s easy to just download an app, say you’re 18 and straight away you have access to 200 men, it’s quick and it’s easy.
If you’re a young person and your brain is still developing and your logical adult brain isn’t fully formed, which is wont yet be – you will want to make life easier for yourself.
They can communicate by text, and that’s comfortable for them. This is something boys are more likely to do, girls are much more effective with communicating than boys – because of stereotypical gendered upbringings and the effects of hormones on the brain.
It just makes it easier for perpetrators, the days of grooming are not as difficult as they used to be. Why would a man have to groom a boy, when a boy can go up to a man and say, ‘Hey I just came out as gay, I’m 14 and don’t think age matters’, they’ll think ‘OK, I don’t even have to groom this lad’. But that never means it’s the boy’s fault – the child is the child and the adult is always the adult.
Technology certainly makes it easier for perpetrators to access boys and young men, because you can very easily go on apps like Grindr and lie about your age, you can even put a profile picture on there – I’ve seen lads with their school uniform on with information on their profile saying ‘I’m really 16, but had to say 18 to get on Grindr’. Even then, you have to report it for something to happen – Grindr aren’t actively looking for this sort of stuff. Technology can certainly increase the vulnerability of boys who might be gay or bisexual – but it also increases the ability for preparators to commit crimes.
Are Grindr responsible for these behaviours?
I think they have a part to play, people might disagree with me, but I wouldn’t say they are 100% responsible. We should always lay most of the blame at the door of the perpetrators, because when Grindr didn’t exist these crimes were still happening.
If Grindr disappeared tomorrow these crimes would still happen – sadly, that’s the bigger picture.
But I think what we need to do is educate children on the risks and educate parents and carers. I’ve worked with parents and carers who have said ‘I don’t want my child in an assembly, where they’re going to be educated about the risks of CSE’. Even though they tell me their children have unsupervised access to a smartphone with no safety settings enabled.
For them to disagree with education on CSE but allow unrestricted access to technology is disappointing and rather confusing. We have to educate parents and carers on what they’re actually giving to their child and help them meet their responsibility to protect their children online. We can’t expect children not to do anything sexual until they’re 18 and married – it’s just not going to happen.
Apps like Grindr do have a part to play because they’re the ones providing this service, but they can say it’s the parents or child’s responsibility. When I was younger and if Grindr had of been out, I would have gone on it and lied about my age.
I do think Grindr have some responsibility, but they don’t take it seriously.
How should safeguarding professionals respond to LGBT young people at risk of CSE?
They should sit down and normalise things, there’s no need to make a big drama out of it. It’s about not flying off the deep end, panicking and screaming, but it’s also about not being too laid back and unbothered.
Approach the subject with professional curiosity and follow the young person’s lead- there’s no need to make it a bigger deal that it is.
To learn more about Phil and his work check out his website.
Find out more about CSE on the IT’S NOT OKAY website.
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