With one in ten men admitting child sex offences, scale of this problem demands action – Susan Dalgety

Child sexual abuse can cause problems that last decades (Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA)
Child sexual abuse can cause problems that last decades (Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA)

Just occasionally there is a newspaper headline that stops you in your tracks. I saw one recently. It sat, nestled between yet another story about SNP confusion over its independence strategy and a heart-warming tale of a female tailor opening a new shop in Edinburgh, as if it was just another run-of-the-mill news item.

One in ten men have carried out sex offences against children, says survey.” Feeling sick, I read the sordid details. A major survey carried out by Edinburgh University’s Childlight unit, and the University of New South Wales has found that 10.1 per cent of men admit they had engaged in child sexual offending, either online or in real life. One in ten men. People I know, you know, that we all know.

One of the authors of the report, Dr Michael Salter, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales and a member of Childlight – which uses data to expose the extent of child abuse – said the government needed to act, pointing to the explosion of unregulated websites and social media as a direct cause of child sexual abuse.

“Sex offenders are using encrypted social media apps at much higher rates than non-offenders. Encrypted apps and privacy services are highly appealing to sex offending. They are in fact a key consumer base for encrypted social media services,” he said. In layman’s terms, the messaging services that we all use to organise our social life, or pass on family news, are used by men to hide their evil abuse of children. How very 21st century.

I suggest, however, that the sexual abuse of children is as old as humanity itself, and despite advances in child protection in recent decades, society has still not come to terms with how common this evil crime is, and who carries it out. All too frequently, it is not strangers children need to fear, but close family members or authority figures. The monster isn’t a man in a dirty raincoat, but a ‘loving’ father or ‘respected’ Scout leader.

When I wrote last year of my own experience, I was overwhelmed with private messages from people who had suffered as I had. Successful women – and men – who appeared to have it all, but were still in distress, some decades later, from having been the victim of a man’s twisted sexual urges, often a family member. Even as I type, I feel sick, and yes, ashamed, remembering my 11-year-old self.

Earlier this week, child protection professionals from across the world gathered in Edinburgh for the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (ISPCAN) congress – organised in partnership with Childlight – where they discussed ideas to better protect children. Speakers included Scotland’s recently retired Chief Constable Ian Livingstone and Police Scotland was a patron of the conference.

ISPCAN is a US-based membership organisation, set up in 1977 by Dr Henry Kempe to “improve systems of care in every nation so that child rights and a foundation of health are not a wish, but a reality”. Dr Kempe was the first paediatrician to explicitly detail the extent of physical abuse of children by their parents or guardians. In 1962 he published an article entitled “The Battered Child Syndrome” in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association. He said later he chose the term “battered child” as a “jazzy title, designed to get physicians’ attention”. It certainly worked, forcing the medical profession and policymakers to face up to the reality that some parents battered their children.

It was the feminist movement of the 1970s and 80s which helped bring the sexual abuse of children out of the closet and into public gaze, but society is still far more ‘comfortable’ coping with the spectre of a bogey man – a Jimmy Savile-type figure – rather than accepting that, in many cases, it is the dad next door who is guilty of abusing his teenage daughter or the friendly sports coach who is grooming a group of pre-pubescent boys. The horrific figures unearthed by Childlight simply underscore the extent of the problem.

The abuse may be exacerbated by easy access to hardcore pornography, as the survey suggests. According to Dr Salter, men who sexually abuse children watch a lot more online porn than the average person, and it is more likely to be deviant, depicting, for example, sex with animals. The UK Government’s Online Safety Bill, which is awaiting Royal Assent, will go some way to protecting children online, but more, much more, needs to be done, to change our approach to child sexual abuse.

Two years ago, the UK Government published a strategy to tackle child sexual abuse in the wake of an independent inquiry into the state’s failure to protect children. Here in Scotland, charities such as Stop it Now! Scotland and the NSPCC have called for a dedicated prevalence survey to identify the true scale of the problem, alongside a national strategy to tackle it.

Stuart Allardyce, director of Stop It Now! Scotland, said earlier this year that sexual harm towards children and young people could be reduced with a bigger focus on prevention, including for those adults “worried about their sexual thoughts and feelings towards children”.

The Scottish Government works closely with Police Scotland and others to protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse, but Childlight’s survey suggests far more needs to be done. If one in ten men admit to sexually abusing children, how many more hide their filthy secret? How many men, ostensibly living a normal life, are guilty of the most heinous crime possible – raping their daughter?

And how many more fathers go online once their own children are in bed to salivate over someone else’s child being abused. Until we know the true scale of the problem, we won’t be able to begin to tackle it.