Published on
04 March 2019

Men find the sexual abuse of teenage boys by women less concerning than the abuse of teenage girls by men, research by Barnardo’s shows.

The national children’s charity has found that people overall have a more relaxed attitude to boys being groomed and abused by older women like in ITV’s Emmerdale but that the most marked difference was among men.

Jacob and Maya
Jacob (Joe-Warren Plant) and Maya (Louisa Clein)

In a survey conducted by YouGov*, Barnardo’s found that more than a quarter (26%) of men who were presented with a variety of scenarios that have played out in the ITV soap said they would have found them more concerning if the perpetrator had been male and the teenage victim female.

Overall, one-in-five UK adults (20%) had this view and, of these, nearly two-thirds (64%) said it was because they think teenage girls are more vulnerable than teenage boys. More than a quarter (28%) thought it was every teenage boy’s dream to be with an older woman.

Barnardo’s has been advising Emmerdale on its abuse storyline which has seen schoolteacher Maya groom and abuse her pupil Jacob and has been praised for highlighting an important issue.

In last night’s episode viewers were shocked when, after months of grooming him, Maya and Jacob had sex just a few days after his 16th birthday.

Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said: “This research shows that even in 2019, many people don’t recognise that sexual abuse of boys is just as serious as sexual abuse of girls.

“These outdated attitudes lead to boys missing out on vital support. They are much less likely than girls to be identified as victims of sexual abuse by professionals, who often don’t see them as victims.

“In fact, boys can be groomed by older men or older women, exploiting  feelings of loneliness, their need for care and their desire to be loved before abusing them, just like Maya has done with Jacob in Emmerdale.

“We need to get out of the ‘Mrs Robinson’ mind-set. Abuse is abuse whether it happens to a boy or a girl or whether it’s perpetrated by a man or a woman, and it can cause long term harm, affecting attitudes to love, relationships and sex in adulthood.”

Separate research conducted by Barnardo’s last year and funded by the Home Office found that boys and young men often miss out on the support they would receive if they were girls because professionals don’t always recognise them as victims.

It revealed that professionals may have difficulty in identifying and engaging boys and young men in terms of their history of abuse and trauma and that behaviour that might trigger concerns that girls are at risk is sometimes put down to ‘boys being boys’, leaving many victims without the specialist support they need.

The Children’s Commissioner estimates that more than a quarter of child sexual abuse victims are boys and, according to the Department for Education’s Children in Need census, more than a third of children on child protection plans for sexual abuse are boys.

Research from the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse shows that 15% of girls and 5% of boys experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 16.

The charity said that the introduction of compulsory relationships and sex education in English schools next year, which it long campaigned for, will help children and young people understand abuse and unhealthy or risky situations.

Javed Khan added: “Addressing these topics in the classroom will help keep children safe and healthy, and prepare them for challenges on and offline.

“We know from our specialist work on child sexual abuse across the country how important it is to teach children and young people about consent, healthy relationships, how to spot the signs of abuse and how to ask for help.”

In its most recent research, Barnardo’s polled more than 2,000 people and all respondents were asked whether they were willing to take part in the survey since it dealt with sensitive issues involving child sexual abuse.

Half were presented with a variety of abusive scenarios involving an older woman and a teenage boy exchanging text messages containing explicit images. The other half were presented with the same scenarios with the genders of the perpetrator and victim reversed.

In one sample, 17% of men thought that a woman in her 30s and a 16-year-old boy exchanging text messages containing explicit images was not concerning, compared to 2% of women. In the second sample, people were presented with the same scenario involving a 16-year-old girl and a man in his 30s instead of a woman and a boy. Only 7% of men said this was not concerning.

Likewise, one-in-10 men in the first sample thought that a female teacher and her 16 year old male student having sex was not concerning, compared to just 2% of women. When the genders of the perpetrator and victim were reversed for the second sample, only 4% of men were unconcerned.

Actress Louisa Clein who plays Maya told the Mirror: “This story is fascinating because it’s an older woman and a younger boy.

“We see it on social media – a lot of people are like get in there, lad, you’ve got yourself an older woman, a cougar. But it is still abuse, it is still sexual exploitation.

“If it was an older man to a younger girl or boy, ­immediately people would be saying that is wrong.”

To help Emmerdale tell the abuse storyline authentically, Barnardo’s arranged for their researchers, story team and actors - including Louisa and Joe-Warren Plant who plays Jacob - to meet experts and young men who have been supported by Barnardo’s Better Futures project.

Louisa added: “It is so damaging. These kids are 14, 15, 16 and they are at such a ­vulnerable age, so confused. He doesn’t know what he is doing – he is 15 years old.

“He is in this social media world, sex is so ­accessible and he doesn’t know the boundaries, and she’s not showing the boundaries.”

In Emmerdale, Louisa’s character Maya has used the following tactics to groom and abuse Jacob:

Targeting the victim

A groomer will identify a vulnerability within the intended victim. Children with limited supported from trusted adults and/or less involved parents are more desirable, although all young people by their very nature are potential victims.

Gaining the victim’s trust

The groomer gains their victim’s trust by working out what the child’s needs are and how to fill them. They may make the child feel understood and valued.

Filling a need

The groomer may then fill the void in the child’s needs. They may provide drink, drugs, somewhere to stay, thoughtful gifts, – but most significantly, the groomer will make the child feel loved and special.

Isolating the child

The groomer may encourage the child to sever protective contacts with family and friends and assume a protective and understanding position.

Sexualising the relationship

After the emotional attachment and trust of the child has been obtained, the groomer progressively sexualises the relationship. Desensitisation of the child may occur through talking, watching pornography and having sexual contact. The child may begin to see their relationship in more special terms.

Maintaining control

Once the sexual abuse has begun, child sex abusers use secrecy, blame and threats to manipulate the child into silence and participation. Threats may be made against the child’s family and friends. The abuser may also threaten to circulate indecent/abusive images.

  • *All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2078 adults, of which 2,011 were willing to take part. Fieldwork was undertaken between 12th-13th February 2019. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+). Half were presented with a variety of abusive scenarios involving an older woman and a teenage boy exchanging text messages containing explicit images. The other half were presented with the same scenarios with the genders of the perpetrator and victim reversed.