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Opinion

'I'm a survivor of teenage sexual assault. Supporting such children starts with educating the adults around them.'

One woman went from a victim to supporting children, but it was a long road few should have to travel.

Like my peers, I endured the stereotypical adolescent problems. The spots, the dodgy hairstyles, questionable fashion sense. Despite these normal, everyday trials and tribulations of being a teenager, I was also looking for an escape route from all the things that were happening at home: the neglect, the alcohol, the mental illness, the beatings and the fear.

I went from an A* student to never being in school. I went from a book-loving child to getting drunk and stoned in the park.

I thought I was safer there, being with my friends. However, I was exposed to a different kind of risk. Some of the assaults were forceful. Others were classed as ‘consensual’, despite me being under the legal age of consent. Sometimes I couldn’t remember them because I was so wasted. Often there were witnesses, peers, even friends but no one tried to stop it, no one said anything, and if they did it was my fault. I was a slag. I was a slut.

Like many others, I never disclosed what I was experiencing to an adult because there was no one to disclose it to. Sitting in a maths class having been assaulted the night before. School was all about academia and grades. There was no space to say please can you help me? There was no-one to say that’s not OK. So I stopped going.

When most of my friends were going into sixth form or getting jobs, I was 16 years old, moving into a youth hostel.

The abuse didn’t stop, just the perpetrator changed.

Altogether I spent four years living in youth hostels. I became institutionalised. Despite everything that was going on in those four walls, I was fearful and scared of the outside world. On a cocktail of Prozac and Valium. I lived all those years on the brink of suicide.

It wasn’t until I started my dissertation at university over a decade later that I began to understand what had happened to me. At the time there was an interest in child sexual exploitation (CSE) due to the emerging inquiries into the widespread sexual exploitation in Rotherham and Rochdale. I had never heard of CSE before this and it wasn’t until I was doing my research that I realised it was pretty much a checklist of everything that I had experienced. I remember reading a publication by Barnados called “Running from hate to what you think is love” and sat there thinking, oh my, that’s me.

It was at that moment everything sort of began clicking into place, I found putting a name to my experiences empowering. All those years I blamed myself for what had happened, all those years of carrying those harmful labels of others. To finally see and understand that it wasn’t my fault. I also now had a purpose; how could I prevent the same thing from happening to others?

Prevention is key. I’ve been lucky enough to mentor numerous children through a wide range of issues and challenges. I’ve been able to create and deliver interventions through one-to-one and group mentoring that focus on empowering children with their self-esteem, identity, and providing safe spaces for them to share the things that are happening to them. 

I was repeatedly let down by organisations and systems whose role it was to protect me. I think partly due to their incompetence but also largely due to a lack of education. Therefore, over the past few years I have delivered safeguarding and child sexual exploitation training to other third sector organisations. Funnily enough, last year I delivered the safeguarding training to the organisation that ran the youth hostel I used to live in when I was 16. A full circle moment.

Last year I completed an MSc in child and adolescent mental wellbeing, my thesis being on the impact of extra-familial harm on the mental wellbeing of youth. Whilst this was a moment of personal pride, it was ultimately disheartening to see that, 20 years after what I went through, there are still so many young people who are victims of sexual harm.

Truthfully, we will never know the full extent of youth that have experienced harassment, violence or exploitation. What we do know is that it’s just the tip of the iceberg and that there are so many cases of sexual harm against youth that go unreported. From reflecting on research and listening to the experiences of young people, a key factor in this is the normalisation of sexual harm, that it’s just ‘part of day-to-day life’. We need to acknowledge that this is a failure of our society. No young person should feel that sexual harm is the norm.

Evidence suggests sexual harm has a detrimental impact on mental health and wellbeing, not just in the short-term but long term too. For example, the effect of trauma on brain development, the relationship it has with the onset of psychiatric disorders, and the long-term impact it can have on our relationships. Like many others who have experienced sexual harm within the crucial developmental years of adolescence, I still live with the impact of it every day. After years of suicidal ideation, depression and low self-worth, in my early 30s, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

By not effectively responding to youth experiences of sexual harm, we are reinforcing that such experiences are OK. However, this does not mean the impact on the young person is any less detrimental. How we identify and respond to young people’s experiences of sexual harms is crucial. 

We need to not shy away from having difficult conversations about sexual harm and listen to the experiences of young people. Age relevant school and community-based interventions are central in providing the space for young people to discuss what is happening to them. 

Through these spaces we can also challenge the stigmatisation of youth who have experienced sexual harassment, violence or exploitation and continue to unpick the deep-rooted culture of victim blaming. 

There should also be mandatory training for all professionals working with or supporting youth in identifying the different types of sexual harm; how to identify youth who have been exposed to sexual harm and effectively handle disclosures; how to signpost to relevant services and how to continue to support the young person within their setting after their experience has been identified. 

I believe that if I had access to the relevant support when I needed it in my youth, my adult years would have been a lot less of a struggle. And I want to help as many young people avoid that experience as possible.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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