LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – British lawmakers are calling for an end to a legal loophole giving men accused of buying sex from minors the benefit of the doubt if they say they thought the girls were adults.
Supporters of the change say it would help tackle the demand side of a trade that preys on the young and vulnerable – and shift the burden of guilt from the exploited to the exploiters.
Section 47 of Britain’s Sexual Offences Act 2003 states that “where a child is aged 13-17, there is a defence of reasonable belief that the child was aged 18 plus”.
"It seems that the voices of victims are worth less in the criminal justice system than the men that carry out these offences against them,” Gavin Shuker, chair of a cross-party group of lawmakers that is calling for the “reasonable belief” clause to be scrapped, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“If we shifted the burden of criminality from those that sell sex to those that buy it, as many other European nations are doing, we could properly challenge men's attitudes to buying sex and hopefully be able to focus in a more targeted way towards tackling sexual exploitation of children."
Around half of all women in prostitution in Britain first entered the sex trade as minors, Shuker said, citing a Home Office estimate.
According to Ministry of Justice figures, conviction rates for people accused of abusing children through prostitution and pornography are on the rise. They increased to 82.5 percent in 2012 from 22.9 percent in 2005.
But overall, the numbers remain low. Court records from 2012 show that 12 men were found guilty of buying sexual services from children under 16 while two were convicted of purchasing sex from under 13-year-olds.
“The offence of purchasing sex from a child is difficult to prove as the defence is usually 'I thought she was 18' and the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) are reluctant to prosecute on this,” Neil Radford, a Nottinghamshire police sergeant, told an inquiry into prostitution launched last January by the all-party group.
Defendants who successfully argue that they believed a prostituted child was over the age of 18 can still be prosecuted with adult prostitution offences.
GROOMED FOR ABUSE
Lawmakers and child rights advocates say removing the loophole is only a first step to protecting children from commercial sexual exploitation.
Consisting of more than 400 written and oral submissions of evidence, the year-long inquiry noted that young people within the care system are particularly vulnerable to entering the sex trade as a consequence of grooming and sexual abuse.
That is especially true in London’s Borough of Lambeth, according to a report of the inquiry’s findings, “Shifting the Burden: Assessing the operation of the current legal settlement on prostitution in England and Wales”.
“One of the striking features of women involved in street prostitution in Lambeth is the failure that they've experienced within the care system at a young age, and the degree and sort of context of the abuse, and the failures of the systems there to support them,” Helen Easton, a criminology lecturer from London’s Southbank University, said in the report.
Ruth Jacobs, a former sex worker and contributor to the research, said: “There is no such thing as a child prostitute. There is no, ‘Oh, she looked 18’, or, ‘I was told she was 18’, or, ‘She showed me ID that said whatever.’
“It doesn't matter if she looked 25 or 30 and she had her grey roots showing. If she's a child, she's a child. There needs to be no excuse, and that (offence) needs to be charged for child sex abuse.”
The report recommends that so-called child safeguarding boards should focus their attention on identifying children, including those aged 16-18, at heightened risk of commercial exploitation.
Section 13 of Britain’s Children Act 2004 requires each local authority to have one such board in place, with representatives from the police, prison and probation services and health and education.
The goal is to provide targeted intervention to try to keep those identified as being at high risk from getting sucked into the sex industry.
"I want to see strategic measures for change,” former sex worker Helena Evans, 56, told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The authorities need to follow up every single reported case instead of saying things like the mum of the child has had 20 different boyfriends, so what do you expect?"
Evans said schools were the best places to spot red flags, and that teachers should look out for sexually explicit behaviour or language, poor attendance and poor concentration.
She also called for school workshops to teach children about the dangers of grooming.
"They need to be aware of what to do when someone they don't know tries to befriend them,” she said.
"A lot of people think it's too much for a child to take in, but you only have to walk into the local co-op and you'll see boobs and thongs. This type of thing doesn't shock children any more, and so it's good to talk about these things and do some preventative work."