The sexual exploitation of boys is being over-looked by schools and other front-line services because of a mistaken belief that they are less vulnerable than girls, according to new research.
The children’s charity Barnardo’s said such attitudes are leaving thousands of boys at risk even though up to a third of reported victims were male.
Its report into the findings recommended schools teach boys about the dangers of grooming by adopting age-appropriate sex and relationships education.
This should show that boys can be victims just as easily as girls, even though males are often portrayed as the perpetrators of sexual violence.
The study said: “Relevant examples should be given and discussions facilitated about the impact of masculine/hyper-masculine cultures and attitudes. Teachers should also highlight where boys can go for support.”
Furthermore, it said, “schools should ensure that sex and relationships education is relevant for LGBT young people and supports an LGBT-affirmative culture”.
This should include information in schools about e-safety – boys are thought to be particularly at risk through online gaming.
The study, called Hidden in Plain Sight: A scoping study into the sexual exploitation of boys and young men in the UK, also found that schools were less likely to refer boys to support services, than they were to refer girls.
The Barnardo’s findings were taken from an analysis of more than 9,000 records since 2008, and suggest the vulnerability of boys is far more serious than was previously thought.
The analysis, carried out by University College London, found that almost one in three victims was male.
Previous studies, which looked at child grooming and exploitation, suggested the figure was closer to 12 per cent.
Separate findings from NatCen Social Research, for Barnardo’s revealed that those dealing professionally with children tended to be less protective of boys than girls, and opportunities to protect boys were often being missed.
Javed Khan, Barnardo’s chief executive, said “urgent action” was needed to ensure boys received the same protection and education about sexual exploitation, as girls.
He continued: “We need to be brutally honest with ourselves. Society is miserably and unacceptably failing sexually exploited boys and young men. The tell-tale signs are being missed because of a lack of awareness and stereotypes about the nature of this form of abuse.”
He added that it was not just girls who fell victim to “this horrendous crime”.
“All children must have the knowledge to protect themselves,” Mr Khan added.
Carol McNaughton Nicholls, who carried out the study for NatCen Social Research, said boys were “at risk of being over-looked as victims”. She added: “We need to ensure we understand and address these risks, and protect young people from harm, regardless of gender.”