Peer on Peer abuse
What is peer on peer abuse?
Simply put peer on peer abuse is abuse where the perpetrator and the victim are under 18. It excludes familiar abuse perpetrated by children as this is not a peer context.
It can happen anywhere:
- parks at homes
The range of behaviours is wide and includes:
- Bullying, including cyber-bullying
- Physical abuse
- Sexual violence
- Sexual harassment
- Initiation or hazing violence and rituals
Children are often extremely reluctant to report peer on peer abuse. Within school context children feel that they may be a peer group fall out including bullying and or being blamed. Unfortunately this can be a significant problem. A case I was involved with, where a child had touched multiple other children over an extended, resulted in a massive breakdown of the year group with some children viewing the incident as “boys will be boys” and a “bit of a laugh”. Whilst others showed significant trauma including crying to sleep at night.
In common with any abuse, many children are not certain that they have been abused or that the thing that happened was not serious enough to be reported. This is exacerbated by it being a peer and even a girl/boyfriend.
In my experience children, even in secondary, do not understand the concept of consent. Over my career I have heard comments like these:
“I didn’t feel ready but that is what girlfriends do”
“ I want to make him happy”
“ I didn’t like it but it doesn’t matter”
“It was my fault. I changed my mind”
“ He was only messing”
If drink or drugs are involved children are even more confused as to whether they consented.
Many children feel that the incident won’t be taken seriously. Too often this is reinforced by the school environment where the school tolerates inappropriate behaviour excusing it as ‘boys will be boys’, ignores it, or trivialises it.
How often does it occur?
It is hard to know due to the under-reporting caused by the above. Cases in which the police have been involved have increased significantly. According to a BBC Freedom of Information request, the number of police-recorded peer on peer sexual offences rose by 71 per cent between 2013/14 (4,603) and 2016/17 (7,866). BBC. LINK
This is clearly the tip of the iceberg and in reality it is likely to happen in all settings.
What can schools do?
When my boyfriend’s drunk he grabs me and makes me do sexual things. I tell him that I don’t want to but he carries on, I feel really unsafe around him. I’m not sure whether it’s sexual assault, and I don’t know about consent – he doesn’t ask me when he does it so how do I know if I gave consent? (Girl, 17) (NSPCC)
Me and my boyfriend are both 14 and he came over earlier because we had talked about having sex for the first time. Although I had said yes before, I told him I didn’t want to do it. If two people were going to ‘do it’ but one of them decides they don’t want to and lets the other person know, but the other person goes through with it and does it anyway, is that classed as rape? (Boy, 14) (NSPCC)
Personally, I think this is the key to the whole issue. Children (and adults) need to know that their body is their own and they have the absolute right to self-determination.
Children need to understand that it is okay to say no. That the average age for 1st sexual intercourse is 16 (Source) and it is fine to wait.
They need to realise that they are not ‘frigid’ to wait. We need to explain what manipulation looks like.
We need to teach children that pornography is not reality. That most women do not want to be dominated or hurt and that it doesn’t always work!
Don’t tolerate the intolerable
We need to have a school culture where we respect everybody. If children think that they have to submit to authority and power we are making them more vulnerable to abusers.
The school culture has to show that there is no place for bullying or sexual misconduct and that the school will not tolerate any unwanted sexualised comment or sexual act.
This means that staff need to to have zero tolerance to inappropriate behaviours and never accept the unacceptable.
This is an incredibly difficult area for staff. What behaviours are appropriate? What is exploration? What is abuse? What is play?
Schools must train staff to:
- lookout for exploitation and peer on peer abuse
- take all incidents seriously
- to teach consent
What can parents do
Parents have a significant part to play in making their children safe. The key thing is that children are securely attached to their caregivers and that they know they are loved and valued.
Teach and model Consent
Children need to understand that their body is their own. If they don’t want touch than that is okay. Older generations often don’t know that this includes tickling and kissing from Granny.
Understanding consent has caused issues in our family but it is vital to keeping children safe.
Don’t have secrets
Abusers tell children that something is a ‘secret’ and they will get into trouble if they tell. It is incredibly powerful to say to children we don’t have secrets. If someone tells you that they want a secret you must tell.
Our children have got this. Recently a teacher did Chinese whispers with our youngest. When she got home, she told us that the teacher had asked her to keep a secret, and she knew this was wrong.
Watch for signs
Do not assume that changes in behaviour are due to puberty! If a child becomes secretive, changes emotions or behaviours then worry! It may be okay but know that it can happen to your child. Keep communicating.
Dealing with incidents (Schools)
Schools need to think through how they are going to deal with peer on peer abuse before it happens.
As a school, you have a responsibility to the victim and the suspected perpetrator. Some tips and thought from having gone through this:
- Have different people attached to the victim and perpetrator. You need to have people championing both.
- Recognise that perpetrators are often victims
- Recognise that potential victims are looking at how you are dealing with this
- Ask yourself if this was my child (victim or perpetrator) what would I want
- Do not allow the police to dump the issue on the school. If a crime has been committed then the police must deal with it.
- Schools cannot investigate a crime (even when the police try to make this happens)
Finally, the negative impact of recognition
One of the things that I have found most difficult over the last few years is the damage caused by people recognising that they have been abused. Helping children (and adults) understand abuse and consent can have a significant adverse effect. People suddenly they realise that they have been abused and are therefore traumatised.
Understanding the impact of revealing abuse should not prevent education and explanation but recognise that there will be fallout and support will be needed.