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Learning from experts by experience

Photo: Stacey MacNaught

Earlier this month, our North East regional team were delighted to welcome Phil Mitchell, a qualified counsellor and psychotherapist, to run a session promoting positive child protection practice for social workers. The seminar, which was attended by social workers from across our local authority partners in the region, explored various aspects of the grooming, sexual abuse and exploitation of boys and young men.

Phil, who is himself a survivor of sexual abuse, opened the seminar by contextualising the problem and reporting on Barnado’s figures, such as the fact that last year there were 920 reported incidences of rape in boys under 16 in England and Wales. All of the statistics he shared were incredibly low when compared with data from girls of the same age, but, as Phil argued, is this telling us the whole story?

Throughout the seminar, Phil talked about how it’s more socially acceptable for boys and men to display aggression rather than vulnerability; they display incongruent behaviours as a way of protecting their masculinity. So, instead of boys being seen as in need of help or at risk, they can often get categorised as young lads out causing trouble.

Society’s role in conditioning boys to act in a certain way was discussed, as was the concept of ‘boy rules’ – restrictions placed on the way males behave. These ‘boy rules’ can prove especially detrimental to victims of abuse and exploitation because boys are taught not to show emotion or be seen to act in a way that isn’t ‘macho’. Showing vulnerability as a victim goes against everything they’ve learnt growing up.

Dramatic reconstructions of two boys’ experiences were played and Phil concluded the session by talking about his own personal story. This allowed the audience to understand the circumstances and thought processes which could lead to a 16-year-old becoming a victim of abuse. Both moving and insightful, Phil’s first-hand account of what happened to him gave a human face to the harrowing stories we read about in the media, and provided a greater understanding of the importance of context.

The session being led by someone who has experienced exploitation and abuse was invaluable for those who attended. Professionals have essential expertise and knowledge, but most of them would recognise that hearing from Phil, who has personally experienced the issues he was talking about, provided a fresh, considered perspective.

The seminar was incredibly thought-provoking, challenging our views on male behaviour and forcing us to ask ourselves whether we would notice the warning signs of CSE in boys and young men. The prevailing message to take away from Phil’s talk was that equality is essential; if you believe a girl could be a victim of CSE because she’s displaying certain behaviours, you need to be concerned if a boy displays these exact same behaviours.

The other sentiment was that we need to stop society’s conditioning of genders and advocate for everyone to share their stories. Gender stereotypes are reinforced when we tell boys and men to ‘grow a pair of balls’ and ‘stop being a big girls blouse’, contributing to low disclosures of CSE. As Phil concluded, “don’t man up, speak up!”

Our North East seminars expose social workers to experts to tackle prevalent issues in the profession and think critically about some of the most sensitive topics in child protection. Hearing from experts by experience ensures that the voice of people with lived experience of widespread issues in social work remains at the core of our work.