UK public struggle to identify Emmerdale-style child sexual abuse

Barnardo’s highlight the issue of child sexual abuse following an episode of British soap opera, Emmerdale

People in the UK have a worrying lack of knowledge about what constitutes a crime when it comes to the sexual abuse of children, according to a new survey for Barnardo’s.

Polling by YouGov for the UK’s leading children’s charity, which has been advising on ITV Emmerdale’s child sexual abuse storyline, has found that more than one third of the 2,000 respondents were unable to identify illegal or abusive scenarios involving adults and children.

Emmerdale fans were shocked when, after months of grooming him, teacher Maya Stepney and her pupil Jacob Gallagher had sex just a few days after his 16th birthday. But nearly one-in-five people (19%) polled by YouGov for Barnardo’s failed to correctly identify this as a crime.

In the ITV soap, Maya and Jacob have been ‘sexting’ each other but Barnardo’s poll found that more than a third (35%) of people didn’t think an adult sending sexually explicit images to a 16-year-old over text was illegal or abusive.

The pair has also frequently been seen kissing on screen, including at school and before Jacob turned 16, but more than a quarter (27%) of respondents failed to identify this as illegal or abusive.

Barnardo’s, which runs UK-wide support services for sexually abused and exploited children, wants to highlight the issue of child sexual abuse following an episode of the series that saw Maya arrested for grooming and sexually abusing Jacob.

Although Jacob was 16 when Maya had sex with him and was above the ‘age of consent’, under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it’s a crime for an adult in a position of trust to engage in sexual activity with a person under the age of 18.

Teachers are in a position of trust; along with people who look after, or are responsible for young people such medical professionals, foster carers and social workers.

Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said:  “Some Emmerdale fans have been vocal about feeling uncomfortable with the grooming storyline, but we applaud producers for highlighting this very real and disturbing issue. Our polling shows there is still a significant proportion of the public that doesn’t realise Maya’s actions in the soap were criminal.

When a boy or girl turns 16, that doesn’t mean they can no longer be sexually abused or exploited. Children are children by law until they are 18. While 16 year olds are free to make choices about sex, teachers and other adults who abuse their positions of trust to groom young people under 18 are still committing crimes.

“Adult abusers like Maya in Emmerdale exploit young people’s feelings of loneliness, their need for care and their desire to be loved, before abusing them. Barnardo’s support services see first-hand how this abuse can cause long term harm and affect young people’s attitudes to love, relationships and sex as they move into adulthood.”

Barnardo’s polled more than 2,000 people, who were asked whether they were willing to take part in the survey since it dealt with sensitive issues involving child sexual abuse. They were presented with a variety of scenarios that have played out in Emmerdale in recent months and asked whether they thought they were abusive or illegal. These included a teacher having sex with their 16-year-old pupil, an adult sending sexually explicit images to a 16-year-old and a teacher kissing their 16-year-old student.