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Dangerous liaisons: child sex offending and underage sex in the media and the law

Massey, Joanne and Meyer, Anneke (2009) Dangerous liaisons: child sex offending and underage sex in the media and the law. [Conference or Workshop Item] (Unpublished)

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Since the mid 1990s, the sexual abuse of children has become a high-profile topic and concern in UK society. For the media the enemy is obvious: outrage focuses on the paedophile, an evil, cunning and highly dangerous stranger who attacks, sexually abuses and even kills children. In this scenario children are innocent and vulnerable victims in need of protection. The UK government has responded to these concerns through legislation, most notably the Sex Offenders Act 1997, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the Criminal Justice Act 2003. These legal measures have shaped the entire field of children and sex in complex ways. On the one hand, legislation has increasingly brought young people into the reach of the law by criminalising and punishing much consensual underage sex. On the other hand, special premises are applied to young perpetrators of coercive sex, effectively treating them more leniently than adult offenders. This paper traces the dynamics shaping this complex and often contradictory legal approach to young people and sex. One important factor concerns the law dealing with a reality of child sexual abuse which is much more complex than the media image of evil adults forcing innocent children into sex. A quarter of all child sex offences are committed by minors (Cawson et al. 2000), but they do not conform to the stereotype of the paedophile. A second influence concerns media opposition to all underage sex, including consensual sex, grounded in moral concerns about teenage pregnancy or childhood innocence. In conjunction these factors create twin pressures for the government to legislate against all underage sex yet exempt young people from being treated as ‘proper’ child sex offenders by the law.

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