20 Jul 2021

Calls for new law to protect adults from sexual exploitation

Social Affairs Editor and Presenter

Survivors of sexual exploitation have spoken out about their experiences of violence and abuse amid calls for a change in law to protect vulnerable adults.

One woman told Channel 4 News she was repeatedly chained naked to the cooker by her partner and beaten with Samurai swords while another said she was forced into sex work, both enduring years of abuse with little means of escape.

Shadow Domestic Violence and Safeguarding minister Jess Phillips and the charity Changing Lives’ are calling for a statutory definition of adult sexual exploitation which would oblige authorities to provide services for the survivors.

Channel 4 News approached the Home Office for a comment but did not receive one.

‘Absolutely terrified’

Lucy, whose name we have changed to protect her identity, was groomed after being offered a place to stay by a man who would later become her abuser.

She’s in her 40s now and the abuse lasted most of her adult life.

Lucy said: “He attacked us with Samurai swords and I was trying to get away from him in the house, but he just continued attacking.

“He started handcuffing us to the cooker in the kitchen and he would leave the light on in there, but all the lights in the house would be off so I would never see where he was and I never had any clothes on. He would just hang cuff us there for hours and hours and hours.”

She told this programme he used to threaten to kill her and her family if she ever left him. She estimates that it took her more than 30 years to get support.

She said: “I’ve heard somebody passing saying, ‘well if it was that bad you would just leave’. That’s a typical thing and I go, ‘hang on a minute, no it’s not (that simple), she went back because she’s absolutely terrified of her life and her families’ lives. What would you do?’”

Lucy has reported the abuse to the police although the perpetrator is yet to be brought to justice.

Groomed as a teenager

Casey, whose name we have also changed to protect her identity, was groomed by a group of men in the north east when she was a teenager.

She was taken to properties where she would be given alcohol and drugs.

She said: “At one point I was up for quite a few days, almost a week, and I was really tired so I went to lie down in the bed and when I woke up, there was a wardrobe against the door and he was in my bed.”

She added: “I was so bad on the drugs and the drink that I would keep going back.

“I sort of gave up really and I would just let everybody pass us around.”

At first she believed her groomers were her friends but that changed when they became more threatening.

She said: “I would feel like I would have to have sexual intercourse with them in case they just raped us anyway.”

Casey’s abusers have been convicted of sex crimes, but she says she is still “petrified” of them knowing that one day they will be released from prison.

‘Scale is huge’

The charity Changing Lives works with people across the north east, Yorkshire, north west and the Midlands who have experienced abuse and exploitation.

They reported a 179 per cent increase in women disclosing they’ve experienced sexual violence in the first four months of the pandemic.

They also saw an 83 per cent increase in women accessing their services in relation to selling sex for the first time during lockdown.

Debra Cowey, service manager at Changing Lives, told Channel 4 News: “The scale is huge and the abuse is going on. When professionals say in various different areas that the abuse isn’t happening in their towns and cities, that makes me really concerned.

“The sad fact is, the more workers you have, the more quickly case loads would be full.”

Changing Lives gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee in May ahead of the publication of the Violence Against Women and Girls strategy.

The charity called for a statutory responsibility to provide continuous and ongoing support for children who have been sexually exploited once they reach legal adulthood.

They also want “national oversight” to ensure that children and adult’s safeguarding services have a joint responsibility to provide continuous and ongoing support.

A national framework

Birmingham Yardley MP Jess Phillips raised the issue of adult exploitation in parliament earlier this year.

She asked whether the Home Secretary would work with “specialist organisations” to create a “national framework” for adult survivors of sexual exploitation, led by the Home Office and including a statutory definition of adult sexual exploitation.

Asked if adults are not already protected by existing laws, Ms Phillips told Channel 4 News: “I mean it’s true in a sense that it’s written down on paper in various different places, but it makes absolutely no difference on the ground, it means that there’s a jack of all trades and a master of none.

“These women need a specific and targeted prevention strategy and service in order to meet their specific needs. “

She added: “So we’ve got to decide which we want more, so we want a system that can hear women regardless of their complexities, or one that leaves abusers on every street in our country?”