Life

Why teens need education about sexual exploitation and abuse

How and when should we tell our children about sexual abuse? Anne Cassidy who tackles the harrowing subject of rape in her fictional book No Shame, tells Jenny Lee that young people need to be given the information early to help them reduce their risk of assault

Nexus NI, which has supported thousands of people in Northern Ireland since its launch in 1984, has seen more referrals than ever recently and is encouraging other victims to come forward to seek help through its counselling services

THERE are few aspects of parenting more terrifying than talking to our children about sexual behaviour. Most parents tackle this topic gradually, trying to keep the discussion positive, informative and age-appropriate. However, it has become almost impossible to shelter our children, especially once they can read and are exposed to social media.

As Hollywood comes to terms with sex scandals involving Harvey Weinstein and others, high-profile sportsmen have faced rape charges in recent years.

The subject is also starting to filter into fiction aimed at younger readers. Dublin author Louise O'Neill wrote compellingly about rape culture in her award-winning young adults novel Asking For It and now fiction writer Anne Cassidy (cousin of Belfast singer Brian Kennedy) has penned a book dealing with the subject that's aimed at teenagers.

Cassidy's novel No Shame follows the story of Stacey Woods, a 17-year-old girl raped by the brother of the boy she thought she was in love with. The novel takes readers on a journey with Stacey as she re-lives the ordeal and confronts her attacker in court.

Just like life, Stacey has to deal with the consequences, and, again just like life, it is up to Stacey to find her way through. While the ending is not entirely rosy, ultimately Stacey’s story is hopeful and inspirational.

Cassidy hopes the book will "entertain and engage" young readers, as well as get across the message of "keeping safe" in relationships and nights out.

Born in London, 65-year-old Cassidy originally worked as an English teacher in difficult schools across London, before becoming a full-time writer in 2000, specialising in crime stories and thrillers for teenagers.

Through her work as a teacher, she developed an empathy for teens and admits she even bases some of her characters on kids she has worked with over the years.

"As you get older, you become less certain and willing to find out. Working with teenagers I got past the stereotypes of teens and found out they are not that different to me in 1964.

"The trappings are different – their clothes, their phones, their voices are perhaps a little bit louder, but at heart they are just trying to become the person they want to become."

As well as her years working with teenagers as an English teacher, the rape trial of English footballer Ched Evans and the exploitation of young teenage girls in Bradford by a grooming ring were the starting point for her novel.

"Those two cases made me ask myself a question – why would a teenage girl would put herself in a vulnerable position? It occurred to me that probably what would lead to that is they would ‘fall in love’.

"Then that person would see her vulnerability and use her in some unpleasant way."

As the child of strict Catholic parents, from Belfast's Falls Road, Cassidy went to a Catholic convent school where sex education was never mentioned.

She is glad to see improvements in how young people are now educated on contraception and sexually transmitted diseases, but doesn't believe our schools go far enough in educating them about the risks of rape.

"As a society we seem to treat rape as the dirty secret of adulthood. We do need to be more open and warn them that there are some dangerous individuals out there who exploit and prey on vulnerable people.

"We teach young children about the dangers of the road, long before we would allow them to cross one themselves. But it's almost as if we can't bear to tell our children about rape.

"Yes, we want them to stay innocent, but for their wellbeing as parents, teachers or writers we need to give them information to base their choices upon rather than sending them blindly forward."

Local charity Nexus NI provides support to victims of sexual violence, delivering a post-primary fact based education to young people around healthy, sexual relationships, how to spot the signs of exploitation and grooming and how to react appropriately.

The workshops also look at the law around 'sexting' and ensures that young people are clear in the understanding that sexual violence in any form is never the fault of the victim, and should the worst happen, there are agencies that want to help them.

Nexus NI has seen a 21 per cent increase in referrals for their specialist counselling service in the last three months – a figure perhaps attributed to the recent global media storm in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations.

Cara Cash, chief executive of Nexus NI, welcomes the increase in conversation around sexual assault both in Northern Ireland and across the globe.

"We see the increase in referrals as a positive step forward as it means that victims of any form of sexual violence are starting to feel that they can seek help," she said.

In the last calendar year 23 per cent of Nexus NI clients were aged between 11 and 24 and Cara advises parents to not be afraid to approach this delicate subject area with their children.

"Parents and guardians should have open and honest conversations with children about what a healthy, sexual relationship is. The most important thing for a child to know is that they can always talk to their parent or guardian if they are the victim of any form of sexual violence.

"It is also important that the child knows they will be believed and supported by the adult. If you are unsure about how to have these conversations, contact Nexus NI or the 24 hour helpline for advice."

:: No Shame by Anne Cassidy is published by Hot Key Books and is out now. To contact Nexus NI, visit www.nexusni.org or call 028 9032 6803. You can also access a 24 hour domestic and sexual violence helpline by contacting 080 8802 1414.

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