I have watched Emmerdale since it was called Emmerdale Farm, a television programme initially broadcast around teatime, that all the family sat down to view the next story line. Over the past few months I have found myself getting pretty annoyed and shouting at the TV, as I have watched a young boy of 16 years of age, being groomed by his female teacher. A challenging storyline for a soap, however, it must be shared and as its one that is prevalent in our society.

I have been amazed as the story unfolds as to why some people do not constitute grooming of a young a male by an adult female as child sexual abuse. Furthermore, the storyline has lacked intervention and help to support the victim and his family. A poll lead by YouGov for Barnardo’s found that more than one third of the 2,000 respondents were not able to recognise illegal or abusive scenarios involving adults and children.

When someone in a ‘position of trust’, such as a teacher or a support worker, grooms a child (under 18years) for sexual activity, then this is abuse. As we have seen in Emmerdale, Maya – Jacob’s teacher – groomed him over several months, but then waited until a few days until after his 16th birthday to have sex. If you are an adult with a ‘duty of care’ for a young person under 18 (for example a teacher, youth worker or social worker), it is illegal to have sex with anyone who comes under your care, even if they are 16 or 17.  The same applies to ‘sexting’ (sending or getting sexually explicit or suggestive images, messages, or video on a smartphone or through the Internet) and also to kissing and inappropriate physical contact. Sexual activity is illegal under any circumstances for under 13-year olds. Those aged 13 and under cannot give consent. Doing anything sexual with someone under 13 is automatically an offence, whatever the young person says.

In the case of the scenario in Emmerdale, where Jacob was 16 years when Maya had sex with him and was above the ‘age of consent’, under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it is still a crime for an adult in a position of trust to engage in sexual activity with a child under the age of 18.

The main focus of this story line is a female adult targeting a younger male child. I believe this is where people (whether the public, or fans) have misunderstood the message. It is in fact child sex abuse.  In this storyline the perpetrator, Maya, targeted the victim Jacob, gaining his trust, fulfilling her own needs, making him feel special, isolating him from friends and family, and then to sexualising the relationship and keeping control over him.

Barnardos polled more than 2,000 people and the figures showed:

In one sample, 17% of men thought that a woman in her 30s and a 16-year-old boy exchanging text messages containing explicit images was not concerning, compared to 2% of women. In the second sample, people were presented with the same scenario involving a 16-year-old girl and a man in his 30s instead of a woman and a boy. Only 7% of men said this was not concerning.

Likewise, one-in-10 men in the first sample thought that a female teacher and her 16 year old male student having sex was not concerning, compared to just 2% of women. When the genders of the perpetrator and victim were reversed for the second sample, only 4% of men were unconcerned.

(https://www.barnardos.org.uk/news/men-have-more-relaxed-attitudes-sexual-abuse-boys-women-emmerdales-maya)

Key facts include:

  • Boys can be sexually abused and it has nothing to do with how masculine they are.
  • Sexual abuse harms boys and girls in ways that are similar and different but equally harmful.
  • Boys and girls can be sexually abused by men or women.
  • Most boys and girls that are sexually abused will not go to abuse others.
  • 23 year old teacher Alice McBrearty from London – Jailed in 2017 for 17 months for 7 counts of sexual activity towards her 15 year old male pupil.
  • Ann Lakey former Headteacher from Durham Jailed in 2015 for 8 years – found guilty of 13 counts of indecent assault after sexual allegations concerning two schoolboys dating back to the 1980s.
  • Caroline Berriman 30 years – teaching assistant from Oldham – jailed in 2015 for two years after ‘bedding’ a teenager up to 80 times.

In one of the latest episodes Bear Wolf (character) shares his views that it’s not the same for a female teacher to sleep with a male student, as it’s a ‘young lads dream’. Bear Wolf said “Oh what virile young lad doesn’t want to be taken advantage of” as David (Jacob’s father) walked into the Woolpack with his dad Eric. When David said to Jimmy and Dan (other characters) “He reckons Jacob was lucky to be abused” Bear turned around and said “It’s not exactly abuse now, is it?” David asked him if he had a daughter that was being preyed on by a middle aged teacher if that would be alright, Bear replied with “No, that’s different. Boys will be boys.” (https://www.entertainmentdaily.co.uk/soaps/emmerdale/emmerdale-viewers-furious-at-bear-wolf-after-his-comments/)

It is attitudes like these that contribute to myths and stereotypes. It is a myth that if a boy experienced sexual arousal during abuse, he wanted, and / or enjoyed it, and if he ever did partly want the sexual experiences, then they were his fault. Boys are not looking to be sexually abused or exploited. They can, just like girls, be manipulated and abused.

The further struggles for Jacob in the programme are that, as the victim, he is in denial and lacks the identification of being a victim of child sexual abuse.  It may be that viewers are gaining a misinterpretation of what happens in real life, as the protective services (i.e. police and social service) are unable to substantiate the crimes due to his denial. I am frustrated that there has been no therapeutic intervention with Jacob, as in my experience of working with young people in similar situations, there is a complex web of emotions and feelings that they need to explore safely. 

Being a safeguarding expert, when I see my favourite teatime soap runs a storyline like this, I think great, let’s talk about it. Let’s get it out in the open, lets dispel the myths and let’s help people understand the complexities of grooming and hope they can then recognise the signs.

I don’t agree with all aspects of the way it has been played out, but maybe that was me wanting someone (the other characters) to see what was happening and step in sooner. I wanted to protect Jacob, stop the abuse and let justice prevail.

The story line continues and evidences how damaging sexual assault on children and young people can be, but it also demonstrates how difficult it is to substantiate the evidence to bring those that abuse their power in a position of trust and are therefore not held accountable for their crimes.

Wendy Bateman, BA (Hons) Crime & Criminal Justice Prog Lead, University of Bolton commented: ‘As a crime and criminal justice lecturer / safeguarding consultant , I fully concur with your article statements.  Historically, I worked with domestic violence offenders and after fighting off many debates, was finally allowed to widen my gaze to address female offenders who were using sexual abuse to control partners.  Currently, in a class of ‘wannabe’ police / probation & prison officers, we explore the problems of ‘a narrow perspective’ and how this can cause the recognition of an offence / safeguarding of a victim… challenging the myth through debate demonstrates some interesting (if not worrying) views’.