Gay campaigner Peter Tatchell claims giving children more sexual rights and education will help protect against abuse better than a British Megan’s Law.

Why is the whole debate around child sex abuse framed almost entirely in terms of repressing the abusers, to near the total neglect of any attempt to empower young people to resist and report abuse?

Don’t get me wrong, abusers need to be controlled and constrained. But this is only part of the answer. A British version of Megan’s law, now under consideration by the government, may provide reassurance to anxious parents, but its practical value is doubtful. It ignores the best defence against sex abuse – children themselves.

Cracking down on paedophiles is surely only one dimension of a necessarily two dimension solution. The current hue and cry one-sidedly prioritises action to identify and exclude actual or potential abusers. This strategy overlooks a key element in the child protection equation: helping young people protect themselves.

Let’s get three facts straight. First, most abuse victims are not very young children. They tend to be in the six to 16 age range. Second, the sexual abuse of young people rarely involves coercion or violence. Psychological pressure and manipulation are the norm. Third, schools are failing to educate pupils in how to protect themselves against sex abuse. Ignorant, unconfident kids who feel shame about sex are easy prey for predators.

Empowering young people with the knowledge, skills and confidence to rebuff and report sexual predators obviously won’t work for the under-fives. They are too young. But lessons in how to deal with abuse, from the first year of primary school onwards, could empower many of the over-fives with the confidence to say no and the confidence to disclose attempted sexual exploitation; thereby halting would-be perpetrators and enabling them to be bought to justice.

This is glaringly obvious. It is therefore rather disturbing that sexual assertiveness training is not part of the school curriculum. If young people felt positive and sure about their right to reject unwanted sexual advances, many abusers would be stopped in their

tracks.

Despite the panic about paedophilia, and the huge concern to protect children, the issue of sex abuse is not even discussed in most schools. It should be talked about, but it isn’t. Young people are left ignorant and unprepared. They are not advised on how to deal with sex pests and what to do if they are molested. Merely telling them to phone Childline is not good enough.

Fending off a predatory older person is not easy, even for adults. It is an acquired skill, and it requires a degree of confidence. Young people therefore need to be taught the ability and assuredness to resist and report sexual pests.

I am the first to recognise that this anti-abuse strategy won’t work for every child. Kids from broken homes, for example, are often damaged and disturbed. They tend to have low self-esteem and lack confidence, which makes it hard imparting assertiveness skills.

Nevertheless, although not every child will benefit, many will. If anti-abuse education can save only a minority of children from falling victim to sexual exploitation, then it is a worthwhile gain.

We also need to look at the bigger picture, the social values that often unwittingly underpin the sex abuse of children.

Sex-negative attitudes are a contributory factor. People who sexually exploit young people often get way with it because the victims feel guilty about sex and are therefore reluctant to complain. Guilt and reluctance is reinforced by a dominant cultural mix of prurience and puritanism, which revels in titillation but still tends to regard actual sex as something sordid that should be kept hidden and private. This anti-sex mentality is a godsend to abusers. They rely on guilt and secrecy to carry out their molestation undetected.

To undermine the sexual shame that inhibits the exposure of abusers, sex education lessons should start at the age of five and should encourage young people to have a more open and positive attitude towards sexual matters. This is not about promoting sex or sexualising young people. It is simply to give them the facts and skills so they don’t become victims. Youngsters who feel at ease talking about sex are more likely to disclose abuse. Early disclosure is the key to ending the cycle of abuse in families, children’s homes and elsewhere.

The other problematic social attitude is adult chauvinism, which is best summed up in the old adage that children should be seen and not heard. This plays straight into the hands of abusers. Not infrequently, they get away with acts of sexual predation by relying

on the young victim’s reticence to challenge adult authority.

Despite the UN Year of the Child and the major child-centred legal reforms of the last three decades, the reality of children’s rights remains ambiguous – particularly in the realm of sexual rights.

According to the law, a person under 16 is incapable of consenting to a sexual act. They are deemed unable to understand the implications of having sex. Any sexual relationship with such a person, even if freely entered into by both partners, is therefore categorised, in law, as an indecent assault.

By saying that the under-16s are not allowed to consent to a sexual relationship, the unspoken message is that they have no sexual rights – which is also the mind-set of the abusive adult. Aren’t we sending mixed messages to our children?

Curiously, the age of criminal responsibility is ten. From that age onwards, the law says that a person who commits a crime, such as murder or robbery, can be assumed to know what they were doing and can therefore be held responsible for their behaviour. But it is not until the age of 16 that the law acknowledges young people’s ability to give

sexual consent. The implication is that a decision to have sex is more complex and grave than a decision to kill or rob.

The ten-year-old killers of James Bulger were declared old enough to be held responsible for their actions and be convicted of murder. But if they’d had sex with each other and said they had consented, the courts would have ruled that they were too young to understand what is involved in a sexual relationship.

The Bulger case sums up the legal muddle over the sexual rights of youth. Parliament has sought to safeguard against abuse by setting the age of consent at 16. But by denying the under-16s the right to consent to sex, it reinforces the idea that they have no right to make their own sexual choices. Isn’t this also what child sex abusers believe? Doesn’t this curtailment of young people’s sex rights and choices help legitimate the attitudes that allow abuse to flourish?

To help combat abusive relations, schools, children’s homes and youth clubs need to positively encourage young people to assert their rights, including the right to control their own bodies. This means the right to say yes to sex they want, and the right to say no to sex they don’t want. The affirmation of young people’s right to sexual self-determination, and their education and empowerment to assert that right, deserves to be given a much higher priority in the fight against abuse. It is one of the most effective ways to combat sexual predators and protect our children.

This article first appeared on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free webpage.