The number of boys and young men referred for support as victims and potential victims of sexual grooming has shot up by almost a third, according to a Leeds charity.
The BLAST Project, which is the UK’s only service dedicated to tackling male child sexual exploitation (CSE), says it has seen a 32 per cent increase in the number of boys being identified and referred for support.
In Leeds alone in the past year, there were 22 referrals of young men or boys assessed as being at medium to high risk, meaning they had either suffered abuse or were deemed at high risk of doing so.
There were 18 referrals in Bradford over the same period.
Nationally, the charity has worked with 20 local authorities and identified almost 250 victims or potential victims - up from 91 in the past three years alone.
Project co-ordinator Phil Mitchell said the problem is “massively hidden” - and often overshadowed by headlines about grooming gangs targeting young girls.
He added that warning signs are often missed by mainstream social services.
“The problem is that a large number of professionals don’t understand the sexual exploitation of boys and young men,” Mr Mitchell said.
“Many misinterpret the warning signs as being associated with drugs, crime and anti-social behaviour, but these signs, along with unknown whereabouts, secretive behaviour, unaccounted for gifts and associations with people of concern are clear indicators of potential sexual exploitation.”
Speaking of the 22 Leeds referrals this year, Mr Mitchell said: “All of them were deemed at risk, some had experienced it. The vast majority are around 14 or 15 years old.
“It could be young lads who perhaps have an older boyfriend or older girlfriend. It could be that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, were invited to parties and abused that way. There is also a lot of online abuse.
”We are challenging people to say ‘forget if it’s a boy or girl, look at the child and look for the warning signs’.
“We have to challenge the myths.
“One of the issues is that some victims themselves would rather be seen as youth offenders than as victims of CSE.”
The BLAST Project has running costs of £100,000 a year, but its current funding runs out at the end of 2016.
Mr Mitchell fears that despite increasing requests for support and training, the project’s future is “uncertain”.
“This will mean there will be no specialist service working only with boys and will lead to boys being forgotten and ignored.
“It will also mean that there won’t be a specialist service challenging those who think sexual exploitation doesn’t really happen to boys and who misinterpret the warning signs.”
‘CHARITY SAVED MY SON’s LIFE’
‘Jack’ was supported by The BLAST Project for five years.
His mum, ‘Helen’, said: “When we learned our son had been groomed and abused we were in shock. We didn’t know where to turn for advice and support.
“Without BLAST our very difficult situation would have been impossible and the outcome may have been tragic.
“BLAST supported our son for five years without fail, there when he needed them and a great source of advice to us as parents.
“A charity that helps boys who have become vulnerable is a fantastic resource and one we have grown to value beyond all others.”