This month sees the biennial being ‘funny for money’ Red Nose day operation slip into its hectic fundraising mode. Comic Relief has a good reputation of putting all the money it raises back into the communities where it is needed the most. One of the projects it helps fund is the Blast Project, which is part of the Yorkshire MESMAC group of services, a charity based in Leeds and Bradford supporting boys and young men who are being, or at risk of being sexually exploited. This also includes working with young men who are selling sex and/or working as escorts. Bent dropped in at their offices to chat with Project Coordinator, Phil Mitchell about the work he and his team are involved in.
The finance for Blast comes via two charitable organisations, Comic Relief and Esmee Fairburn, how did that come about?
Comic Relief specifically has funding strands which say – we will consider funding you if… and in this case… if you work on the issue of sex exploitation of children and young people, which is what we do. We are one of four projects in the country that work exclusively with boys and young men on the issue of sex exploitation. There are plenty of organisations who work with just girls, some with boys and girls but very few with only boys…
I noticed in your publicity blurb it says that you’ve spoken to over 8000 boys… that seems quite a large number.
Yes, that is 8000 boys and young men in secondary schools and educational youth settings in Leeds and Bradford. We go into schools and talk about sex exploitation, what it is, its different forms…
So it’s not 8000 lads looking for help… it’s you going on an outreach programme?
Yes, it is us going out and delivering prevention group work to explain what we’re about.
How is that received in schools?
Really well. You’ve got to think about the young lads who’d rather sit and speak to someone you can have a bit of a laugh with, watch DVDs about sex etc rather than doing double physics for an hour or so… but we’ve still got a really formal approach. In this area the teachers and schools always invite us back and say ‘can we get more involved?’ which is great. I think with the subject of child abuse being in the media at the moment we are getting more schools on board. Although some schools, Faith schools, put their head in the sand and say that they don’t have a problem, they don’t want to know, that they don’t want us talking about sex, sexuality or sexploitation to their pupils. So it’s swings and roundabouts really – those we’re in want to be involved, those who aren’t reject what we can offer.
Is child sexual exploitation a nationwide problem?
Yes. All you have to do is go to Google and type in ‘child sex exploitation’ and there are loads of examples. Recently there was the case of a postman down south who via Facebook groomed young lads, met them and forced them to have sex. Other cases are equally scary and opportunistic… and you can’t get away from it really. In terms of sexual exploitation, for Blast, you’ve got to think about the two groups involved. Those under 18 who are classed as children who run the risk of being groomed and could or are being sex exploited and the 18 and over who are being sexually exploited but who, depending on their lifestyle, don’t see it that way. For example: They are escorting and are happy to swap the sexual act for something else and don’t see themselves as being sex exploited. I think that’s because in this country males are brought up not to be victims, told to be big tough guys, don’t cry, don’t show your emotions… that’s an element.
Has Facebook made kids more vulnerable?
Yes absolutely. It’s interesting because we don’t want to say “don’t use Facebook because it’s terrible” it can be but so can anything. There are risks in every single thing that people do but our job is to try and lower those risks as much as possible. For instance, I’m off to see a 13 year-old lad in Leeds who met some one through Facebook. A 23 year-old guy, who the young lad says is his boyfriend, he loves him and that they’re going to move in together…the 23 year-old lives in London. Now if Facebook didn’t exist… those two would never have met… although I see the argument that it’s not Facebook but the people who use it…
So does the 13 year-old know he’s been groomed?
No not at all and when I meet him I’m not going in all guns blazing saying: “I’m a professional, you’re a child listen to me I know best”, you’ll get nowhere with that. He’s probably never heard of grooming except in relation to a cat or dog and if he has heard of it I would suspect that he has no idea of how that can happen.
So how did Blast get involved?
Well this was quite unique but generally, the people we deal with don’t phone us up or pop in to the drop-in centre, they are referred by social services, police or some professional in their life. It’s very rare that a lad will get in touch himself but in this instance the boy’s father noticed suspicious emails. There was a big argument as the father tried to explain that his son could be raped or killed but eventually, after he spoke to the boy’s school and they spoke to the police… they then got in touch with us. I’ve spoken to the father and the child protection office about the best way forward… the result is I’m seeing the 13 year old who knows that I’m going round for a chat.
Do the lads that come to you have much the same story?
It also depends on the age… the over 18s are a bit different but the younger ones who feel they are gay, bisexual or just wondering might be dealing with homophobia at school, at home or somewhere in their lives and then only place they can find out more about what matters to them is on the net. Exploring your sexuality is a huge thing for boys and they see the internet as private and they don’t have to worry about anyone else. However, we know that there are people out there who want to exploit that for their own ends. It might seem fun to see someone naked or masturbating online, it might be a turn on stripping in front of someone you think is a honed, sun-tanned hunk with a six-pack but would they be equally happy getting naked for some 40 something, ugly guy? So all we ask is – How do you know who it is? How do you know it’s really them? How do you know it’s not a fake photo? There might be others already in relationships where the older guy has showered them with gifts, let them move in, has been understanding about what the boy needs but soon enough it changes. They use emotional blackmail or tell the boy that he’s being treated as an adult and that there’s no such thing as a free ride. Suddenly the boy has demands he can’t wriggle out of and is caught in a trap. Then there are the heterosexual boys who are caught in a similar trap by guys who they thought were friends or perhaps a surrogate father or uncle who turn that relationship into one of exploitation.
OK so what can Blast do in such a situation?
We can build a relationship – and provide support. It may be to sexual health services here at MESMAC, maybe counselling or just meeting someone once a week who has worked in this field for sometime and knows what boys and young men can go through and know about the guilt, shame and embarrassing issues around that… They can get support without feeling judged, without being ridiculed and with no prejudice. Support can go in many different ways – from legal advice to pointing them in the direction of other agencies that might be able to offer help that we can’t.
You are based in Yorkshire so can you help boys and young men in other parts of the country?
It’s difficult because we are only funded to work in the Leeds and Bradford area but we can point any enquiry in the correct direction, to their local help lines or agencies dealing with sex exploitation. At the moment we operate an online drop-in once a week where anyone who has a problem, fears or wants to talk about a situation can speak to me via the net. It’s only in its formative weeks but as people get to know about it and how to access us via Fitlads, Gaydar and MSN Messenger I’m sure, as our profile increases, it will be an area that will grow. Meanwhile, we have a drop-in here at MESMAC in Leeds and Bradford and anyone who wants to chat face-to-face can get in touch via the numbers below.
How does that work? Is it like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where they all sit around and talk about their problem…?
No, no, no nothing like that. The drop-ins in Leeds and Bradford are aimed at 18-25 year-olds who are working as escorts, selling sex, exchanging sex for something to come along, have a cup of tea, who aren’t judged and if they want chat to someone there’s someone around for them. If the person isn’t out or they are leading a secret life as an escort it can be a very isolating so it’s a case of meeting others in a similar situation, getting peer support without being told what to do. Get legal advice. We aren’t lawyers but there are certain ways of operating that are legal and some that aren’t. Perhaps they’ve had a punter who has come to their house and attacked them, refused to pay or raped them… do they want legal advice on that, do they want support, do they want victim support? We can point up some of the areas they may not be aware of… we’re here to help and support as much as possible.
BLAST: Phone: 0113 2444209 Text: 07407 761569
Facebook Page: Search “blast project”
Live Chat every Thursday from 5pm – 6pm: add firstname.lastname@example.org to your MSN Messenger
Also chat to us on Gaydar and Fitlads at the same time. Look for “BLASTboys”
We also run a drop-in for 18-25 year olds who are selling/exchanging sex and/or working as escorts. Contact Phil, the project coordinator for further details. P.email@example.com or 07921 372896
If you would like to know how you can get involved with the BLAST Project by becoming a volunteer please contact Phil, the project coordinator on the above number.
1. National Working Group (NWG)
A charity with a network of professionals working with Child Sex Exploitation.
2. UK Network of Sex Work Projects
A non-profit voluntary association of agencies and individuals working with sex workers
0161 629 9861
3. Child Exploitation Online Protection (CEOP)
0870 000 3344 www.ceop.police.uk
4. Coalition for the Removal of Pimping (CROP)
(Supporting parents and carers of sexually exploited children) 0113 2403040