The charity’s call follows the publication of study findings that show nearly one in three children and young people affected by child sexual exploitation is male.
Analysis by University College London (UCL) of 9,042 records of child exploitation and abuse victims supported by Barnardo’s since 2008 found 2,986 were male.
Follow up interviews by NatCen Social Research with professionals found that those working with children, such as teachers, health workers and youth offending teams, can be less protective of boys than girls, meaning opportunities to intervene are missed.
Barnardo’s says the findings from the Nuffield Foundation-funded research suggest the scale of the risk to boys is greater than previously thought, and is urging schools to teach about the dangers faced by all children as part of age-appropriate sex and relationships education.
Barnardo’s chief executive Javed Khan said: “At the moment society is miserably and unacceptably failing sexually exploited boys and young men. The tell-tale signs are being missed because of a lack of awareness and stereotypes about the nature of this form of abuse.
“We shouldn’t underestimate the scale of this issue. We need to spread the message that it is not just girls who fall victim to this horrendous crime.
“However we know this is only the tip of the iceberg – all children must have the knowledge to protect themselves.”
Ella Cockbain, principal investigator on the studies led by UCL, said: “Male victims have largely been overlooked amid growing interest in child sexual exploitation (CSE) in recent years. This research marks a much-needed step away from female-centric policy and practice – although it raises many questions that remain to be answered.
“Crucially, the finding that one in three service users was male highlights the danger in thinking CSE only really affects girls. We hope our study encourages policymakers, practitioners and the general public to do their utmost to protect vulnerable boys and young men from sexual exploitation.”