The profile of child sex abusers changed dramatically just a couple of weeks ago. Instead of the predatory adult male, a lone opportunist or operating as part of a ring, whom most parents, particularly of girls, fear, it seems that sexual abuse of teenage girls is now highly likely to be perpetrated by a tragic new category of male – teenage boys.
Nearly 40pc of child sexual abusers are now classified as children themselves, and of that, 97pc are boys. These are statistics guaranteed to greatly disturb parents of teenagers, both boys and girls. Because while girls may be the more obvious victims, the kind of damage being done to young boys in order to push them to the point where they no longer understand the concepts of consent, of mutual enjoyment or even the most basic indicators of respect, is enormous.
So what has changed, to bring about this kind of shift? According to the majority of experts within the field, it is the easily- accessible and extreme nature of pornography that is the big difference.
Each generation decries the loss of innocence of the next, and generally these fears look rather quaint once the passage of time lends perspective, but I doubt any future generation will look back with indulgence on the vicious explosion of porn that has hijacked the lives of teenagers. Ubiquitous, free and frequently hardcore, the stuff is being watched widely, even by children as young as eight.
One friend confessed recently, almost in tears, that her 10-year-old son had been told to key in certain search words by older friends at Scouts, and had come to her in great distress after watching a violent sexual scene. She was devastated at his loss of innocence, and stunned that such a thing could have happened many years before she expected to have to deal with it.
"They all watch it," another mother of one 16-year-old girl told me.
"All of them. Boys and girls, alike. They are using porn to find out what sex should look like, what they should call the various parts of their bodies, what they should know how to do. And it is ruining the innocence of young love. Instead of finding out about sex slowly, from each other, the girls are losing their virginity in a brutal, painful way, to guys who think they are supposed to go at it like a jackhammer."
This mother's awareness of the prevalence of porn first came when her daughter, then 15, confided that she was terrified at the stuff she thought she had to do. "We had spoken about most things up until then," explains this mother. "Smoking, drink, drugs. I suppose she felt able to confide her fears about sex to me."
Despite a careful, loving, open upbringing, the daughter believed she had to look and perform like a porn star in bed, and it was only when her mother painstakingly explained that what she had seen was "the movie business. As fake as any film where they blow up the White House or aliens land on earth. I told her that porn isn't sex, it is fantasy, CGI, basically. I also explained it is a very human response to get turned on by it, but that is just a physical reaction, that she needs to be much older to make those kinds of decisions."
Her daughter's overwhelming reaction was one of relief – that she didn't, after all, need to do the things she had seen online.
"I explained that it is OK not to want to do those things, that even the women in the films don't want to do them – they do it for money, and often because they have other problems. Once she understood that, the fear went. I also told her that, in the porn scenario, only one person is having fun, and it's pretty limited fun."
Now that her daughter is slightly older, Jane (all names have been changed) can see the social norms of her group are changing. "There are more romantic relationships developing, and that's the stage where they stop looking at porn. They figure out that there is nothing equal about the porn scene for women, and nothing lovely."
However, one battle that Jane agrees we have entirely lost is the bid to stop young girls looking to porn actresses for their aesthetic model. "They all wax their pubic hair, and the ideal figure is impossibly skinny, with big boobs. That is something I haven't managed to talk her out of."
Another mother, Jennifer, who has two boys, aged 15 and 17, also accepts that her sons have had some experience of the world of internet porn. "They would have seen things, at friends' houses. I know they would, because they have told me. They wouldn't seek it out, I think, but they certainly know what's available. And of course, porn has that kind of shock nature that means kids want to share it with each other, and show off around who's seen what."
She believes, crucially, that girls are not entirely innocent victims in this. "I'm surprised at how mischievous the girls are, how much they egg the guys on to things, whether it's drinking or watching porn. They are driving it too."
So how does she think she can protect her sons from the huge damage done by seeing too much, too young, and feeling pressurised to copy it? "Well first, I don't allow any technology in the bedrooms. I never have. No phones, no laptops, that's a basic rule. But beyond that, I have explained that their brains don't yet have the capacity to deal with what they are watching. That it is just the same as a very violent horror film – there will be scenes that stay with them and disturb them, and that they don't yet have the capacity to process.
"I have explained that online porn isn't adding value to any part of their lives, and I have always told them that giving yourself to another person is the greatest gift you can give. That sex is a spiritual thing, something that starts with friendship. I know they are under huge peer pressure, but they also know how I feel about this – that hardcore porn, crazy horror films, those things make me feel sick."
Again, this mother strongly believes that an open, communicative relationship with her sons is at the heart of their decision to trust her and tell her things.
"We would always have talked over the years, about sex, drinking, relationships. Some of their friends' parents would think I was very bohemian because I talk to the boys about everything, but I think this is parents' responsibility. I don't think kids have changed, I just think parents haven't caught up yet, and there is now a disconnect between the generations, because so many parents don't understand the online world and the social media their kids are using. It's like the generations are speaking two different languages. If there is fault, it is the parents', for not making an effort to bridge the gap and learn about the world their kids live in. The kids are just kids, as they have always been."
For Cathy the mother of another 17-year-old boy, the fundamental lesson she hopes to teach her son is "being proud of who you are. Being able to say 'no' and be your own person, even in the face of huge peer pressure". Until recently, she would openly have checked his laptop and his search history.
"I would have been very strict. Now that he's 17, I feel I need to start trusting him more." She doesn't believe that he has accessed online porn, but is well aware of the possibilities out there. "Actually, I think it was easier to come across it accidentally a few years ago," she says. "These days, the search engines are so good, that they rarely deliver porn by accident, and the sites do say 'this has adult content'. So at least I don't fear that he is stumbling across it by accident, but I know there is pressure among his peers to look at it."
Her son, she says, tells her she wraps him in cotton wool too much – "I said, 'yes, that's my job as a parent, to find out if you are able to handle the situations you will find yourself in, gradually, where the consequences aren't too serious.' However, I do know that I need to let him make informed decisions of his own, and trust they will be right. He has no older siblings, so he is having to work this out by himself."
Of course, for many parents of teenagers, the shock of awakening is a very rude one. They don't realise what kind of world their child has moved into – still see them as very young and innocent – until something frightening happens, and they become horribly aware of the distance that child has travelled. For Sandra, the mother of a 15-year-old girl, that awakening came around a year ago.
"She told a lie about where she was going, said she was staying at a friend's house, but went drinking in a field with a load of other kids. She passed out, and when she couldn't be woken, some of the guys started kicking her, to get her to wake up. Luckily her friends called me and I came to get her. She was so sick, all night, and covered in cuts and bruises. That frightened her as much as it did me. After that, I had a serious conversation with her about what could have happened, the various scenarios that could so easily have taken place."
That incident was a positive catalyst in the end – it proved the kind of scary drama that is sometimes necessary to persuade teenagers to listen, and to doubt for a moment in their own invincibility.
"I explained to her, 'this is your life, what do you want to do with it?' She already knows one girl who got pregnant and is now at home, on her own, with a baby. That scared her."
And although Sandra doesn't think her daughter has any real interest in porn or sex yet – is more annoyed than intrigued, so far, by the beginnings of the dating scene around her – she also acknowledges the potential for peer pressure is huge, and that no parent will ever really know what is going on.
"I meet mothers who say 'oh, my Sophie doesn't drink,' and I know for a fact that her Sophie does drink, that they all drink, so that shows me you can't be certain. They all have access to this stuff online, so I know it could happen."
How do you protect them? This, of course, is the fundamental question. How to protect our teenagers – still essentially children – from the awful consequences of their own actions, their own wilful desire for knowledge that is beyond them? We are painfully aware – as they are – of the lifelong consequences of one or two stupid actions in youth, so how do we shield them? For each of the parents I spoke to – even those who didn't believe porn was an issue with their teens – the key is communication. Keeping the lines open, not over-reacting to the little bits of information they let slip, or the questions they ask, but using these to gently probe further and try to find out a little more about the secretive world they live in. Time spent together, idle time, chatty time, just simple messing time, is the bedrock. As Cathy said: "The time you put in when they are young is an investment. That builds trust, a shared sense of humour, their ability to listen to you and you to them."
All names have been changed