A DISTURBING rise in youth sex crime has set Scotland on the path to becoming the first nation in the world to take a ‘public health approach’ to sexual offences.

The strategy would mirror the current ‘public health approach’ to violent crime. Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit won praise internationally for its groundbreaking work in lowering crime with strategies such as going into schools and hospitals to intervene in the lives of young men involved in knife crime.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf says he is now giving 'serious consideration’ to adopting the same strategy in order to tackle sexual offences.

Latest figures show reported rape increased 22% in 2017/18 compared to the previous year. Reported rape and attempted rapes have increased 99% since 2010, and in at least 40% of reported sexual offences the complainer was under 18.

A senior Scottish government source told the Herald on Sunday that the Justice Ministry is currently in discussions about a public health approach to sexual offences with ‘criminal justice partners, particularly the Solicitor General’ who provides legal advice to ministers.

The source said the strategy was being explored because ‘sexual offences have rocketed over the last nine years. There’s been a real increase, and a lot of that is young person on young person, we’re talking about from ages six, seven and eight’.

The source said offences involving young people were not all related to online behaviour ‘by any stretch of the imagination’, adding: ‘Most of it is actual physical contact.’

‘Just as we have looked at violence reduction successfully through a public health lens, we’re now questioning whether we have to look at sexual offences through a public health lens,’ they said.

‘Is there work to be done around toxic masculinity, adverse childhood experiences, poverty, inequality, learning difficulties, a healthy relationship with sex, accessibility of pornography? All these issues have to be tackled at a young age and are all things we have to look at through a public health lens in order to see a reduction in sexual offences.’

When it comes to sex crimes committed online such as ‘communicating indecently or causing others to view sexual activity’, three quarters of victims are under 16, with an average age of 14. In a quarter of cases, both the victim and perpetrator were under 16.

Former Crown Office chief executive Catherine Dyer has been appointed by the Scottish government to head up an expert group on preventing sexual offending involving young people.

Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf, said: 'Over the last decade, the Scottish Government has invested more than £17 million in violence prevention. This has included support for Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit which has taken an innovative public health approach, where violence is treated as a disease and root problems are tackled at source.

‘Recorded violent crime has nearly halved since 2006-07 – and, recorded crime is at the second lowest level since 1974. However, we know that recorded crimes of a sexual nature have increased. We note some expert voices who suggest Scotland should now take a public health approach to tackling sexual offences - this is an approach I will give serious consideration to.

‘Catherine Dyer is currently chairing our expert group … It is important that we reflect on her thorough piece of work once it reports in Spring 2019 and build a consensus on how best to tackle this issue.”


GRAHAM Goulden was instrumental in the ground-breaking work of Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit. The former Chief Inspector helped create and roll out the VRU’s ‘public health approach’ to violent crime which has been hailed across the world. The figures speak for themselves, with knife crime plummeting. Possession of an offensive weapon has fallen from 4892 incidents in 2008-09 to 1213 in 2017-18. In 2005, the United Nations declared Scotland the most violent country in the developed world, and studies by the World Health Organisation showed that Glasgow was Europe’s murder capital. Since the VRU launched in the same year, the murder rate has dropped 60%. The number of victims going into hospital with severe facial trauma from blades has halved to 500 in the same period.

Goulden, now a campaigner against male violence, says without a public health approach fighting crime is like the carnival game ‘whack-a-mole’.

‘We can spend all day whacking moles - charging people, taking them to court, sending them to prison - but we won’t reduce the number of moles,’ he says. ‘The only way to reduce the moles is to start tackling the culture that people are growing up in - that’s the public health approach.’

A public health approach to crime doesn’t mean you stop arresting criminals - that still happens, but in addition you try to stop people offending before they become criminals and you try and take people off the path of criminality once they offend. It’s both carrot and stick.

‘The VRU began to tackle the culture around the idea of what makes people think it is okay to carry a knife,’ Goulden says. Medics were brought into schools to show the reality of knife crime - to explain how easy it is to both die and kill or be maimed for life.

The vast majority of young people in Scotland knew it was wrong to carry a knife and had no desire to do so, says Goulden. ‘We wanted to get across that this is the healthy norm,’ he adds - to make the law-abiding kids the ones that other boys wanted to emulate, not the wannabe gangster.

‘The desire to fit in, especially among young men, can lead them to behave in ways that are contrary to their values,’ Goulden adds, ‘it’s the notion of ‘dangerous conformity’.’

A culture of toxic masculinity plays into the carrying of knives, and experts like Goulden believe we need to start looking at the same toxic culture when it comes to the way some young men look at women.

In terms of a public health approach to sexual offences, there’s a clear parallel in the Mentors in Violence Prevention Programme that the VRU runs in schools. The idea is simple: older pupils are taught about violent crime, to watch for red flags, and, most importantly, to raise the alarm before violence happens, not afterwards. The same tactics can be used for sexual offences. Goulden calls it the ‘bystander approach’ - the idea that everyone has a role to play in keeping a community safe.


Niven Rennie, the new head of the Violence Reduction Unit, is currently advising the authorities in London. The city plans to copy Scotland’s public health approach to crime in a bid to tackle rampant violence.

‘A public health approach can be adapted to fit any number of society’s problems and it certainly would seem a fit with sexual crime,’ he says, adding: ‘You treat the problem that you’ve got to deal with as if it was a health issue. Like any health issue it spreads if left untreated so you identify what the problems are, try out solutions and if they work roll them out, if they don’t move on to the next attempt.’

Rennie adds: ‘You can’t arrest your way out of a serious criminal problem, you’ve got to have everyone working together.’ That means doctors, teachers, police, and social workers all co-operating in the fight against crime.

This public health approach to crime is cost effective too, he says. He tells the story of an habitual knife-carrying criminal who was himself stabbed 17 times in a five year period. The VRU works in hospitals to spot men like this and try to get them on the straight and narrow. The VRU also helps with rehabilitation through schemes like work placements. The habitual criminal, who Rennie mentioned, is now fully reformed and working with the VRU mentoring other offenders.

‘If you just take that one individual, think of how many times that man had been to hospital, how many doctors were involved, how many police officers, the courts, social workers, the cost of prison,’ he says, adding: ‘He’s now very proud that he’s paying taxes and no longer a cost to society.

‘Anything you do which prevents people getting into violence means less victims and less involvement from all these other agencies and therefore it is all cost effective.’

The VRU budget is just £1.3m a year and none of it comes from the budget of Police Scotland or other services, Rennie says. ‘I think everyone would recognise the value for money given what we’ve achieved,’ he adds.


MISS M was at the centre of one of Scotland’s most controversial rape cases. It began when she was 18 and claimed she was raped after a night out in St Andrews, where she was a student in 2013. Stephen Coxen denied the charges against him and in 2015 a jury in a criminal court gave a not proven verdict. However, in a ground-breaking case this October a sheriff in a Personal Injury Court ruled that Coxen had raped her and demanded he pay damages of £80,000. She’s now campaigning with Rape Crisis Scotland for the abolition of the not proven verdict.

Miss M supports the idea of a public health approach to sex crime, but fears it isn’t enough on its own to achieve justice for victims. A public health approach, she says, might start to change the way young men look at women, but what about the older generation?

She’s concerned that a public health approach won’t tackle what she sees as one of the biggest problems in rape cases - the myths in the minds of jury members. Many jurors, she says, still don’t understand that victims ‘freeze’, or don’t fight back or scream. ‘Just because someone freezes, it isn’t consent,’ she says.

Then there’s the old tropes of the clothing a woman wears or the fact she might be drunk - again, Miss M says, too many still believe these issues matter in a rape case. It’s good to talk about educating children, she says, ‘but honestly, we need a process that people have to go through before they can sit on a jury’ in a rape case. She suggests potential jurors should be given a seminar by experts so they’re aware that issues like clothing, alcohol and not fighting back are irrelevant.

‘Why should someone who believes in a rape myth be able to sit on a jury?’ Miss M asks. The Not Proven verdict has to go too, she believes. It just confuses jurors and prevents justice being done, and she says, leads to ‘wrongful acquittals’.

‘Rape has the highest use of the not proven verdict,’ Miss M says, ‘so I think the statistics speak for themselves. People call it the ‘bastard verdict’ for a reason.’


Sandy Brindley heads Rape Crisis Scotland. While most experts say that a public health approach to sex crime will get to the roots of the problems - such as young boys accessing extreme porn online - Brindley isn’t so sure. She sees the root of the problem as gender.

‘Sexual offences are a highly gendered crime and unless we look at the actual root causes of sexual crime which are located in gender inequality and gender roles, such as masculinity, then we are not going to prevent sexual offences,’ Brindley says. The bottom line for her is that our whole culture has to change, not just individuals.

‘Sex is seen as something that women either consent to or don’t, rather than being active participants in,’ she says, and widely available extreme pornography promotes a disturbing and negative view of female sexuality.

Any public health approach to sex crime needs to take on a public education role, she says, so we ‘fundamentally change how gender and sexuality are viewed’.


DR Mairead Tagg is a clinical psychologist and one of Scotland’s leading experts on male violence. She is ‘cautiously optimistic’ about a public health approach to sex crime.

She sees the idea as ‘absolutely appropriate’ for children under 18 who have endured ‘adverse childhood experiences’ and may be starting to behave in a sexually inappropriate way. However, she worries that it could also be used ‘as a way of diverting serious sexual offenders from being held to account and put out of the way of harming other people by being sent to prison’.

She adds: ‘All it’s going to take is for a defence lawyer to say this man endured difficult experiences or lived with poverty, or grew up with a patriarchal and toxic view of the world.’ The issues that a public health approach to sexual offences might explore - such as childhood abuse, lack of education and bad parenting - cannot be used as mitigation in court, she says, to further drive down the number of convictions.

Addressing ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘dreadful destructive pornography’ is the key to tackling sex crime, Tagg believes. ‘The overwhelming majority of children have been exposed to hardcore pornography before they’re 11,’ she says.

However, she worries that some young people might be discovered who have mental health problems so severe that their ‘attitudes and behaviour to women are not going to ameliorated’ by mentoring in schools with talks about consent and women’s rights. Mental health services for children are already ‘drowning’, Tagg says, so will the system be equipped to handle the cases that a public health approach to sex crime might uncover?

For every downside there is an upside though, she says, and that’s ‘early identification which may prevent a signifiant number of these young men acting on their impulses’.


PROFESSOR Susan McVie is a criminologist at Edinburgh University - one of her main areas of interest is law enforcement and public health. ‘There’s been an issue,’ she says, ‘around an increase in the the recording of sexual offences amongst young people, which is partly to do with online sharing of images.’

There’s also been a rise in the number of cases of ‘early sexual intercourse between young people’ - the increased reporting is also due to online behaviour as sexual images taken on mobile phones can be used as evidence, as can texts discussing sexual activity. Often the crime is reported by parents who discover material.

‘Many young people aren’t actually aware that they’ve been a victim of a crime,’ McVie says, ‘they just think this is something that happens.’ This is where the public health approach comes in - educating young people and ‘making sure they’re aware of the consequences of their own behaviour, the importance of other people’s behaviour, and have an understanding of the law.’