More cases involving sex with minors

Experts point to minors' easy access to social networking and porn sites for worrying trend

The number of people convicted of sexual offences against minors has been on the rise here in recent years, setting what experts are calling a worrying trend.

There were 12 such convictions reported in the first six months of this year, compared to 13 in the whole of last year.

Most of the accused in these cases were found guilty of having sex with a minor, defined under the law as victims below 16 years old.

In a case heard in court last Tuesday, a 16-year-old student admitted to having sex with three girls, all no older than 14.

He was unsuccessful with a fourth victim, also a minor.

Muhammad Nor Aszroy Zaidon had befriended his victims on Facebook and he would ask them to be his girlfriend after chatting online.

This even though he had yet to meet them in person. He was let off last year with a stern warning, and on condition that he would not re-offend, after he was arrested for having sex with a 12-year-old girl he had met online.

But he went on and got two other girls, aged 13 and 14, to have sex with him on a staircase at his flat in Teck Whye Lane and got caught again.

Like in Aszroy's case, many of the men met their young victims through social networking sites like Facebook.

Psychiatrists, counsellors and social workers The Sunday Times spoke to pointed to the easy access minors have to social networking and pornography websites as the reason for the rise in such cases.

"(Minors) used to be more sheltered, but now they have exposure to complete strangers through social networking sites," said Ms Corinna Lim, executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research.

Mr Mani Joseph, a counsellor who has worked with young people for more than 30 years, said sometimes young girls compete with each other on who has more friends on Facebook, which gives them "social validation".

It all starts with innocent chats online, which later progresses to texting on the mobile phone, said Mr Joseph. And when they do meet and get intimate, usually after just a short period of time, the minors do not know how to resist the physical intimacy that the older person initiates, he added.

Ms Lim said the victims are taken advantage of because of their age and immaturity. "They may not fully understand what is happening or may not know how to resist advances."

Ms Lee Yean Wun, a social worker with the Kampong Kapor Family Service Centre, recounted a case where a minor felt coerced to have sex with a man she met.

In such cases, the trauma experienced by the minor may be similar to that experienced by victims of molestation and rape, especially if it was their first sexual encounter, added Ms Lee.

Several of these cases go unreported because the victim may feel guilty and ashamed about having let it happen in the first place. And if the assault was not brought to light by a parent, friend or teacher, the victim may become withdrawn, disruptive, depressed or even suicidal.

The 12 cases heard in court this year involved both male and female perpetrators. They also included two young male victims.

To protect these minors, more needs to be done to educate girls on how to resist, and to teach the males about the consequences of sex with minors and how to accept no for an answer, said Ms Lim.

"What is useful is role-playing. They learn when they are put in the situation," she added.

Experts say that the rising trend of such cases could be caused by a combination of factors.

Young girls are targeted because they are naive, said Dr Carol Balhetchet, director of youth services at the Singapore Children's Society.

The youngsters are also curious about sex and, with their insecurities, the minors become even more "vulnerable", said Dr Ang Yong Guan. The psychiatrist said research shows that the brain matures only after 25 years, which means that till then, young people are less likely to be able to control their impulses or think of the consequences of their actions.

Criminal lawyer Amolat Singh, who recently had to defend a client who was charged with having sex with a minor, said sometimes, the minors can also be equal partners in the crime.

Indeed, while such cases generally involved minors who had to be convinced or even manipulated into having sex, experts said they have also come across cases where both "victim and perpetrator are in a long-term relationship" and the sex was "consensual".

In those cases, the minors may not even reveal the identity of their partners.

Experts like Dr Ang said parents should always keep a close watch on their children and create a secure family environment. "The best antidote is a sense of security at home. When they are well-bonded at home, they know when and where to draw the line," said Dr Ang.