Children’s charity Barnardo’s has raised concerns over ignorance of sexual grooming revealed by an Emmerdale storyline.
The ITV soap has featured a plot line in which the character of teacher Maya Stepney grooms and has sex with teenager Jacob Gallagher.
With a YouGov survey of the public’s views on scenarios seen in Emmerdale, Barnardo’s found that a “significant proportion” of the audience did not see anything criminal about the actions of the abusive teacher.
The polling was undertaken before Tuesday’s episodes were aired.
The charity has voiced concerns over public confusion concerning a “real and disturbing issue”.
In the ITV soap, Maya and Jacob had sex after the teenager turned 16 – which around one in five of the people surveyed did not realise was criminal.
A tense confrontation between David Metcalfe and Maya in a cricket pavilion in Tuesday’s first episode ended with Maya’s arrest.
David accused Maya of being a paedophile and abusing Jacob, and called the police to take her away.
In a police interview, she denied having an inappropriate relationship with him.
Jacob, arriving as the arrest took place, said he loved Maya and stormed off.
He refused to give a statement to the police, and Maya accused two other characters of trying to kill her.
Barnardo’s chief executive Javed Khan said: “Some Emmerdale fans have been vocal about feeling uncomfortable with the grooming storyline, but we applaud producers for highlighting this very real and disturbing issue.
“Our polling shows there is still a significant proportion of the public that doesn’t realise Maya’s actions in the soap were criminal.
“When a boy or girl turns 16, that doesn’t mean they can no longer be sexually abused or exploited. Children are children by law until they are 18.
“While 16-year-olds are free to make choices about sex, teachers and other adults who abuse their positions of trust to groom young people under 18 are still committing crimes.”
The soap characters had been “sexting” in a protracted period of grooming and around 35% of viewers did not think an adult sending sexually explicit images to a 16-year-old was against the law or abusive.
Around 27% did not see any any abuse or illegality in the pair kissing.
Barnardo’s picked out grooming behaviour perpetrated by Maya, including targeting the victim, gaining the victim’s trust, filling a need, isolating the child, sexualising the relationship, and then maintaining control.
The charity has said that services are in place for those who could face grooming and abuse..
Mr Khan said: “Adult abusers like Maya in Emmerdale exploit young people’s feelings of loneliness, their need for care and their desire to be loved, before abusing them.
“Barnardo’s support services see first-hand how this abuse can cause long-term harm and affect young people’s attitudes to love, relationships and sex as they move into adulthood.”