Child Sexual Exploitation: Racist Mythology, Scapegoating and the Betrayal of Our Children
This article aims to identify some of the commonly held beliefs in relation to gang-related Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and to explore some of the associated myths. I hope to unpick some of the cultural tropes which appear to underpin the current narrative concerning what CSE is, who the perpetrators are and what may be an effective approach to supporting communities to recognise and address CSE.
CSE is rarely out of the news. Sarah Champion, Labour MP for Rotherham, resigned from her position as Shadow Women and Equalities minister on 16th August 2017 over what she herself called her “extremely poor choice of words” in an article she wrote for The Sun. The offending comments:
“Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls.”
Following the prosecution of grooming gangs in Rochdale in 2016, Former Chief Prosecutor for the North West, Nazir Afzal, a practicing Muslim man, acknowledged that men of Asian and in particular, Pakistani origin, were disproportionately involved in street-grooming gangs successfully prosecuted.
It is a telling and sad irony that Mr Afzal, responsible for reversing an earlier Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decision not to prosecute the gang, has been subjected to racist abuse for his role in bringing child sex offenders to justice. That anti-Muslim racist aggression was directed erroneously at the man responsible for ensuring CSE perpetrators were prosecuted, is a reflection of the tone and tenor of the racist rhetoric underpinning the current narrative around CSE in the UK
Speaking on Channel 4 News earlier this year Mr Afzal acknowledged the findings of Professor Jay’s (2014) report into the Inquiry into Rotherham CSE, that instances of abuse have been covered up and that as a consequence victims have been and felt unsupported by the authorities. Mr Afzal went on to say that the National Crime Agency (NCA) is now “determined to bring people to justice”.
The dominant anti-Muslim narrative surrounding the grooming gang issue can be attributed as stemming primarily from comments made by Professor Jay in her 2014 Inquiry commissioned to look into the scope and detail of CSE in Rotherham between 1997-2013.
Professor Jay highlighted the indifference of authorities to the experiences of children and young people for years when CSE was being made known to them. It was her comments in relation to the issue of the ethnicity of perpetrators, or more specifically, how awareness of ethnicity influenced the inaction of the local authority, that proved most controversial. There was, she said:
“A widespread perception that messages conveyed by some senior people in the Council and also the Police, were to ‘downplay’ the ethnic dimensions of CSE.” (p91) As a consequence of this, frontline staff: “appeared to be confused as to what they were supposed to say and do and what would be interpreted as ‘racist’”.
These comments were taken up widely in the media. Writing in the Telegraph in August 2014 Alison Pearson compared the police raid on a high profile celebrity, Cliff Richard, which she claimed was in relation to one allegation, with the failure of police over many years not to investigate 1400 cases of CSE. This is not strictly true as nine people made allegations against Cliff Richard and the figure of 1400 is speculative. However, her point was clear: police were inhibited from pursuing investigations into CSE of “white girls” because of concerns about being labelled “racist”.
Few would deny that failure of the authorities to act in Rotherham was abhorrent. However, if the mistakes of the past are not to be repeated it is crucial that the appropriate lessons are learned. This requires reflection and consideration of the facts. Alison Pearson’s article was far from untypical of the response of the Tory press. Cast aside is any hope of reasoned reflection and consideration of a measured response. In its place is a tone clearly designed to ratchet up the emotion of the mob. She writes: “One thousand four hundred. Consider the weight of that number, feel its tragic heft.” Then she condemns the whole community with what appears to be a simile chosen specifically to inspire hate: “Men of Pakistani heritage treated white girls like toilet paper.”
This shrill, racist obfuscation is underpinned by a conscious strategy to gain political advantage:
“The Labour Party…is mired in shame over “cultural sensitivity” in Rotherham. Especially, cynics might point out, a sensitivity to the culture of Muslims whose votes they don’t want to lose.”
Such was the tone within which grooming gangs were discussed. Our media served victims as a lynch mob and as a consequence the discourse around grooming has been infected with half-truths, smears and scapegoating. The consequence is a narrative riddled with hatred and blame. Support for victims and protection of children from future harm requires reasoned analysis and debate. Stoking the fires of hate undermines the quality of debate and as such treats victims with contempt.
“Contempt” was, according to Professor Jay, how South Yorkshire Police regarded many child victims. Little was made of this in the Tory press. But it requires explanation. Indeed, it is crucial to consider what underpinned this statement and what it tells us about police culture during the period of the Inquiry.
Culture can be understood as: “The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society”. Culture is the expression through word and deed of the attitudes and values of a group of people. Culture is particularly concerned with aspiration and with condemnation. Culture reveals how a group of people see themselves, those within their group and those outside of their group.
So what was it that led Professor Jay to suggest that police “regarded many child victims with contempt”? And what does this tell us about the attitudes and values of South Yorkshire police in relation to how they saw victims of CSE?
According to Alison Pearson police feared being labelled racist. Professor Jay highlighted the inactivity of councillors who had a responsibility to challenge the local community to respond to indications of abuse. That individual councillors appear to have feared the consequences of raising this issue is a lesson we should learn. But to leave it there is to tell only half the story. What Professor Jay wrote concerning police decision-making was something quite different.
Whilst CSE policy and procedures provided adequate guidance to help police recognise child victims of exploitation and to consider effective responses, in practice police considered the children unreliable witnesses who were at least collusive and at worst, culpable, in their own victimisation. Police tended to treat child victims as they might adults engaged in prostitution. Consequently, child victims were offered little support or guidance in relation to the making of statements.
Far from being unusual, this distorted representation by police of children’s experiences was accepted by other professional decision-makers and can only be seen therefore as reflective of wider cultural attitudes and perspectives.
Majority culture is predicated upon relationships based on exploitation. On a daily basis the vast majority of us sell our time to employers who increasingly have gained control over how our bodies are used and presented as well as over what and how we think about such exploitative relationships.
This control extends to objectification, particularly that of women. Underpinning objectification is a legacy of patriarchy and it is within this gendered, patriarchal and exploitative context that we can understand how police have responded to working class children victimised by men who have sought to exploit their bodies. Furthermore, the motivations, justifications and minimisations adopted by perpetrators that enable individual offenders to act in the way that they do to victimise children, are mirrored in the attitudes and values of majority culture.
If cultural attitudes and values of the majority culture have played a significant role in the establishment and maintenance of CSE what of the minority culture of Asian perpetrators?
Much has been said of the attitudes and values of Asian men in grooming gangs. The common narrative goes something like this: Asian men see white working class women as sexually available. That perpetrators regard their victims with contempt is axiomatic from the fact of the victimisation. That misogyny might be a feature of Asian, or more specifically, Pakistani male culture should not come as a surprise. The question to be asked is how misogyny is expressed within the context of relationships within local communities.
One characteristic of all sex offending is the dehumanisation of victims. This is necessary to psychologically prepare the perpetrator to commit the offence. Within the context of relationship-based offending such as CSE this is often a slow process. Nevertheless, common assumptions and biases about specific groups such as white community or gender, may accelerate the process. However, of more significance with respect to the targeting and actual commission of offending, is the perceived availability of the victim.
It is argued that Pakistani perpetrators of CSE target white children because of perceived availability. The common assumption is that women in Pakistani communities are less available as a result of a greater degree of patriarchal control. It also seems likely that in some cases a more relaxed attitude toward sexuality within white working class communities means there is a perception that white women may be more conducive to advances. In some cases, perceptions about less rigid parental controls may have meant victims have been seen to be physically available, more often.
Perhaps the most insidious and the most ridiculous racist slur has been that the Muslim community in particular, is more inclined to engage in paedophile behaviour. The example of the Prophet Mohammed’s marriage to Aisha aged 6 is cited as the example which has left a legacy in the Muslim community today. Less often it is cited that there are many examples of powerful Western contemporaries of Mohammed also marrying children. Richard II married his wife when she was aged 9 years. Never have I found any suggestions that his is a legacy of cultural paedophilia.
The UK Government defines CSE as: “A form of child abuse. It occurs where anyone under the age of 18 is persuaded, coerced or forced into sexual activity in exchange for, amongst other things, money, drugs/alcohol, gifts, affection or status.”
In 2013, the Child Exploitation and online Protection Centre (CEOP) produced a report which distinguished two types of sexual abuse by groups. The first involves targeting victims based on vulnerability rather than on a specific preferential sexual interest in children. Perpetrators of such offences are unlikely to see themselves as “fixated” with a sexual preference for children and are more likely to be motivated by the prospect of gaining other advantages. The second involve perpetrators who have a specific sexual interest in children.
The grooming relationship is often a feature of all child sexual abuse, CSE is distinguished from other kinds of child sexual abuse insofar as its purposes can benefit perpetrators in ways that go beyond sexual gratification. For example, exploitation can be used for the purpose of prostitution. This latter point is crucial to understanding CSE and the cultural factors which have enabled it to flourish amongst working-class communities.
Although the distinctions between CSE and other forms of sexual abuse seem obvious, the association of Asian grooming gangs with paedophilia has become so indelibly engrained into the cultural consciousness that anyone attempting to challenge this narrative is likely to be castigated as an “enabler” (or worse) “a paedophile”.
There is an issue with grooming gangs amongst some Asian men in some working class communities and it is not my intention to seek to explain away, minimise or deny this obvious fact. On the contrary, it is essential that such gangs and the factors underpinning and enabling organised CSE are understood and challenged for the protection of children and the prevention of future victimisation.
The purpose in learning the lessons of the past is to manage future risks. Risk assessment requires that we consider how such factors might re-emerge in different situations or circumstances. However, official statistics will never provide an accurate representation of the extent of CSE in the UK. This is because of two things:
- The nature of criminal behaviour
- The nature of social responses to criminal behaviour.
In the initial stages of CSE victims often appear to collude with their exploitation (this is not to say that they are culpable). As perpetrators gain increasing control, behaviour becomes increasingly coercive. For these reasons CSE is therefore likely to be more widespread than reported.
Social responses to criminal behaviour are driven by a range of factors, including (particularly in the case of CSE), the visibility of the behaviour – (and our willingness to peer into this behaviour) – and, the decisions taken at different stages throughout the criminal justice process. Studies have concluded time and again that such decision-making leads to racist outcomes in that black and ethnic minority (BME) groups are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.
The questions can fairly be asked therefore in relation to CSE: how do we know we are looking in the right direction? How do we know we have a clear picture of the nature of the problem?
According to the CEOP study, 51 cases of CSE grooming gangs were known in 2013. Of those, 75% of abusers were of Asian origin. There were far fewer cases of “fixated” paedophile gangs (six cases). However, all were perpetrated by white men. Lone offenders are much more common. According to CEOP, in the same year there were 2,120 lone perpetrators either suspected or confirmed cases of non-familial contact child sexual abuse compared with 65 group and gang related offences.” Whilst important therefore, the number of grooming gang cases is much lower than that of known offenders of sexual abuse as a whole.
However, in 2016 the National Crime Agency (NCA) produced a national briefing report which has the potential to shatter the mythology underpinning notions of Asian grooming gangs as presenting the greatest risk in relation to CSE. The report does not offer statistics in relation to prosecutions but provides a meta-analysis of the findings of police force intelligence across the Country. This on-the-ground police intelligence compiled from a range of agencies working with children and young people as well as statutory and criminal justice agencies, presents a radically different picture of the nature, level and risk of CSE presented by gangs in the UK. This is a story that has been identified in the national press but it is not one which so far appears to have gained traction as part of the debate surrounding CSE. Why there has been little traction is a very interesting question.
The NCA report highlights a very concerning spread of the influence of organised drug-gangs emanating from inner-cities and taking root in towns and communities across the Country. It is important to recognise some profoundly misogynistic elements of the culture of drug-related gangs and what this means in terms of the risks of CSE.
Professionals have been aware for many years of the control of women and female children in relation to gangs. Initiation ceremonies often require females to sleep with all leading gang members, as a sign of loyalty to the gang. Subsequent to initiation is often the expectation that females (minors as well as adults) remain sexually available to leading gang members. Very often females are called upon by those men with whom they are allied, to offer sexual services in lieu of drug debts. Furthermore, internecine strife between rival gangs and within gangs themselves often involves the sexual assault of allied females as a mark of disrespect. Drug gangs present a significant risk of CSE and whilst known to professionals on the ground, this risk is not evidenced in official statistics and has not been taken up by the media in the same way that the Rotherham scandal was.
The key findings of the 2016 report include:
- Supply of class “A” drugs from urban hubs to county towns continues to be a widespread feature of gang activity and the key driver for the criminality highlighted by this report.
- Ruthless debt control prevail as a consequence of County line markets
- (Gangs) pose a significant threat to vulnerable adults and children
- Exposure to gang exploitation has the potential to generate emotional and physical harm.
- Debt bondage is a common and widespread theme
The report goes on to say:
“Females had been sexually assaulted…prostitution for sexual favours in payment for drugs have also been reported”…“80% of areas saw the exploitation of children by gangs”.
The report highlights the issue that because of the criminal nature of gang activity and the sometimes collusive nature of exploitation:
“It remains a challenge to provide accurate figures for the number of children who have been exploited…It is likely that many more children go undetected by law enforcement. This means we do not know the true scale of child exploitation by gangs and it is likely that many children fail to be safeguarded.”
The report concludes:
“(There has been) a considerable increase in law enforcement awareness of the use of children by gangs since2014. Almost half of the areas reported the use of female children…Although CSE is not the driving factor in county line gang as exploiting children, a clear link between county lines and CSE exists.”
This 2016 NCA report suggests CSE is a much wider problem than currently envisaged by the vast majority of people. Far from being rooted in the misogyny of men in one minority culture, CSE is in fact the cultural expression of patriarchal attitudes and values which permeate majority culture in the UK. This culture is now finding expression in the expansion of the activity of drug-related gangs.
So, why is this emerging risk not more widely reported in the press? What are the specific causes and approaches to combating the risk of CSE in drug-related gangs?
The Rotherham scandal provided opportunity for a ruling elite to engage in a considerable assault on a specific minority communities, aided and abetted by a media whose shrill moral indignation has distorted and deflected debate. This attack has been justified by a racist mythology that has taken an expressly political nature and includes an assault on the supposedly collusive Labour party. This fact alone should alert us to the true nature of racism in a time of political and economic crisis.
History provides the obvious example of the scapegoating of the Jews in Weimar Germany and it is clear that in the early years the primary focus of the critique of the Jews was the legacy of the culture of Judaism. The parallels are stark. We know where they lead.
The 2016 study shows us that CSE is a reflection of dominant cultural attitudes and values in so far as enabling offending is concerned. But there is another lesson to be learned about the causes and the management of CSE as they relate to drugs gangs.
The disintegration of communities resulting from Tory austerity has been well documented as has the evidence of parallels between increased drug use and gang activity where poverty and hopelessness exist persist particularly among the young. The evidence of a significant rise in the numbers involved and the influence of drug gangs in communities across this Country is a clear indication that CSE will follow in their wake.
The solution to the rise in drug gangs and the associated CSE is clear. Investment in communities to provide decent living standards are not considered an appropriate solution to the prevailing racist narrative, the dual function of which serves to distract attention from the real issues and causes whilst at the same time, to divide communities so as to disempower opposition in times of crisis.
Racism is always the first defence of ruling elites in times of crisis. Its purpose is to divide opposition to the systems of power and privilege. Recognising the racist narrative at the heart of the CSE debate is important to ensure CSE is understood fully so as to protect future potential victims. Equally, solidarity within and between communities is important to effectively challenge a growing culture of exploitation and the alienation of children and young people from appropriately protective adults in the community. Whilst recognising the primary solution is to ensure financial investment in communities it is important that individuals invest time and energy into community life to educate and enlighten in order to strengthen protective and supportive bonds. The solutions will come not from authorities, but from ourselves and our actions.
During a recent exchange on twitter I was told: “It is shameful that the Labour Party cares more about these rapists and abusers than it does about protecting vulnerable young women”. Let us challenge this racist narrative as an attack on us all. Let us do it armed not with rhetoric or emotion or hate but with facts and knowledge about what the causes of CSE are and in the knowledge that we are part of the solution.
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