Child Sexual Exploitation, ‘Asian Grooming Gangs’ and the Left

by an anonymous social worker

12 June 2019

Credit: Fields of Light Photography

On 15 March, 49 people were killed by a gunman in Christchurch, New Zealand, whilst attending mosque. The gunman had “for Rotherham” written on his ammunition. The next day, Sammy Woodhouse, a young woman who was raped by Arshid Hussain, one of the men convicted in the Rotherham child sexual exploitation case, spoke out to condemn the attack, stating that it was “not done in our name.”

The Christchurch attacker referenced a longstanding far-right obsession with the idea that Muslim men are systematically raping and abusing women and girls in the UK. From the British National party’s 2006 campaign against ‘Muslim paedophiles’ to the English Defence League’s references to an “ongoing rape jihad” and the Democratic Football Lads Alliance’s march against ‘rape gangs and groomers’, right-wing groups are trying to uphold a racist old trope which describes violent and disruptive elements entering the country from abroad, specifically through the reductionist conflation of child sexual exploitation and other forms of gender-based and sexual violence in the UK with the Asian community.

This conflation is based on a false assumption about who commits sexual offences against children in the UK and works only by focusing on one form of child abuse: namely, group-based child sexual exploitation characterised, as group offending often is, by shared locations or jobs and access to children. The fact that the majority of men guilty of committing sexual offences in Westminster or the BBC are white speaks to the context in which they have accessed and abused children, as is the case with the British Asian men convicted in Rotherham, Huddersfield and other working-class towns where group-based sexual exploitation has been identified around the night economy. Combined with a warped assumption about what constitute ‘British values’ in a country where one in three schoolgirls report being sexually harassed in public whilst wearing their school uniform, it is nonetheless a conflation that fuels nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiment and indeed policy.

It is not only right-wing extremists who have fuelled the racialisation and radicalisation of the issue. In December 2017, Quilliam published the report ‘Group based child sexual exploitation: dissecting grooming gangs’, which claimed 84% of grooming gang offenders are Asian (of predominantly Pakistani or Muslim heritage). A now-notorious “case study in bad science”, among other flaws the report drew on just 58 cases of group-based child sexual exploitation (CSE) between 2005 and 2017 – sadly a very small sample given the scale of the issue. The identification and reporting of these crimes is both informed by and deployed in support of dominant narratives about migration, foreignness and morality in the UK across the spectrum of parliamentary politics; in October 2018, the home secretary, Sajid Javid, upheld such narratives by tweeting about “sick Asian paedophiles” in reference to the conviction of a Huddersfield grooming ring the same month.

I am a professional practitioner and academic who has worked with victims and survivors of child sexual exploitation. My work is dedicated to preventing the abuse of young people and to influencing the systemic changes that are required to ensure services can respond when CSE happens. It is my hope that the left can gain some clarity on the issue, see through the politicisation of the very serious matter of child sexual exploitation, and turn its focus toward the vast knowledge base and responses that victims, survivors, academics, practitioners and community groups have been developing over the past decade. If there’s one thing we on the left can do to counter the hijacking of this issue by the far-right, it is to approach it with compassion and integrity; by listening to the actual experts, not Tommy Robison or the media, but to the young people and families affected and those who have dedicated their lives to working to stop this form of abuse.

Contextualising ‘Asian grooming gangs’.

That the sexual exploitation of young girls by groups of men of south Asian heritage has occurred in the UK is a fact. It is not racist to acknowledge this fact. It is, however, racist to argue these men committed such horrendous offences due solely or primarily to their race or religion. It is also racist to use these cases to peddle hatred against all Muslims (including women, girls and young children), to defame an entire religion, to justify violence toward any person with brown skin, and to justify anti-immigration policies and fuel the ‘hostile environment’.

‘Grooming gangs’ is not a legal term or category, and there are many other models of sexual exploitation. The very naming of this model of grooming as ‘gang’-based is racialised – when Jimmy Savile and co. sexually abused hundreds of young girls throughout their careers in the BBC, were they a ‘gang’? The use of gang terminology is racialised and it is being applied in these cases for that very reason.

A more useful way of understanding the phenomenon of local and context-contingent modes of exploitation is that child sexual abuse occurs when an individual propensity to abuse – which, as we have seen, is rife throughout all areas of the UK across all cultures, religions and contexts – interacts with an opportunity for abuse to occur. Or, alternatively, when the presence of perpetrator risk interacts with young people’s vulnerability (either on an individual basis or determined by context) and inadequate protective structures to keep them safe.

Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor who led the Rochdale group-based child sexual exploitation case in 2012, usefully highlighted that the Rochdale offenders’ employment in the night economy gave them access to unsupervised young people and the resources to groom them (food, free lifts, alcohol, etc.), in much the same way that the BBC, sports clubs and the church have presented opportunities for other men to abuse. At the same time, many young people find themselves in contexts where they are not protected – frequently working-class communities that are devoid of investment, have a poor local youth offer and high levels of exclusion from school, and where safeguarding services are not well-equipped to respond, all of which combine with the plague of widespread cultures of disbelief toward adolescents. Recognising the importance of opportunity and context in sexual offending and other offences against young people, place-based and contextual approaches to safeguarding young people from sexual abuse and exploitation are now gaining a rapid evidence-base and investment in the UK.

This particular model of grooming – by men working in the night-time economy – is one experience of child sexual exploitation. To understand the model and combat it, we have to consider its place in the much broader, more diverse and insidious picture of child sexual exploitation. To provide some context, regardless of the race of child sex offenders (the overwhelming majority of whom are white men), it is estimated that only one in eight cases of child sexual abuse is ever identified by authorities, and in 2016 the Council on Social Work Education reported that 75% of survivors had never told anyone about their abuse. As such, even if it were helpful to draw conclusions on the race of offenders at a national scale, it is impossible to do so. The conflation of CSE with ‘Asian grooming gangs’ is racist, but it is also a dangerous red herring that skews the issue, drains attention and resources away from where they are needed, and completely undermines the scale and impact of CSE and young people’s experiences of it.

What exactly is child sexual exploitation?

Child sexual exploitation is a distinct form of child abuse characterised by exchange. The victim’s ‘gain’ in this exchange can be tangible, such as money or alcohol, or intangible, such as affection or social status. Typically, the perpetrator may stand to gain financially or socially beyond sexual gratification.

CSE has experienced significant policy, criminal justice and child welfare service transformations in the past decade. Once understood and charged as ‘child prostitution offences’ (with now-obvious detrimental consequences for young women who were seen to be complicit in the offence), the phenomenon is now understood as ‘child sexual exploitation’, and whilst there is no specific offence for CSE, it is convicted under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 for offences ranging from sex with a child to trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation. The Department for Education definition reads:

Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator. The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual. Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology.

The distinction of child sexual exploitation from other forms of child abuse means it requires a unique response. Practice and experience tells us the definition is routinely applied to cases involving adolescents where the abuse has happened outside of the home (in contrast to the majority of child sexual abuse which happens in the home, perpetrated by adults that children are proximal to). It is therefore crucial to understand adolescence, exchange, consent and the context in which CSE occurs to ensure it is properly identified, prevented and responded to.

CSE typically involves adolescents from a range of backgrounds, one in three of whom are boys. Young people in the care system, those who are frequently missing from home and those who are excluded from school are all over-represented. These circumstances are understood as contextual vulnerabilities that provide opportunities for offenders to exploit young people. BME young people are over-represented as perpetrators of exploitation and under-represented as victims, despite some reports estimating one in five victims are BME. However, we need to understand this figure in the context of a racist criminal justice system that acts as a barrier to reporting, combined with the fact that child sexual abuse in general is staggeringly underreported. This aspect of how CSE is reported is crucial to identifying young people who are at risk, not least because whitewashing the issue of victimisation blindsides services to a huge number of young people.

The complexities of adolescence.

There is an emerging body of work on adolescent harm which is useful for understanding CSE. It points to global characteristics of adolescence that are sometimes labelled a ‘nightmare’ for services, and a ‘dream’ for exploiters. These include tendencies such as that, developmentally, adolescents are generally more likely to be motivated by thrills, risk-taking, short-term goals and the desire for independence.

Those who want to exploit young people tend to exploit these very characteristics, such as by offering alcohol or drugs, taking young people to places they want to go (from which they may usually prohibited), and by isolating young people from their families and friends who ‘treat them like children’. Social services, on the other hand, can be rigid, inconsistent, based on consequential thinking and risk management, and ill-equipped to engage adolescents.

It is important to understand that adolescents often make (constrained) choices; they sometimes gain materially from abusive situations, or even groom other young people into the abuse, and they often do not name their experience as abusive. This makes CSE very difficult to identify, and it is one of a number of reasons that professionals have struggled historically and currently to understand CSE as a form of child abuse. Put simply, the fact that a material exchange may take place as a part of the sexual exploitation of a young person frequently blindsides professionals to the fact that the young person is being abused – when in fact it is a core mechanism of the abusive relationship. In Rochdale, a limited understanding of the nature of adolescence as a factor of CSE – and the sometimes messy, non-linear picture this paints – led social workers, police and prosecutors to misidentify abuse as ‘risk-taking behaviour’ and a ‘lifestyle choice’ and to conclude that young people were complicit in their abuse and/or were not ‘credible witnesses’.

It is therefore crucial that we understand what CSE is, what grooming is, why adolescents are targeted, and how it plays out in their lives. It is unhelpful to reduce CSE to the secretive abuse of passive children by predatory paedophiles. The reality is far more complicated, which is why – amongst other reasons such as long-standing institutional bias against teenagers, particularly teenage girls, class bias and a severe lack of public sector resources – we (adults/professionals) routinely fail to identify and respond to it. As Nazir Afzal usefully pointed out at a ground-breaking conference in April, whilst victims of the Rochdale grooming ring were deemed not to be credible witnesses due to the ‘chaos’ of their life circumstances and the nature of their involvement in the abuse, it is exactly this ‘chaotic’ picture that led to their exploitation in the first place.

Left solidarity with victims of CSE.

Most readers will never have the responsibility of identifying or safeguarding a young person from CSE or prosecuting an offender. So why is it important to understand what CSE is and how it plays out in the lives of young people?

Ignorance and stereotypes (about both victims and perpetrators) have led to a longstanding inability of adults to keep young people safe from sexual exploitation. Ignorance continues to lead to the under-identification of victims, to cultures of disbelief that prevent young people from disclosing, and to the very social attitudes and structures that create the kinds of unsafe, misogynistic, hyper-masculine, classist and racist contexts that facilitate both the propensity and opportunities for abuse.

Children and young people are left to navigate spaces that are increasingly divisive and hostile, that are devoid of safe spaces provided by the state due to cuts in early intervention and youth services, and where austerity routinely undermines families’ abilities to safeguard their own children. The reduction of vital child welfare services means that some children’s service departments can provide only the most basic infrastructure, with ‘complex’ and ‘hard to identify’ young people the first to fall through the net. Meanwhile we are dealing with decades of social policy that continues to produce agendas that demonise and marginalise teenagers, which can be seen in recent responses to knife crime and serious youth violence that propose harsher sentencing for first offences and the de-regulation of stop and search, or the revival of New Labour’s ‘Asbo’ policies in the form of Manchester’s consultation on ‘public space protection orders’.

Meanwhile, the far right makes political hay from young people’s suffering, with the left sometimes accused of lacking a convincing response. At the end of one of the few articles about left responses to ‘child grooming’, published on the Plan C website, a comment reads: “The far right use this issue to promote their agenda and now feminists are doing the same. Both disgusting and shame on both your houses.” Certainly it is abhorrent to capitalise on child sexual exploitation, in an uninformed way, to push a political agenda. This is precisely what Ukip did with the appointment of Tommy Robinson as an advisor on the matter; it barely needs stating here but there might not be a more ill-informed and fundamentally inappropriate man to undertake such a task. But as adults who are concerned about and responsible for ensuring the safety of all young people and children, we nonetheless have a responsibility to educate ourselves about the issues that affect them to do what we can to prevent sexual exploitation from happening to others. Put simply, ignorance and silence kills. In that spirit, here are three steps towards left solidarity with victims of CSE:

1. Educating ourselves and others. The racialisation and pathologising of child grooming as a consequence of “sick Asian paedophiles” contributes to the very ignorant practices that allow many incidents of child sexual exploitation to go unnoticed. Furthermore, the perpetuation of discourses and practices that sideline young people’s and survivors’ experiences reproduces the controlling and gas-lighting behaviour that frequently characterises their abuse.

2. Strategy and action. Trust and learn from individuals and organisations who have professional and/or lived experience of CSE. Many of the factors that contribute to the contexts in which child exploitation can occur are routine leftist issues: patriarchal violence, poverty, austerity, public services cuts, etc. Solidarity doesn’t mean mass entryism into survivor or professional spaces but perhaps getting involved in local campaigns to defend public services and youth provision and consideration of how the needs and views of young people can be integrated into your current campaign and activism work. And not just those young people who represent the Labour youth vote, or are active on university campuses, but the very young people that years of austerity have pushed to the margins.

3. Reclaiming the narrative. Through educating ourselves and taking the strategic lead from those who have experience in this area we can use our collective power to reclaim the narrative, with credibility and integrity, from those who are weaponising the abuse of young people merely to peddle racist agendas.

The author is a social work practitioner, academic and activist specialising in adolescent exploitation. Photo credit: Fields of Light Photography.

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