The media focus on high profile cases of child sexual exploitation has often done little to illuminate the reality of child abuse in Britain today, instead focusing on a perceived “Muslim cultural problem”. Bea Kay untangles the facts from the scaremongering so we can better understand the situation.
The exposure of high profile child abuse cases over the last few years has been horrifying. Hundreds of children and young people have been harmed, often inside institutions that are supposed to protect them. And the impact on the victims has been devastating, leaving lasting trauma and exposing the under-resourcing of support services in local authorities, the NHS and the voluntary sector.
However, much of the information about these cases and child abuse in general has come from sensationalised reporting in the mass media, with particular emphasis on the racial profile of the perpetrators of child sexual exploitation.
Such coverage has commonly given the impression that a very high proportion of abusers are Asian and/or Muslim, that their victims are white females and that it is the fear of being accused of racism that has prevented agencies from investigating these cases properly. It is suggested that the Asian community has a “cultural” problem with its sexist attitude towards white girls and that the Asian community must take responsibility for these crimes.
There are many examples of this type of reporting. In December 2017 the Sunday Times published an article head-lined “Asians make up 80 percent of child groomers”, giving the impression that Asian men are the perpetrators in the vast majority of all child abuse. Only after a complaint was it compelled to publish a correction: “We would like to make clear that the report referred to in this article did not find that 80 percent of all child groomers were Asian, as stated in the article’s headline and opening line.”
In August 2017 The Sun carried an article by Rotherham Labour MP Sarah Champion, headlined: “British Pakistani men ARE raping and exploiting white girls…and it’s time we faced up to it”.
What I hope to do in this article is to argue that these views are factually incorrect and dangerous. The stereotypes of Asian perpetrators and white victims make it harder for agencies to identify abuse and safeguard children and young people.
No simple link
The wider atmosphere of growing anti-Muslim racism is the context in which the “Muslim grooming gangs” narrative has been built. The far right has been using this narrative to build. Former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson has campaigned over the issue and last November was appointed as an adviser to Ukip’s leader Gerard Batten on “child grooming”.
A recent article in the Guardian reported that even officers from the government’s fundamentally Islamophobic Prevent programme have raised concerns about this: “Rightwing groups including Ukip are attempting to ‘infiltrate’ child protection charities to further an anti-Islam agenda… Officers from Prevent said far-right figures were using voluntary groups to stir up tension in towns with historical problems of child sexual exploitation.”
Rather than allowing the waters to be muddied by racist assumptions, it is crucial that child abuse and sexual exploitation are taken seriously and understood properly so that the necessary action can be taken to help vulnerable young people.
One of the difficulties with the reporting of child abuse is that there has been limited research into its true extent. Many agencies, including NSPCC research with adult survivors, suggest that referrals amount to only 20 to 25 percent of the abuse that takes place.
In particular we know very little about child sexual exploitation (CSE), the area of child abuse that the press has mainly focussed on. However, there have been a number of inquiries into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham that provide some insights.
Professor Alexis Jay in her Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997-2003, published in 2014, stated: “Our conservative estimate is that there were more than 1,400 victims in the period covered by the inquiry, and an unknown number who were at risk of being exploited.”
Even with limited conviction data, Jay was able to confidently report “there is no evidence that any ethnic group is more likely to commit this abuse” and “as has been stated many times before, there is no simple link between race and child sexual exploitation, and across the UK the greatest numbers of perpetrators of CSE are white men.”
Jayne Senior, who managed Risky Business, one of the voluntary community youth services in Rotherham at the time, in her book Broken and Betrayed, explains that she “was angry not only at the abusers, but the system. The system was stacked against victims”.
Senior describes years of police failings and corruption, particularly relating to drug seizures, dealing and a coercive relationship with the victims of abuse. Evidence that was submitted to the police was not acted on, there was an attitude that working class girls were “promiscuous”, had given “consent” to the abuse, were not trustworthy and brought the abuse on themselves. Senior points out that black, Asian and white male and female young people were also victims — an important point that was rarely reported.
A review of South Yorkshire Police’s handling of child sexual exploitation cases between 1997 and 2016, published by professor John Drew, found serious failings, little evidence that they did not investigate suspected Asian abusers because of a fear of being accused of racism, and that the recording of the ethnicity of suspected perpetrators and victims was skewed towards suspects from ethnic minorities.
The statistics from Rotherham at the time suggested that the majority but not all of the alleged perpetrators were Asian men but not necessarily Muslim. Victims included young men as well as young women, many victims were treated as criminals by the police and a minority of the victims were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
Drew also noted that the improved recording of perpetrators in the last four years by South Yorkshire Police identified that 65 percent were white and North European, 2.4 percent were white and South European and 19 percent were Asian.
It is also clear that when members of the Muslim community approached agencies such as the police to work with them, this didn’t happen. The quality of police data on the gender and ethnicity of alleged perpetrators and victims was uneven and services did not respond consistently to the cultural needs of minority ethnic communities.
Drew’s report concluded that there is a major problem with the investigation, recording and reporting by the police, skewed towards Asian perpetrators and white victims, and that the key reasons for the lack of police action were too narrow a definition of child sexual exploitation, a top down culture and negative attitudes to young people.
Another area of confusion is the “identification” of two different types of child sexual exploitation, one involving “lone” and the other “group or gang” perpetrators. Media reports have focussed on conviction rates for “group” exploitation, which suggest that Asian perpetrators make up a much higher proportion than any other ethnic minority and in some cases suggest that the figure is higher than for white males.
The research by the Children’s Commissioner for England, published in 2012, is much clearer. It explains that 80 percent of convicted “lone” perpetrators are white males, whereas “group” perpetrator convictions are 27 percent Asian and 36 percent white. However, “group” exploitation makes up no more than a third of the convictions overall, so to place a special emphasis on this type of abuse distorts the true overall picture.
What is also missing from this discussion is research into the access to children and young people by perpetrators. This point has been well made by Nazir Afzal, the Crown Prosecution Service’s former lead on child sexual abuse and the prosecutor most responsible for bringing down grooming gangs. He points out that many of the most publicised cases of “group” exploitation have centred on the night time economy, such as taxi firms and takeaways, where the employment of black and Asian workers is higher, and which provides easy access to often vulnerable young people and easy grooming opportunities.
The Children’s Commissioner report also identifies that child sexual exploitation victims are from all ethnic groups, that white men of varying ages are the largest group of perpetrators and that the public and media attention on high profile cases, usually Asian men abusing white girls, skews how the police and others view this abuse.
Furthermore the research supports the view that data on Asian, black and Kurdish men is gathered more carefully, so figures will overestimate their role in this abuse, that black and Asian victims tend to be ignored by statutory agencies and their families are less confident to report abuse due to previous experiences of the police.
This research concludes that the failure of agencies to recognise this puts children at further risk because they do not get adequate support and protection and their cases are not adequately investigated.
In addressing the media assertion that wider cultural issues contribute to this abuse, we know that no culture is immune from abuse and that sexist attitudes unfortunately still pervade the globe. With a man such as Donald Trump still holding the top political office, and with the #MeToo movement revealing the extent of sexual harassment and abuse in industries and institutions from Hollywood downwards, it is hardly credible to suggest that only Muslims have a “cultural problem” with sexual abuse. But the only community being asked to police itself is the Muslim community.
According to the NSPCC 90 percent of all child abuse occurs inside the family or wider family and friends network. The family is a hugely contradictory place — usually attempting to provide the care and nourishment young people need, but sometimes becoming the site of abuse, neglect and violence. And it can be precisely when families — and the services that should exist to back them up — fail that young people become vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
In order to protect children and young people in our society we need health, education and social care services to be resourced to a level that allows support to be given where needed. We must fight against cuts to benefits and for job security and wages that will allow parents to provide security for themselves and their children. And we have to be able to understand the dynamics of sexism and contempt for working class kids that underlie the failures of the police and the services that should protect young people.
Far too many young people’s lives have been blighted by abuse, with long term consequences for their physical and mental health. However, to blame one ethnic group is not just factually flawed, but plays into the narrative of Islamophobia, which leads to its own forms of violence and harassment — and does nothing to help the survivors of abuse who have been so dreadfully failed.