A scandal is roiling Britain. The underlying facts speak to hideous violence and sexual exploitation perpetrated upon mostly working-class girls, some as young as eleven-years old. It is also a story of official indifference, malign neglect, and societal denial. More than anything else, the identity of the perpetrators has been offered by the media, many officials, and even some social workers as an explanation for the villainy. Normally the stuff of crime pages, the story, often sensationalized with prurient detail, has made the headlines throughout the English-speaking world.
A coherent narrative is emerging: Pakistani males, driven by a misogynistic culture, have been systematically victimizing English girls; they have escaped prosecution for so long because English authorities were too politically correct to intervene. More ambitious commentators make the case that this scandal should be owned by the left given its insistence on political correctness. For some, it is the left’s version of the Catholic Church scandal. Never resisting the urge to inflame, the English right is triumphant: “Men of Pakistani heritage treated white girls like toilet paper…” Continuing, after citing a poll in which 28% of Britons agreed that Britain would be better off with fewer Muslims, a Telegraph writer declares that this may be “the final nail in the coffin of multiculturalism.”
‘Exploitation on an Industrial Scale’
Solidarity with the thousands of girls, many now young women, who struggle to recover from years of sexualized violence demands a different set of eyes than those of the opportunistic right. The first challenge is to grasp the enormous scale of the injustice. According to an official report, the Jay Report, at least 1,200 girls have been victimized by a network of perpetrators over the sixteen years from 1997 through 2013. The numbers are especially startling when one considers that the community involved, Rotherham in the north of England, is home to just about 260,000 people. A terse summary of crimes against the children opens the report:
They were raped by multiple perpetrators, trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England, abducted, beaten, and intimidated. There were examples of children who had been doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, threatened with guns, made to witness brutally violent rapes and threatened they would be next if they told anyone. Girls as young as 11 were raped by large numbers of male perpetrators.
It is most disconcerting to consider the relative impunity that the perpetrators must have felt. They groomed their sometimes pre-pubescent victims - evidently feeling secure enough to set up their crimes over months, flagrantly cultivating the teens with gifts, often flaunting their “relationships” in public, and then continuing their exploitation over years as a kind of open secret within their social networks. Given the horrendous nature of the crimes, their enormous scale and long duration, the official inaction becomes even more startling.
Ominously, the report, published at the end of August, notes that this “abuse is not confined to the past but continues to this day.” Even for those who eventually eluded the perpetrators, “Sexual exploitation is like a circle that you can never escape from,” in the words of one of the survivors quoted in the report (pp.55-6).
Foreign Perpetrators, British Victims
If the mainstream media has spun events into a story about race and religion, the full report provides a damning but much more nuanced account. Other inferences may also be drawn from the story, most importantly perhaps, is the obvious problem of capitalism as a failed system in the country of its origins.
But what are we to make of the most explosive dimension of the story – the national and religious origins of the perpetrators? Unlike most media accounts, the report is extremely careful in its discussion of race. The first point to observe is that the simple Pakistani perpetrator/white victim picture is subverted by the observation that “Pakistani landlords had befriended Pakistani women and girls on their own for purposes of sex, then passed on their name to other men who had then contacted them for sex” (p.94). Further reporting indicates that insufficient outreach has been done to establish the degree to which Pakistani women in Rotherham have been impacted. But the report also cites a national study by the UK Muslim Women’s Network revealing the great scope of the abuse to which many Pakistani women have been subjected. One therefore has to de-racialize the picture of the victims to include Pakistanis and Muslims.
A similar complexity has to be injected into any account of the oppressors. As the report’s author stressed, “there is no simple link between race and child sexual exploitation [CSE], and across the UK the greatest numbers of perpetrators of CSE are white men.” Although the media has built its case on the imputed Pakistanis males’ devaluation of white girls, the report suggests that this is not a uniquely Pakistani evil. Indeed, the police often treated the survivor’s accounts as lacking in credibility or worse, in some cases, they assumed that girls under 16 years old were capable of consenting the various acts perpetrated upon them. In one case cited, a policeman stated his belief that a 12 year-old child’s abuse was “100% consensual in every incident[!]” (p.38). For both the perpetrators and the police, these girls were throwaway people.
This was not an aberrant attitude on the part of officialdom. The report goes on to note that the council culture “was overall ‘macho’ and sexist.” It recognizes that the existence of this culture “is likely to have impeded the Council from providing an effective, corporate response to such a highly sensitive social problem as child sexual exploitation” (p.115). If anything, then, rather than a national or religious story, what we have here is a multicultural misogyny operating within both networks of young men and the local government and police.
When Government Gets It Right…
The right-wing narrative about government also falls apart on closer scrutiny. What we learn from the report is that dedicated youth workers, funded by the local government, early on recognized the problem, reached out to the abused girls, built trust, and attempted to find solutions by taking the cases to the police and social service agencies… only to be frustrated. This commendable project seldom enters the media narrative; left-wing outlets like Morningstar are praiseworthy exceptions.
Employed by this provocatively named project, Risky Business, the youth workers are generally praised in the report. Among the Jay Report’s recommendations is that local authorities, “make every effort to restore open access and outreach work with children affected by [child sexual exploitation] to the level previously provided by Risky Business” (p.117). Instead of validating and expanding the Risky Business model however, government merged the project into a larger state bureaucracy where the report’s author fears that, “it is doubtful whether its original ethos and style of working can survive” (p.81). Ironically, where the state gets it right, it seems to have to correct itself!
Overworked, Understaffed, Overstretched
But there is a larger problem. The report, authored by a high-ranking social worker reveals that services in Rotherham were “overwhelmed by the numbers involved”; summarizing further she writes that, “the children’s social care service was acutely understaffed and over stretched, struggling to cope with demand.” She also observes that the “wide range of work undertaken by locality social workers undermined their capacity to safeguard vulnerable children…” (p.19). This will also impact any future work, “Many of the current sexual exploitation cases are complex and time consuming… Preventive work with children after incidents of exploitation is being squeezed.” Despite public indignation, “even today, there is little, if any, post-abuse counselling and support for victims. This is a major gap, given the long-term damage caused by sexual exploitation” (p.45). The report observes that “at the present time there is no pro-active service that is accessible and has the capacity to reach out to children who are being exploited but are not yet in contact with services.” (p.47) No wonder then that the British Association of Social Workers statement on Rotherham concludes with the observation that, “Local authorities are being systematically starved of resources and [the] planned privatization of resources makes it hard to see how the society wide nature of this exploitation can be tackled...” For any real concern for the victims’ hard journeys and emotional work of recovery to be felt, the national and local state will have to radically reverse direction and provide the resources to expand social services.
The austerity-capitalism context rarely makes it into the conversation. It clearly should. Social workers, addressing the immediate problems within their remit, may be temporarily excused for averting their attention from this structuring fact that forces painful tradeoffs. The report, for example, chides a social worker who stated that “agencies need to retain a sense of proportionality with regard to child sexual exploitation, as it only actually accounts for 2.3% of the Council’s safeguarding work… Although it is a very important issue, child neglect is a much more significant problem” (p.32). So there you have it: the dilemma is to determine how much effort should go into dealing with the broader problem of child neglect versus the acute matter of child sexual exploitation. Surely the demand should be for sufficient resources to address both.
In the report’s profile of the survivors, we learn that a fifth of them come from homes dealing with addiction, a third from families with mental health issues, and nearly half from households experiencing domestic violence (p.32). Given this background, it is surely a mistake to counterpose neglect and sexual exploitation. Moreover, given the scale of the immediate problem and the challenges facing survivors’ families, surely the focus needs to shift to the socio-economic system rent as it is with regional and social inequalities of wealth.
Another aspect of the report to which one should draw attention, is that the authorities chose to engage the Muslim community through official channels of elected or religious leaders. The report recommends that they extend this engagement to local Muslim and Pakistani women’s organizations. Of course, this would be a commendable course of action but this task is made more difficult by the political climate that generates suspicion, defensiveness and denunciations.
Despite the tiny number of individuals responsible and evidence that their sexual exploitation activities were part of a broader pattern of criminality on their part, the right has taken the opportunity to condemn an entire culture. This is interesting because the right, eschewing any social explanations, normally demands individual responsibility for crimes. Now, nothing could satisfy them more than a “my culture made me do it” defense!
Columnist and former Labour MP, Denis MacShane, who actually represented Rotherham in Parliament, has fueled the right-wing narrative about political correctness in recent posts. He confesses that “as a Guardian reader, and liberal leftie,” he had not asked the Muslim community hard questions about what was going on in Rotherham. Even if this is true, he clearly did not engage the victims’ families—also his constituents—either! Nonetheless, his is a strange confession given that his past very public demand that British Muslims choose between “the British way” and “the way of the terrorists” evidences no such reticence. Not recognizing that his constructed options are neither palatable nor relevant to British Muslims, he recently reiterated this challenge in the Huffington Post and then wondered why people were outraged!
Through all of this, another irony makes its presence sharply felt. Although the right claims that the religion and ethnicity of the perpetrators gave them some immunity from police and prosecution, one has to recognize that Muslims living in Britain are probably among the most closely watched communities. Civil liberties activists complain of surveillance extending beyond anything that the McCarthy era produced in the US and that it is designed to assess the states of mind and attitudes of their targets.
As part of the British government’s “counter-terror” strategy, traffic cameras are tracking licence plate numbers in Muslim communities, mental health programs are established or coopted to collect data, and local community groups are profiled. All of this is outlined in a recent study entitled, “The PREVENT Strategy: a cradle-to-grave police state.” In addition, Muslim organizations furthering the ends of the PREVENT Strategy are funded by the state. Ironically, then, a surfeit of tools would have been available to recognize and prevent the abuse of the Rotherham children had the community’s well being been the priority.
It’s About Class and Gender
But it was not. Diane Abbot, a black Member of Pariliament and former shadow minister for health, helps us understand why when she writes that, “the working class communities of the deindustrialized North have been left behind and these girls were on the far edge of the marginalized.” Abbot’s observation may also help explain why the British government could ratify the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (unlike the US) in 1991, but do so with reservations pertaining to child poverty and inequality (yielding these reservations only in 2008). So it is, then, that the British state can organize itself further imperial objectives, often at the cost of domestic liberties, but do little to protect its most vulnerable citizens.
Suren Moodliar is a coordinator of Massachusetts Global Action and encuentro5 in Boston. He may be contacted at suren