For over sixteen years, vulnerable children as young as eleven were targeted, groomed and exploited by groups of adult men in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. The full extent of this abuse was detailed in an independent report released in August. Girls had been gang raped, threatened with guns, and forced to watch violent rapes. Children were trafficked to different towns and raped by multiple attackers. Though 5 men were convicted in 2010, the majority of children targeted by these abusers were regarded with contempt by the police. One girl told the author of the report that gang rape was considered just a part of growing up in the area.
Some members of staff at Rotherham council collated evidence of children at risk of the abuse, but were not supported by their managers. Those at senior levels of the police and social care did not believe the claims, suggesting they were exaggerated. The publication of the report saw Roger Stone, the leader of Rotherham Council, resign, telling the BBC: "I believe it is only right that as leader I take responsibility for the historic failings described so clearly."
After the sex abuse scandal in Rotherham hit the headlines last year, the nation was left in collective, shock at how the abuse of so many young women could have continued for so long without intervention from authorities. This lead Ann Coffey MP to undertake an independent inquiry, commissioned by Manchester’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Tony Lloyd. She spoke to a number of young women and men in greater Manchester, aiming to reveal some of the causes that result in child sexual exploitation.
Coffey’s report highlights that young victims of sexual violence who tried to report their abuse to the police felt that they were not take seriously by authorities. This is where the myth of the perfect victim comes into play. It’s a myth riddled with class and race based assumptions of who is undeserving, and who is asking for it. Who is and isn’t taken seriously ties in with who is and isn’t deemed socially worthless. Case studies from Coffey’s enquiry chronicle the stories of girls who, through no fault of their own, were born addicted to heroin, or spent childhoods in and out of foster care, from troubled and inconsistent backgrounds.
Despite their age, this classist discrimination is all too clear to girls on the receiving end of it. One respondent said: “The police have a stereotype of what we are, and we know that so we do not go to them for help. We think what’s the point? Young people do not call the police because we know how they look down at us. We have to just focus on getting away from the guys.”
The reporting of Rotherham focused relentlessly on the race of the perpetrators, and the narrative soon become a spectre of Asian men defiling young white women. What is undeniable is that western beauty ideals focus solely on whiteness and youth. White female flesh is commoditised and objectified in the public eye so often, in a way that other races are not. Those white centric beauty ideals solidify the idea that certain types of female flesh are publicly available.
In 2011, Jack Straw MP took on the language of the abuser when he described young white girls as ‘easy meat’. This is paired with an equally objectifying modesty narrative around the hijab. This is a manifestation of the virgin/whore dichotomy that spans across cultures.
The girls Coffey spoke to recounted incidents of being stopped on the street by adult men whilst wearing school uniform or P.E kits. “The men do not care how old you are”, said one. “There is a group of men who hang around outside a shop. When we go past in school uniform they say things and make us feel horrible. One man tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘How old are you?’ I said fifteen and he grabbed my arm and said come into the shop. He was about forty. I said do not come near me, get off me, you are old enough to be my dad. This is on a main road. They just hang around and they are disgusting and make you feel horrible. One said I cannot wait for summer to see what you are going to wear. They make you feel so uncomfortable. It makes you feel that all boys want one thing. When men approach us I think are all men like that? The majority of men I have come across are out to hurt women from what I have seen.”
This kind of grooming is a new social norm, writes Coffey. And, as well as establishing that the police are too lax to respond and perpetrators act with near impunity, she also lays blame at a hypersexualised new culture that children and teenagers are adapting to.
“This social norm”, she says, “has perhaps been fuelled by the increased sexualisation of children and young people, involving an explosion of explicit music videos and the normalisation of quasi-pornographic images. Sexting, selfies, Instagram and the like have given rise to new social norms in changed expectations of sexual entitlement, and with it a confused understanding of what constitutes consent.
“I think we have lost the sense of what a child is. Sexual predators out there are having their quite unacceptable views confirmed through messages in the wider media: that children are just sexualised young adults.”
But sexual predators - grown adults who choose to prey on children, have existed for a lot longer than selfies, Instagram or Snapchat. In the 1960s, Jimmy Saville used his fame to assault and abuse vulnerable children and adults. Similarly, Rolf Harris is currently languishing in prison over a series of indecent assaults against children and teenagers, including his own daughter’s friend.
The adults who chose to prey on children do so without being emboldened by social networks. Our anxieties should be directed not at children and teenagers imitating their peers - but at the adults who use any excuse to violate boundaries and exploit children. The internet might be moving faster than parents are comfortable with, but projecting adult sexual values on to children doesn’t protect them from exploitation, or empower them to challenge it.
Social norms haven’t changed. This is just an old phenomenon with new technologies. The script of men sexually intimidating young women seems to be as old as time. No institution or organisation is immune from this, and passively opposing it does not solve the problem. Abuse, assault and coercion are active problems that need active solutions.
Whilst we continue to live in a world where education around issues of consent is still not compulsory, grown men will use their positions of power to seek to coerce, bully and pressure young women into having sex with them. What can be changed, though, is how we react to the testimonies of victims. Environments were abusers thrive are environments in which they are not faced with the consequences of their actions.
Any environment in which adult men can sexually harass, assault and rape teenage girls with impunity is an environment that is actively hostile to women's comfort and women's safety. Yet we hear these stories, from Jimmy Saville, to Rotherham, again and again. Until this behaviour is expunged, it will be the norm, absolved with a shrug of the shoulder and a 'boys will be boys' mentality. Our job is to change that culture.
Read more articles in 50.50's series on 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence 2014