Sexual exploitation in street gangs: protecting girls or changing boys?

In its recent report on sexual exploitation in street gangs, the Office of the Children's Commissioner for England is eloquent on the need for better protection of girls. It lacks any policy recommendation for a conscious remodelling of young masculinity.

Cynthia Cockburn Ann Oakley
9 December 2013

Two weeks ago, on the morning of November 26, many of the national dailies in the UK featured articles expressing dismay at the breaking news of widespread sexual violence in which not only are the victims children, but so are the perpetrators. 'Children as young as 12 are committing sex abuse on other children', reported The IndependentThe Daily Telegraph warned of 'chilling' levels of child-on-child rape. The Guardian wrote of youth sexual violence 'as bad as in war zones'. The Daily Mail and The Sun were more explicit. 'The girls who trade their body for favours' was a headline in the former, and in the latter 'Punished by rape: gangs of boys in vile "revenge" on girls aged just 11'.

These alarming headlines were prompted by the release the day before of the sixth and final report of a major Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups  by the Office of the Children's Commissioner for England. The study had included evidence from 180 diverse agencies, all Local Safeguarding Children Boards  (146), and every police force in the country (39). It involved site visits, interviews, workshops and commissioned research. The focus of the inquiry was 'gangs', defined as 'street-based, social groups of children and young people and, not infrequently, young adults who see themselves, and are seen by others, as affiliates of a discrete, named group who (1) engage in a range of criminal activity and violence; (2) identify or lay claim to territory; (3) have some form of identifying structural feature; and (4) are in conflict with similar groups'.

Sue Berelowitz, Deputy Children's Commissioner, in her Foreword to the report wrote, 'We have found shocking and profoundly distressing evidence of sexual assault, including rape, being carried out by young people against other children and young people'. Among the figures  produced in the course of the study were: 323 youth gangs known to be active in England, 2,409 children and young people confirmed as being victims of child sexual exploitation, with a further 16,500 at high risk of it.

But who exactly are these 'children and young people' that are giving and receiving such appalling treatment? You may have noticed that the above two paragraphs speak in gender neutral terms. They are characteristic of the Children's Commission report in avoiding the M and F words, and leaving you guessing as to the gender identity of the abusers and abused. The Mail and The Sun lack this inhibition and their headlines, though unpleasantly sensational, have the merit of being unambiguous. The reality is that almost all the victims are girls; all but a very few of the perpetrators are boys and young men.

Like many government reports these days, the slant of this inquiry on child sexual abuse in gangs is towards the uncovering of 'system failures': children and young people are 'slipping through the net' of measures put in place by authorities. This emphasis on 'protection' relegates 'prevention' to second place in the report's policy recommendations. When prevention is addressed at all, it tends to be in terms of 'how to prevent system failures', not 'how to prevent boys and young men behaving as they do'. This focus is about as useful as a pacifism that delivers aid to displaced victims of war but fails to uncover the causes of war and strive to eradicate them.

The alarm fostered by the Children's Commissioner's report and the subsequent press coverage is understandable - and we should worry indeed if the findings evoked no concern. But moral panic is an unhelpful approach to solving deep social problems. Yes, 'the system' could work a lot better. There could be tighter guidelines and clearer frameworks for co-ordinated action. Those in positions of responsibility could actually read these and put them into practice. The inquiry found that only 35% of Local Safeguarding Children Boards had undertaken any activity relating to gangs and only 6% were meeting their obligations in full. They could do more. So could police forces : only two reported that they had comprehensively mapped girls and young women associated with street gangs; only eight were able to show evidence of using behaviour orders to stop cases of child sexual exploitation in gangs. Professionals could be trained to recognize warning signs. Schools could usefully take sex education beyond the physical facts to address relational ones, to help girls realize when romance and fun has turned to blackmail, coercion and exploitation. Many such recommendations feature in the Commissioner's report.

However, even the most diligent 'protection' of girls and young women (and of vulnerable boys who are similarly victimized) will not rid their lives of this danger they experience - boys and young men who despise and diminish them, feel entitled to handle, hit and penetrate them, and make control of females a measure of individual and gang power. It's not every boy or man that engages in this kind of behaviour. The majority don't. What produces the difference? What could change?

There are scientific voices forever citing research that suggests men and women are born different, stay different and will be forever resistant to our well-meaning but wrong-headed attempts to transcend blue and pink. Sometimes it's testosterone levels in the womb that are named as the cause of stereotypical male and female behaviour, sometimes it's the wiring of neurons in our brains. But for every study of this kind that digs us deeper into essentialism, another shows that any one individual's testosterone levels and neural pathways change year by year, responsive to the physical and cultural environment in which she or he lives. And research by sociologists and psychologists besides shows we can't read off specific behaviours from given levels of testosterone and given patterns of neural wiring. Cordelia Fine reviews many of these studies in her book Delusions of Gender. She comes down firmly on the side of 'social shaping', concluding that we invent social ideals of masculinity and femininity, and individual behaviour responds to expectations. 'Social attitudes about gender are an important part of the culture in which our brains and minds develop...' she writes. 'How should children ignore gender when they continually watch it, see it, hear it; are clothed in it, sleep in it, eat off it?'

 We should no more be defeatist about society, however, than we should be fatalistic about our physique and brains. Collectively and individually, we have agency. Sir Patrick Stewart, an actor celebrated for his performance as Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, features on the website of the Global Fund for Women  just now. He's calling for a change in society's attitude to violence, and for men to lead that change. He says: 'Let's be absolutely clear: violence is a choice a man makes and he is responsible for it. It is not a women's issue. It is humanity's issue. It is your issue. It is my issue.'

It's an issue for policy makers too. Individual parents, teachers and youth workers often do their best, in the context of home, nursery, playground, classroom, youth club and sports field, to withstand the popular culture that creates, and even mandates, competitive, violent and exploitative masculinity. But they are not well supported by governmental action. It's a significant lack in the Children's Commissioner's report that gender relations as such are not problematized and there are no policy recommendations for reshaping the disastrous expressions of gender its research uncovers as prevalent in youth gangs. The Commission's brief is to 'promote and protect the rights of children'. It has no difficulty seeing vulnerable girls as children to whom it has a responsibility of protection. The criminality of gang behaviour seems to blind them to their responsibility to boy children. Boys, surely, may be thought to have a right to an upbringing that gives them a fair chance of not becoming violent sexual predators, a fair chance of making that choice of non-violence.



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