(trigger warning: discussions of grooming, sexual abuse and rape.)
Today I watched Britain's Sex Gangs, a harrowing and disturbing but clear look at the subject of groups of men grooming young girls and leading them into a life of gang rape and sexual abuse. It's not an easy thing to watch, but aside from a few high profile convictions here and there, it's not an easy thing to hear about unless you go looking for the information. It's horrible, but there are a few key facts:
1. There's always some sort of "but why don't the parents know what's happening to this young girl," question, a "how do they meet these guys in the first place, they shouldn't be out late," debate, and of course, in almost every conversation, someone brings up the clothes the girls wear as an issue, whether a direct reason or a, "well of course it doesn't mean they're asking for it, BUT..."
2. There's a racial issue to it, because investigations show that a high proportion of these gangs are made up of Pakistani British men.
3. Groups like the EDL and BNP have hijacked the issue and made it entirely about race and in fact taken it away from a focus on the victims themselves, and have made it even more difficult to talk about because of the association with stirring racial hatred. (And proven themselves even more disgusting in doing so.)
I want to talk about this, though. It's not something I've experienced personally, but I definitely knew a lot of girls when I was at school, aged 12, 13, 14, who were talking to groups of older men who were often completely inappropriate with them. I knew a lot of girls who lost their virginity young to older men. And these men would be nice to them, would flatter them and sweet talk them and buy them presents and pick them up in their cars - I think, even though I was obviously clueless to it then, I was definitely witnessing some grooming there whether or not it was with a similar eventual purpose in mind or not. I really hope it wasn't, but it's not likely I'd hear about it if it was.
I want to talk about it because when I was at school, that was normal. And to these girls who are being approached by older men - it's normal. It's flattering. People might say, oh watch out, make sure this older guy doesn't just want you for sex, but that's the only thing girls are taught to look out for. When the guy grooms them first, presents and feelings and apparently not wanting sex (right away), that stops being a worry for the girl. Girls can be as smart and aware as you like, but when those comments - why didn't they realise something was going on? Why didn't their parents stop it? - are awful. The girls are children being manipulated by someone, or several people, significantly older than them who know what they're doing. And think back to when you were a teenager. Are you saying you never successfully deceived your parents about where you were going one time, or who you were with? They could be the best parents in the world, but their children can still lie. So there needs to be more awareness. It's a horrible topic to think about, let alone talk about to the young kids you think of as innocent, but how would you rather they learnt about these things?
I hate the idea that it's always the girls you need to educate about rape. It fits in with the idea that it's somehow the girl's fault, they if she'd have done something differently, the rape might not have happened, when really it's entirely down to the fact that a man made the choice to do this, end of story. It all comes back to those "asking for it" arguments. It's completely irrational and out of order to read a woman's clothing choices as shorthand for any kind of consent in the first place. Then applying that to children is even worse, because there is no sexual element to the way children dress. Women, if they want to, can dress themselves in clothes that carry sexual connotations (and should be able to without this being an issue. So a woman might go out one night dressed in a way she hopes might attract a man. Doesn't mean she goes out dressed up as an invitation, does it?). Children do not. And these are such specific circumstances, and the vulnerability is part of what makes young girls easier victims for these gangs. It's a place to start, but obviously the education and awareness needs to go a lot further. How do you really stop something happening? You stop those committing the act in the first place. So we need to talk about the men. The rapists themselves.
And I think ethnicity is relevant too - the figures show it is. We need to talk about that. I don't know in which way or for what reasons, but the police treat each case as isolated, and you can't just treat these things as though they happen in a vacuum. In one of the interviews on this show, there was a quote from a man about how these groups of men can't find jobs, how this gang situation doesn't involve consequences like stealing would - they do it for the money. I don't think it's a pure coincidence that particular ethnic groups are marginalised and isolated in this sort of way, excluded from a job market that's already poor and failing young people anyway. I think it needs to be looked at. What institutional stuff is going on? And in fact the justice system as a whole needs to be looked at. How is it that the systematic grooming, physical and mental abuse, rape, and gang rape of young underage girls is seen as less of a risky venture than stealing? Why is it still so difficult to get a conviction for a crime like rape, and not for something like stealing? A lot of the cases they talked about featured a seriously low percentage of convictions for the number of men put on trial; several cases were simply dropped by police because it was just "their word against mine." The word of a gang of men against one underage girl. They also mentioned in the documentary that these men know that stealing is explicitly against the law. They are apparently less educated on the subject rape. How is that acceptable? How is the world, the justice system and the government and our society, structured in such a way that some men can grow up to see this as an acceptable way of making money, a genuinely low-risk crime? These gangs are taking advantage of the prevalence of rape culture in an incredibly harmful, exploitative way.
So I think even though documentaries like that are hard to watch, it's important that they're made. It's important that people listen. It's important that people talk about these things, even though they're incredibly unpleasant and even though there are a number of sensitive issues involved. The longer we ignore it, the longer these girls will have to suffer in silence. Like I said, through the grooming process and a lack of general awareness and education, they're made to think that it's all relatively normal. How bad do you think it has to get before a young, scared, vulnerable and confused girl realises that what is happening to her isn't just a bit much "pressure" from time to time or "just how things are when you're older" but is rape? And how do you think she feels when she finally manages to reach this conclusion, ignore any threats and gather the courage to tell someone, and it's then simply not followed up because her word is apparently not good enough?
The government doesn't seem to be willing to do a whole lot about this. Funding is being cut all over the place, but the women's rights areas are going first, so what hope do these girls have of really getting help that way? So talk about it because words matter.