Anglo-Saxon attitudes

Sexual double standards are not the preserve of conservatively-minded ethnic minorities.

I'm quite willing to believe that "cultural attitudes" underlay the apparent belief of members of the Asian criminal gang that young white girls, many of whom were or had been in care, were "easy meat" for their predatory sexual behaviour.

After all, such cultural attitudes are hardly confined to those with family connections in Pakistan.  They even seem to have been prevalent at the Crown Prosecution Service, which decided back in 2008 that a girl who had come forward to describe being raped would not make a credible witness.  If traditionally-minded Asians are indeed liable to believe that  children like her are of less account than their own overprotected daughters it must be asked how they came by such ideas.  Perhaps they have been reading the Daily Mail's frequent and lurid accounts of the Hogarthian decadence with which a high proportion of this nation's teenage girls supposedly conduct themselves.

A Guardian editorial yesterday helpfully explained that "the force that shaped it [the sexual abuse] was not the ethnicity of the abusers but the poor, chaotic family lives of the victims."  Thus was the blame seemlessly (and perhaps unconsciously) transferred from the perpetrators. Poor and chaotic family lives may have rendered the victims vulnerable to the blandishments of these criminal gangs but it does not explain why they were raped. The only force that shaped the abuse was the behaviour of the abusers.

And it didn't take long, last night, for the BBC's "flagship" Question Time to degenerate into a veritable orgy of slut-shaming. Peter Oborne, a Telegraph journalist who has written extensively against Islamophobia, was the worst offender.  "What does it tell us about what's happened to our society," he wondered, "that we have 12 year old girls, 13 year old girls, who are happy to give up their affection and their beauty to men in exchange for a packet of crisps or a bit of credit on their mobile phone?" He later elaborated that the girls had shown themselves "ready to surrender their innocence for a bag of crisps".  

The implication is clear: the problem is with young girls, well below the age of consent, who (allegedly willingly) "surrender their innocence", rather than with the men who take. "Society" is to blame for allowing this to happen. The perpetrators, presumably, just couldn't help themselves, like children in a sweetshop. And Oborne's language of "beauty" and "innocence", with its nauseating fetishisation of female purity, seemed to embody precisely those "cultural attitudes" towards women that are assumed to characterise conservative Muslim communities. 

A man in the audience who appeared to be a bishop then chipped in with the suggestion that 13 year-old girls "go out dressed as if they are looking for that sort of issue to take place".  He later withdrew the obvious imputation that they were "asking for it", but it's striking how naturally the thought had come to his mind. As it came to the mind of Caroline Spelman that the solution lay in giving girls (it's always girls, isn't it?) "the right values... to keep themselves safe."

It would be naive to suppose that many of the girls who found themselves at the mercy of these gangs didn't already have "issues".  A high proportion came from broken homes and had been in the care system.  It's undeniable that such children are more likely than average to become involved in crime or drugs, to become pregnant at an early age, to end up homeless or engaged in street prostitution.  But that only makes it more important not to make them complicit in their own degradation.

It's not so many years ago that it was standard practice for underage prostitutes to be regarded by the police and justice system as criminals rather than as victims.  It's only a couple of weeks ago that a rape victim was named on Twitter by fans of the footballer convicted of assaulting her.  The charge being levelled against her, effectively, was one of having "loose morals".  No-one invoked the alien "cultural norms" of football supporters to explain such attitudes, as did David Starkey in response to the Asian grooming gangs, or saw it as evidence that the education system had failed adequately to convey the "history of feminism" in these islands.  

The trial that ended this week in Liverpool was not the first, and won't be the last, to feature predominantly Pakistani-British gangs preying sexually upon mainly white girls from troubled backgrounds.  There are, no doubt, special features at work in these cases: two that spring to mind are the sexual frustration experienced by young men from strict, patriarchal families and the "biraderi" system of male mutual support which might easily be debased into one of passing around young girls for sex.  But the sexual double standards, the valuation of women based on their actual or presumed availability, the writing off of girls from difficult backgrounds as "white trash": such attitudes are far from being the preserve of those from conservatively-minded ethnic minorities.
 

BNP members protest outside Liverpool Crown Court, 9 May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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In praise of the late developer

The success of late developers proves that our obsession with early achievement is wrong.

A fortnight ago, I fell into conversation with the head teacher of a local school. “You’ve got to create room for late developers,” he said. “The obsession with early attainment doesn’t suit most children.”

We were soon finishing each other’s sentences – talking about long-term confidence rather than short-term hothousing, how children don’t develop in a linear way, and the value of having transferable skills rather than a single focus from a young age.

What a shame, I reflected, that his message doesn’t reach a wider audience. We hear so much about prodigies and precociousness – Serena Williams and her pushy father, Tiger Woods and “tiger mothers” – and so little of the counter-argument: the high achievers who emerge at a slower pace in more balanced circumstances.

Our conversation ended when we both departed to watch England play Scotland in the Six Nations tournament. Only then did I learn that the head teacher’s son Huw Jones was playing in the centre for Scotland. He scored two tries, just as he did last autumn in his home debut against Australia.

Jones’s career is a tacit endorsement of his father’s philosophy. In his penultimate year at school, Huw was still playing mostly in the second XV. Five years on, he is a burgeoning talent on the world stage. The two facts are connected. Jones didn’t just overtake others; he also retained the naturalness that is often lost “in the system”.

As boys, he and his brother made up their own version of rugby practice: could the ­attacker sidestep and run past the defender without setting foot outside the five-metre line? They were just having fun, uncoached and unsupervised. But their one-on-one game was teaching the most valuable skill in rugby: the ability to beat defenders in confined spaces.

Jones had access to superb opportunities throughout – at home, at Canterbury rugby club and then at Millfield, the independent school in Somerset well known for producing sportsmen. But at Millfield, he was far from being a superstar. He seldom played “A-team” rugby. The message from home: just keep enjoying it and getting better and eventually your time will come.

There was a useful precedent. Matt Perry, who won 36 caps for England between 1997 and 2001, had been a “B-team” player at school. What matters is where you end up, not who leads the race at the age of 16. Jones also developed transferable skills by continuing to play other sports. “Don’t specialise too early,” was the mantra of Richard Ellison, the former England cricketer who taught at Millfield for many years.

When Jones was 18 and finally blossoming in the school’s first XV, rugby agents started to take an interest, promising to place him in the “academy” of a professional team. “But I’d seen so many kids take that route and seen how bored they got,” his father, Bill, reflects. So Bill advised his son to go abroad, to gain experience of new cultures and to keep playing rugby for fun instead of getting on the tracksuited professional treadmill.

So Jones took a teaching job in Cape Town, where he played men’s club rugby. Instead of entering the professional system, as one of a bland cohort of similar-aged “prospects”, he served his apprenticeship among players drawn from different backgrounds and ages. Sport was shown to be a matter of friendship and community, not just a career path.

The University of Cape Town spotted and recruited Jones, who helped it win the South African university competition. Only then, in 2014, did British professional rugby teams start to take a serious interest. Jones, however, was enjoying South Africa and stayed put, signing a contract with the Stormers in the Super Rugby tournament – the world’s leading club competition.

So, in the space of 18 months, Jones had gone from being a gap-year Brit with no formal ties to professional rugby to playing against the world’s best players each week. He had arrived on the big stage, following a trajectory that suited him.

The level of competition had escalated rapidly but the tries kept coming. Scotland, by now closely monitoring a player qualified by birth, gave him his spectacular home debut against Australia last autumn – remarkable but not surprising. Finding his feet ­instantly on each new stage is the pattern of his career.

Those two qualities – first, instinctive ­try-scoring; second, a lack of vertigo – are connected. Amid all the jargon of professional sport, perhaps the most important qualities – freshness, ingenuity and the gift of surprise – are undervalued. Yet all of these rely on skills honed over many years – honed, but not dulled.

Shoehorning all young players into rigid, quasi-professional systems long before they are ready comes with risks. First, we seldom hear from the child prodigies who faded away (often damaged psychologically). Many players who are pushed too hard miss their natural learning arc; the narrative of their ambition, or the ambition imposed on them by parents, is often out of step with their physical and psychological growth. Second, systems have a habit of overestimating their contribution: they become blind to outsiders.

In a quiet way, Jones is a case study in evolved education and not just sport: a talented performer who was given time and space to find his voice. The more we learn about talent, as David Epstein demonstrated in The Sports Gene, the clearer it becomes that focusing on champion 11-year-olds decreases the odds of producing champion adults. Modern science has reinforced less frantic and neurotic educational values; variety and fun have their virtues.

Over the long term, put your faith not in battery farming but instead, in Bill Jones’s phrase, in “free-range children”.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution