The Oxford abuse case and the myth of the “good girl” victim

It is widely believed that ‘true’ victims are always happy and willing to co-operate with the authorities and that ‘good girls’ would never accept payment for their own exploitation and that they would always contrive to escape such situations. That's not

The prosecution of nine men aged 24 to 38 for sexually exploiting underage girls in the Oxford area concluded at the Old Bailey on 14 May 2013 with seven of the men found guilty. One of the six victims described the period of abuse between 2004 and 2012 as a “living hell”. Another spoke of the fact that “they constantly take advantage and treat me like a piece of meat they can just tread all over.” This tragic case is only part of the broader problem of sexual exploitation plaguing the country.

Disclosures about Jimmy Savile’s predatory sexual nature, the abuse of ‘looked-after’ and vulnerable children in Rochdale by Asian gangs, and the suicide of Frances Andrade shortly after giving evidence at the trial of her former music teacher brought child exploitation and abuse into the media spotlight as never before.

The stories emerging from these cases have shed light on why victims are often reluctant to report sexual abuse: fear of retribution from the offender, worries about the stigma of sexual abuse, embarrassment, concerns that they will not be believed, and worries about whether the legal system will deal effectively with their case are among the key reasons victims fail to report sexual crimes. Frances Andrade’s lack of confidence that the system would ‘work’ demonstrates how devastating these fears can be for victims.

Common but mistaken prejudices regarding victims of sexual crimes compound this problem. For instance, it is widely believed that ‘true’ victims are always happy and willing to cooperate with the authorities and that ‘good girls’ would never accept payment for their own exploitation and that they would always contrive to escape such situations. This overlooks both the fact that coercion by abusers exacerbates young girls’ lack of trust in law enforcement and social services and that many victims are emotionally attached in some way to their abusers. Often described as ‘nice guys’ by friends and colleagues, many abusers befriend and seduce their victims, taking advantage of their vulnerability. The Savile and Rochdale cases show that abusers further discourage girls from seeking help by conditioning them to fear punishment by law enforcement.

One of the greatest challenges in addressing child sexual abuse and exploitation is the hidden nature of such crimes, given that the majority of cases go unreported. In his now notorious email to producer Meirion Jones, former Newsnight editor Peter Rippon casually dismissed Jimmy Savile’s victims as “just the women”: a statement indicative of the hostile attitudes directed, until recently, toward Savile’s victims. It is these very attitudes that make many victims reluctant to come forward. As one of the Oxford victims stated in her evidence at the Old Bailey, “Some pretty awful things happened … At the time I did not feel people believed me. I did not feel anything was being done about it. There was a lot of self-doubt.”

Children are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation wherever there is poverty and deprivation. The reality of this problem must be recognised if cases are to be effectively investigated, prosecuted and prevented. It is time to address the intersection of racism, sexism and class prejudices apparent in cases such as the recent Rochdale and Oxford ones.

In November 2012, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner published the inquiry ‘Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups’. The inquiry found that the vast majority of perpetrators are men; some are as young as fourteen, while others are elderly. They, and their victims, are ethnically diverse. Thus, the current trend to regard child sexual exploitation as particularly common among Asian gangs ignores the statistics. Critically, it oversimplifies the role of the social injustices, especially poverty and neglect, which often lie at the root of sexual exploitation. It also occludes failures on the part of statutory agencies to allocate adequate resources for the protection and support of child victims.

Until a coordinated multi‐agency strategy is created, a shared understanding of the problem of sexual exploitation cannot be developed and progress is likely to remain piecemeal, allowing agencies to individually and collectively deny accountability, both for their actions and for their failures to act. In the Savile and Rochdale cases, child welfare organisations, and also the criminal justice system, missed many opportunities for co-ordinated, timely responses. Until sufficient training for statutory and voluntary service workers is provided about the issues facing children at risk of exploitation, these problems will remain even if there are positive legislative changes. Effective and consistent training of the police, social workers, health workers, and youth and community workers is essential to implementing organised, effective reforms.

In her 1994 poem ‘The Rock Cries Out to Us Today’, Maya Angelou wrote that “history, despite its wrenching pain,/ Cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage,/ Need not be lived again”. As we seek to encourage survivors of child sexual exploitation to find the strength to speak out about the crimes committed against them, we must also strive to create effective support services. Only then will victims have the help and protection they need to speak out safely and with confidence that not only will they be believed, but that the system will not let them down.

Dr Aisha K. Gill is a Reader in Criminology at the University of Roehampton.

(Getty Images)

Dr Aisha K Gill is a Reader in Criminology at University of Roehampton.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496