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.