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.

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“Grooming rings are the biggest recruiter for the far right”: Rochdale and Telford prosecutor

Senior lawyer Nazir Afzal warns the government, and communities implicated in street grooming, to do more – or the situation will get worse.

Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor who led prosecutions against a child sex abuse ring in Telford, and oversaw similar street grooming cases in Rochdale, tells Anoosh Chakelian why these crimes go under the radar, and how to tackle them.

How widespread are these street grooming cases?

My involvement started with Operation Span, which is the Rochdale prosecution, in 2011. And prior to that, when I was in London as chief prosecutor, I was aware it was an issue bubbling but wasn’t getting any attention.

Obviously we’ve now got Telford, Newcastle, Peterborough, Sheffield, Rotherham, Oxford, Bristol. If anybody watched the BBC’s film Three Girls, at the very end, they list I think 16 towns and cities where prosecution had taken place.

We know that it is extraordinarily widespread. Wherever you look, if you turn over the stone, you’ll find this kind of behaviour. 

What do each of these cases have in common?

What we discovered, ten years ago nearly, were groups of men working invariably in the night-time economy, either in taxi services or takeaways or that kind of business, hiding amongst whom were these predators. They’re not gangs in the way organised crime gangs are. They’re very loose networks.

There are vulnerable young girls in so many parts of this country, who nobody else seems to care about. And what these victims need is warmth, transport, mind-numbing substances, food. And where are they going to find that? You’re invariably going to find that in the night-time economy.

I used to describe them as easy prey for evil men. They’re easy to identify, and what tends to happen is that once they’ve identified one victim, through her networks very often they’ll find others.

These men are just taking advantage of the dysfunctional nature of children’s services and young people’s services that have existed now for some time. If anything, it’s got worse, because while there is tremendous learning, the resources have been reduced.

So really good practices – like one council would have a van that would go round fast food premises in the evening to identify young girls at risk and talk to them – are cancelled because they don’t have the money to do it anymore.

People work in silence. Information was available and wasn’t shared. That style of working is part of the problem. So time and again, people are just keeping things to themselves. It’s a lack of competence on their part. It’s competence, it’s not conspiracy. Easier to blame a conspiracy than say “you were rubbish at your job”. And that is constantly something that I have come across.

The victims don’t even see themselves as victims very often. Because of the poverty of relationship education and sex education in schools, these men make them believe that they love them. I remember in the Rochdale case, one of the girls kept calling one of the defendants throughout the trial her “boyfriend”. She doesn’t know any different; nobody has taught her what’s a good relationship, what’s a bad relationship.

Time and time again, survivors have the answers. What the authorities should be doing is listening to their local survivors, and building their response and their interventions on what the survivors tell them: “This is a journey I took, this is where you could’ve intervened. This is where you could’ve prevented my abuse or somebody else’s abuse.”

There are some very, very courageous, extraordinarily strong women now more than willing to share their experiences. And we do so little of that [talking to them].

How can the situation be improved for victims and potential victims?

A lot of these victims have criminal records as a result of behaviours they were made to do – we should be erasing those criminal records. That’s the way we can rehabilitate them. I think victims need compensation for what they’ve been through. And they also need lifelong support, and that’s not being produced.

Taxi drivers in Coventry are trained in local signs of abuse; it’s part of their licensing arrangement and I work with them actually on delivering that. Why is that not happening everywhere else in the country? Why are we not licensing and training takeaway establishments in the same way?

I discovered recently that in Newcastle, they’re delivering this kind of training. Sadly, it’s voluntary. The people you need to engage with are not coming. So unless you have mandatory training for people working in the night-time economy, it’s not going to happen.

Additionally in the hotel trade, one or two large chains are doing some good work in identifying young people at risk, and sharing intelligence. Why is that not everywhere? We know that predators use cheap hotels and places like that for the abuse they carry out.

The intelligence is there, it’s just not being used. And we’re not using community intelligence either. The vast majority of victims in this type of sex offending are white girls. There are Asian girl victims too.

When I prosecuted the Rochdale gang, immediately afterwards, I prosecuted the ringleader again for his abuse of a girl of the same ethnicity as him. That didn’t get any publicity and he got 21 years for that. So there are victims from the Asian community but because of issues such as honour, shame, and the fact that very often they’re told by their families that it’s “your fault”, they’re not coming forward.

So we need to understand that there are victims out there who are even less likely to report their concerns because of familial and community pressures.

We are scratching the surface, and it really irks me that each and every time it gets in the news, it’s two things.

Number one is that it’s the biggest recruiter for the far right in this country. If you go on any far right website, they use the grooming gangs more so than Isis or terror attacks as the means by which they recruit far right activists.

So we should be tackling this, and by “we” I mean everybody, including the communities most impacted, and most implicated.

Number two is we need to intervene much earlier, but we also need to do some perpetrator programmes. There are perpetrators involved who are still in denial about their activities. There are still people out there who think “well, it’s fair game”.

How can it be prevented from happening in future?

Much more work has to happen in terms of the perpetrators and perpetrators of the future – and that, of course, involves early education.

Too often, we wait until high school to start talking about gender equality and relationship education. We should be starting to talk to them about these types of behaviours and what they should be looking out for when they’re five, six and seven. We’re just building up a problem for the future by not doing any of this.

We should have mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse. If you see someone being abused, or you perceive to be being abused, then it should be your duty to report. What the government has said recently is that social workers have come out against it. And my response would be: “Well they would, wouldn’t they?”

NGOs are doing phenomenal work in its field, so there are lots of charities and groups up and down the country trying to identify victims and potential perpetrators. They don’t get enough funding. They’re working on a shoestring.

What do you say to those suggesting ethnicity plays a part?

The vast majority of children and young people are abused within the family. We must not lose sight of that. The second largest group of victims are online. Today, you can pay pennies to watch a child being abused in real-time, somewhere in the world. The third largest group is institutional; we know about places of worship – churches, mosques – we also know about the FA and football and judo and sporting clubs, and the BBC.

Street grooming is the smallest – significant nonetheless, we’re still talking about thousands of victims. It’s smallest comparatively to the other three areas.

More than 80 per cent of child sexual offenders are British white men.

When I’ve prosecuted Stuart Hall or Max Clifford, or whatever, people never said “oh, his religion, his ethnicity”, as if that was important. It wasn’t in their cases, and they remain the vast majority of offenders.

I’ve always said the ethnicity of street groomers is an issue. We can’t pretend that’s not what’s happening.

The night-time economy is one issue. But it’s not the issue.The issue is the availability and vulnerability of young girls. The issue is the fact that they are unwanted and unloved. They get no support: the NGOs that support them aren’t properly funded, neither are children’s services. That is the issue.

But ethnicity is an issue, and I don’t think the community is doing enough. I was really pleased to see, some months ago, I was invited to the launch of the Greater Manchester Muslim community organisation, and one of their four priorities is tackling grooming. And that is rare. Most communities would rather not talk about the subject, would beat me up [verbally] quite regularly for mentioning it, and unless we tackle it, bigots don’t need an excuse to hate you, so why do we give them an excuse? Why are we not tackling an issue that can be tackled?

You can’t just generalise about what it is that might be driving these men. We need to do a great deal more research into background, why perpetrators become perpetrators, in the same way we’re trying to identify why victims become victims.

Authorities are often accused of being scared to act because of political correctness. How do you feel about that?

I’ve not come across anybody who’s scared. I get bored of this going unchallenged. These are difficult cases to prosecute. Very often, the victim treats the prosecutor or the investigator as the bad guy for trying to destroy their “relationships”. Competence was the issue – people not understanding how to bring these cases. They had to leave their tick-boxes and their normal pro formas aside.

Some people, no doubt, may not want to offend a certain community, but I would imagine they’re in the minority. The large majority fail to engage because it’s really difficult.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.