Barely a week has gone by without new, horrific revelations of child sex abuse. These stretch from previously unreported historical cases on a breathtaking scale, to the recent, systematic grooming of young girls and boys in Rochdale, Bradford, Oxfordshire and in other communities across the UK.
In response, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, declared this a watershed moment, where processes would be overhauled and victims would finally be taken seriously, giving more people the confidence to come forward. But these revelations have revealed more than just poor practice. It’s becoming increasingly clear that there is a disturbing undercurrent of misogyny and moral relativism among a minority of people, some of them powerful, highly influential individuals.
We saw it when a 13-year-old child was labelled “predatory in all her actions” and “sexually experienced” by lawyer Robert Colover after she was sexually abused by a 41-year-old man, and again as the judge took into account that she looked older than her age when sentencing. We saw it last week when a former newspaper owner, Eddie Shah, blamed underage girls for “throwing themselves” at adult men. Several months before that, individual police officers and social workers in Rochdale dismissed young girls who asked for help as making “lifestyle choices”, while some media columnists defended a 31-year-old teacher’s sexual involvement with a child in his care because she was “just a few months away” from turning 16.
It is bad enough that children should be judged capable of consenting to their own exploitation but it’s a significant leap from there to hold them responsible for it. Yet as these voices have become louder in the public debate, young girls are increasingly portrayed as the perpetrators, while the adult men who exploited them become the victims. While not all victims of child abuse are girls, and not all adult perpetrators are men, there is an undertone of misogyny in this debate that is abhorrent, pernicious and immensely damaging.
Taking on these attitudes is at the heart of protecting children. It’s one of the defining features of child abuse that children are often, wrongly, made to feel responsible for their abuse by the perpetrator. For child victims, finding these deplorable attitudes reflected in wider society is immeasurably damaging. At least one teenager – in the Oxfordshire trial – recently attempted suicide, while such attitudes deter other young people from coming forward. Worse still, they allow paedophiles to find justification for their actions. There have been some notable children’s charities making this case. But they are not enough.
Keeping children safe from harm is one of the first duties of any government. Instead recently we’ve seen representatives of the state – police officers, legal professionals, social workers – judging, condemning and ignoring young victims when they are the very people tasked with protecting them. And in the face of a misogynistic chorus of voices blaming young victims, we have heard a deafening roar of silence from so many of the politicians whose job it is to defend these brave young girls and boys who found the courage to come forward.
I don’t believe that people like Eddie Shah or Robert Colover speak for the majority. But there are clearly still far too many adults who believe that children can consent to their own exploitation, who think that young girls who are raped and sexually exploited are ‘asking for it’ and who believe that young teenagers have sufficient maturity to take up relationships with adults who are much, much older than them – even when they’re in a position of trust.
So while the NSPCC is right to call for better training for the legal profession and much more support for young victims, we also need to draw a clear moral line in the sand. Just as racism, homophobia and other unacceptable attitudes should not go unchallenged, neither should these. Politicians don’t just respond to public attitudes. Our job is also to lead them. The crashing silence from ministers responsible for keeping children safe leaves a dangerous vacuum which is not going unfilled.
Lisa Nandy is Labour MP for Wigan and shadow children’s minister