One disturbing aspect of the horrific cases of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) that were exposed by the Sunday Mirror has been the response of the authorities, elements of the media and some politicians. Despite many high-profile successful prosecutions in recent years, this complex, sensitive and horrific crime often remains below the radar and misunderstood.
Some conflate CSE with Child Sexual Abuse (CSA). They can be forgiven for that; official crime figures combine both. This leads to a failure to understand the profile of both perpetrators and victims and what causes exploitation. On the basis of these figures, officials make wholly inaccurate statements such as “the perpetrators are virtually identically proportionate to the make-up of society”. More shocking are those who refer to CSE as “child prostitution”, believing that the young victim can consent or exercise choice as if they were a willing and equal partner. Some say that the underlying cause is young girls engaging in risky and promiscuous behaviour. That fails to recognise the terrible power imbalance, the horrendous psychological effects of grooming, and the network of relationships between perpetrators. Others, in a clumsy attempt at political correctness, refer to it as “gender neutral” crime.
It is this failure to understand CSE that lies at the heart of our seeming inability to tackle this crime. We fail the victims, their families and our communities.
CSE is the exploitation of (predominantly) young women and girls through coercion, manipulation and fear. It involves a deceptive and gradual process of grooming and befriending. Often the most vulnerable young women and girls are targeted. At the outset, the victims, those around them and too often the authorities do not recognise the coercive, controlling nature of the relationship. The process can develop into victims being traded by gangs of men as a commodity, and controlled by threats of exposure to friends and family, or by violence. Child Sexual Exploitation thrives on a deep rooted sense of shame, blame and silence. Too often the victim, the perpetrator, and even those in authority believe the victim is at fault.
Why does it matter if we use the wrong words to describe this crime? This is a crime that thrives because we misunderstand it and fail to call it out for what it is. Yes, victims can be boys; yes, victims can be from middle class families and of any ethnicity; and yes white British men and women can be part of a grooming gang. But that is not what CSE looks like in Telford or Rochdale or Rotherham.
It is the failure to understand CSE, combined with a refusal to recognise prevalent and disturbing social attitudes towards white working class girls, and an oversensitivity to referencing the ethnicity of perpetrators, that creates a culture in which the cancer of CSE has been allowed to grow.
Few in positions of authority and power will agree with me; many will dismiss what I say, pointing to obscure examples of white women grooming boys of Pakistani heritage. To accept my premise would be to acknowledge their own attitudes and prejudices, and those of society, towards victims and perpetrators.
No one is doubting that the authorities in Telford and elsewhere have made significant changes to their processes, procedures, and priorities following the prosecutions. But when I raised questions about CSE, I was reassured repeatedly that the ethnicity of the perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse broadly reflected the make-up of the community, which in Telford is 93 per cent white. While I know this is true of Child Sexual Abuse, it is not true of CSE. We must not confuse the two to avoid an uncomfortable truth.
Over recent days, it has been much remarked upon that elements of the media have shown a lack of interest in reporting this story. Some have failed to challenge the narrative of the authorities clinging to recorded crime statistics, claiming the scale of CSE is sensationalised and over-reported. We all know that sexual violence and rape are the most under reported crimes, so how much more likely is the rape of young girls to be under reported, where victims (and others) do not know that what is happening is rape and think they are to blame?
We need to understand CSE and that is why I have been calling for an independent investigation in Telford since 2016. Some have been quick to hide behind the national Independent Investigation in Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). This inquiry will investigate Child Sexual Abuse in a wide range of institutions. Although it will consider CSE, its scope is limited and will not extend to investigating CSE in Telford, its causes or its prevalence.
We cannot just focus on putting in place new processes and new procedures, with new boxes to tick. It is vital for the victims, for their families and for our community that we find out why this happened, why it was not identified and where failings were. No more silence. This is a cultural and social problem that our society must now confront and fully understand.
Lucy Allan is the Conservative MP for Telford.