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27 June 2022

My experience of Rotherham shows the real problem isn’t brown men, it’s how we treat working-class girls

Stop dog-whistling about Pakistani men on the pretext of caring about poor schoolgirls.

By Katie Edwards

Last week saw yet more reports on the sex abuse scandals in Rotherham, accompanied by yet more mugshots of dangerous brown men – the predators convicted of raping and harassing girls from impoverished towns in the north and west Midlands. The widespread sexual exploitation of girls by Asian men was allowed to continue because authorities were scared of being called racist. It’s an outrage. It’s bloody, noisome wokery. It’s chuffing cowardice, it’s nothing else. 

Well, actually, it is something else. My family moved to Rotherham when I was nine, where I attended the local comprehensive. Like most other girls I knew during my t(w)eens, I saw – and experienced – plenty of sexual harassment and assault. None of it was by men of Asian appearance. All of it was by white men.

I’m categorically not denying that some Pakistani Muslim men have committed horrific sexual abuse. I’m not attempting to excuse the inexcusable. What I am saying, however, is that the narrative around the abuse scandals neglects the wider socio-economic context – and the insidious misogyny and classism that allowed the widespread sexual abuse of girls to go unchallenged for so long. The centring of brown Muslim men deflects attention away from the many men of other races and religions who harassed, abused and exploited girls – and continue to do so. 

For all the hand-wringing and outrage about the sex abuse scandals, the lack of attention on victims/survivors in favour of the race and religion of the perpetrators is a troubling and dangerous development. The term “grooming gangs” has become shorthand for “Pakistani Muslim men”, and it’s a dog whistle for far-right groups to target struggling, post-industrial towns and communities on the pretext of caring about the treatment of girls. 

But I don’t buy it. What’s with the sudden interest in the welfare of working-class girls? Like so many girls, from the age of ten I experienced the relentless appraisal of my physique by adult men when they walked past the school sports fields, or shouted from passing cars as we walked home from school, or yelled derogatory comments about female genitalia from van windows. There was all the standard fare: “prick tease”, “jail-bait”, “little slag”, as I walked on the main road to school in my uniform.

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In addition to the daily indecencies that continue to be a regular part of a teenage girl’s life, I witnessed the normalisation of men targeting and courting underage girls for sexual relationships. Almost every woman I know has a horror story from her girlhood involving unwanted sexual attention from adult men. Indeed, the harassment and abuse of girls goes far beyond groups of Pakistani Muslim men: it’s a way of seeing working-class girls and women as lesser and worthless. The underlying attitude is that some girls are asking for trouble; that they deserve what they get. There is an assumption that when Muslim men abuse girls it’s a cultural issue for which a whole community can be demonised, whereas when white men rape girls it’s an individual deviance that says nothing about race or religion.

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Until we recognise that the disproportionate attention on Pakistani Muslim men is a disservice to the victims/survivors of the sexual abuse scandals, then exploitation of working-class girls will continue.

[See also: Roe vs Wade: What to write when your country takes away your abortion rights?]

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