Rotherham: lessons from a British sex abuse scandal

Carolyn Moynihan
2 September 2014
Reproduced with Permission

Britons were outraged last week to learn that more than 1400 children in a Northern English town were sexually abused over a period of 16 years by gangs of predators while officials turned a blind eye. Recent years have seen clergy members, celebrities and entertainers exposed as molesters, but the latest revelations are particularly shocking in the type and scale of abuse involved. The attitude of the authorities sounds familiar, however, and raises questions that concern British society as a whole.

Alexis Jay, a former chief inspector of social work in Scotland, was commissioned by the government last year to conduct a full inquiry into what had, and had not been done in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, since 1997, when it first came to official notice that gangs of Pakistani men were sexually exploiting mainly young white girls. Her report , published last week, states:

It is hard to describe the appalling nature of the abuse that child victims suffered. They were raped by multiple perpetrators, trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England, abducted, beaten, and intimidated. There were examples of children who had been doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, threatened with guns, made to witness brutally violent rapes and threatened they would be next if they told anyone. Girls as young as 11 were raped by large numbers of male perpetrators.

One girl told the inquiry that gang rape was a usual part of growing up in her district. Some of the children were in the care of the state.

The whole story is extremely shocking - and it is by no means over. Last year the police received 157 reports of child sexual exploitation in the Borough of Rotherham. Nobody knows the true scale of the abuse. But Professor Jay is clear who is to blame -- the Rotherham council and the police, and their senior staff. She says:

Over the first twelve years covered by this Inquiry, the collective failures of political and officer leadership were blatant. From the beginning, there was growing evidence that child sexual exploitation was a serious problem in Rotherham. This came from those working in residential care and from youth workers who knew the young people well.

Senior managers in social care underplayed the problem, and police gave it no priority Three reports -- in 2002, 2003 and 2006 - "could not have been clearer in their description of the situation" but they were either suppressed or ignored. Senior officials thought youth workers' reports were "exaggerated", staff trying to respond to the needs were "confused" and "overwhelmed". Not until 2009 did the local authorities get a grip on the situation. In 2010 five men were convicted of sexual offences against girls, the only convictions to date.

What kept the Rotherham councillors and the police from acting decisively to protect the children -- among them a few boys -- and punish the perpetrators? Three things stand out: attitudes to the girls; the ethnic identity of the exploiters; and social attitudes to sex -- juvenile sex in particular.

The official view: child prostitution

Up until the late 1990s the involvement of young girls with older men was seen as "child prostitution" and both the police and senior social workers seem to have largely persisted in that view, which implied consent. Although sex with a person under the age of 16 is rape and a crime, the police were reluctant to look into what seemed primarily a social problem involving sexually precocious and "out of control" girls.

However, the council did respond in a certain way. In 1997 they started funding some youth workers through an outreach called Risky Business, whose job was to offer support to young people between the ages of 11 and 25, and training about sexual exploitation to schools and other agencies working with young people. They viewed the girls not through the lens of prostitution but of child sexual exploitation (CSE).

Under the CSE model consent makes no difference to the gravity of the crime, and we are looking at extreme abuse here that young girls could not have guessed at, let alone consented to. But is a relationship with an under-age girl only an issue when it turns bad, and is she capable of consent to some sexual relationships but not others? If society says, yes, isn't it creating a grey area that predators can exploit?

For instance, if a youth worker took a girl of 13 or 14 who was having sex with her 16-year-old (white) boyfriend to the family planning clinic for medical attention, contraceptives or an abortion (offering advice and information about sexual health was part of the Risky Business brief) she would, in all likelihood, be treated not as a child but as a "young woman" capable of consent. When she walks into a dangerous liaison with a 20-something Pakistani, however, today's orthodoxy says she is merely a child.

There is an important difference between the two types of sexual interaction, but enough overlap to give room to the Rotherham bigwigs - who themselves are accused in the report of a "bullying and 'macho' "culture -- for ignoring the dark criminality of the Pakistani gangs.

Ethnicity of the abusers

Prominent in media reports last week was the accusation that the council and police averted their eyes from the poor white girls who were being victimised because they were scared of being attacked as racists. Rotherham is largely white (Pakistanis are only 3 percent of the population) but, as The Economist points out , other northern towns have been torn by fights between whites and Pakistanis. Professor Jay's report bears this out.

"What the report does not spell out, but which is true," says The Economist, "is that the horrors in Rotherham fit into a pattern." Asian gangs have been convicted of grooming and abusing young, mostly white girls in other towns and cities. Moreover, they, too, can be seen as victims of their culture to some extent:

Young Pakistani men are increasingly alienated from their conservative parents, who want them to marry girls from back home (often the Mirpur district in Kashmir) and also from religious leaders, who often cannot speak English. Discussions of sex are taboo at home and in the mosque, so some learn about it from pornography, about misogyny from rap music and come to view white women as fair game (though the report also suggests Pakistani girls were abused, and that this was hushed up).

This type of abuse might be primarily an ethnic problem, but not exclusively. The Western cultural context is also to blame.

Social attitudes to (juvenile) sex

Demeaning and harmful Western attitudes to sex extend beyond porn sites and rap music. The "sexual health" industry, already mentioned, tells schoolgirls that it's "your choice" whether to have sex, when "you feel ready for it". Girls interviewed by Professor Jay's inquiry were "scathing about the sex education they received at school," complaining that "it only focussed on contraception."

The great aim of British society seems to be to get girls on the pill, or better, an injection lasting three months or, even better, an implant - anything to prevent pregnancy, and no questions asked, apparently, about why and with whom they are having sex. With the blessing of the National Health Service thousands of girls aged 13 and up have been given contraceptive shots or fitted with implants , with or without their parents' consent. They are considered mature enough to consent to that.

Is it any wonder that Rotherham authorities were annoyed by the double standard that suddenly turned teenage sex, with its unsurprising element of child prostitution, into a child sexual exploitation crisis for which they were politically and morally unprepared?

Where were the parents


Children are safest in the care of their own, married , loving parents. The further they are from that ideal the more likely they are to be in harm's way.

Many of Rotherham's exploited girls had troubled family backgrounds and often went missing from home. One in three had already come to official attention because of neglect. Senior managers told the inquiry that neglect was a far bigger issue than CSE - which does not make it an excuse, as Professor Jay points out, for not dealing with the latter, though it is a relevant fact. Police talked of girls "out of control".

Half of them experienced domestic violence. One in five had a parent or parents addicted to substances, and one in three had a mum or dad with poor mental health. The report does not deal with family structure, but it's a reasonable guess that lone mothers or fathers, step-parents and unrelated partners featured prominently among these troubled families - all things known to increase risks for a child. Only just over half of children in Britain still live with both parents by the age of 15.

But social care was not necessarily safer. Children's homes were actually targeted by predators.

Children who were exploited before they became looked after continued to be exploited, and were often at even greater risk of harm. Other children became exposed to sexual exploitation for the first time whilst they were looked after in children's homes. There were examples of an exploited child acting as the conduit for perpetrators to gain access to other looked after children. This happened in local residential units as well as in out-of-area placements, and it appears to have occurred in one of the current cases we read. There was no appropriate management response to the problem of children being exposed to exploitation whilst in the care of the Council. Nor did we find that elected members as corporate parents were advised of the scale and gravity of the problem.

Had it ever occurred to the Rotherham council that they were "corporate parents"? Even if they had, and tried their best to live up to the task, they could never do the job of real parents; nor could children's homes the job of a real family home. They were destined to fail as replacements for parents - although not so abysmally as they did.

The tragic histories of the sexually exploited children of Rotherham are shaped by many issues, notably "multiculturalism" and official carelessness towards people at the bottom of the social hierarchy. But underlying them all is the disintegration of the family, fuelled by the reduction of sex to a form of individual expression and entertainment, even for children. Even when the harm to those children is obvious to everyone.

Until Britain, and the West generally, faces up to this absolutely critical issue children will continue to be at risk of sexual exploitation and every attempt to stop it will fail. The day The Economist and the Guardian use the words "family" or "marriage" in an editorial about child sex abuse we will know that Britain has turned a corner, giving encouragement to the rest of us.