In the northern English town of Newcastle, 17 men and one woman were convicted of abusing 22 girls in early August 2017. All the men were of Asian origin. The ethnic origin of the victims has not been officially disclosed, but it is understood that the majority of them were white and working class.
Responding to the conviction, a former director of the Crown Prosecution Service, Lord Macdonald, said that they suffered a “profoundly racist crime”. The solicitor general, Robert Buckland, then argued that grooming gangs like this should get longer sentences if there is evidence of racial hostility.
Yet, the experiences of these victims – and those involved in several other recent similar cases – reflect a long history of British authorities ignoring the complaints of working-class girls and blaming them for their abuse.
The Newcastle verdicts were the latest in a series of court actions – following a high-profile case in the town of Rochdale, Greater Manchester, where hundreds of teenagers were subject to serious sexual abuse, between 2005 and 2013 by organised grooming gangs, including rape. The testimonies of three of these girls proved vital in the eventual, but shamefully late, prosecutions of some of the men involved in the Rochdale ring.
These cases have triggered several enquiries into policing and safeguarding practices that posed very uncomfortable questions. How was it possible for systematic abuse on such a scale to have gone unchallenged for so long? And why had so many agencies failed in their duty to protect the children involved – especially when so many of them were already on child protection registers?
Guilty of ‘poor lifestyle choices’
One answer to this lies in deep-seated attitudes towards the girls involved. Those who reported what was happening were often disbelieved or dismissed, their status as victims denied. In effect, they were cast as partly culpable for their own abuse.
Another answer lies in the framing of organised child abuse as child prostitution. Some of the girls concerned were themselves arrested on prostitution-related charges. In a cruel and unbelievable irony, these included conspiracy to engage with sexual activity with a child. It was this view – that these child victims were either fully fledged offenders or at the very least guilty of making poor lifestyle choices – that paralysed professionals and prevented them from taking action.
A recent BBC series called Three Girls, focused on the Rochdale cases. The central character – a sexual health worker and whistleblower called Sara Rowbotham – was portrayed by actress Maxine Peake as one of the few officials to challenge that view. In a powerful scene, she assures the father of one of the girls that his daughter is not a prostitute, despite being described as one by her social worker: “Because there’s no such thing as a child prostitute. What there is, is child abuse.”
In the wake of these scandals, there has been a step change in the way these kind of cases are handled. Most police forces and social services now have strategies to combat what is now termed “child sexual exploitation” and no longer talk in terms of child prostitution. But why has this taken so long, given that – as historical research, including my own work, has highlighted – efforts to end ‘child prostitution’ in Britain date back well over a century?
Victorian child sex laws
In 1885, a journalist named W T Stead revealed the shocking extent of London’s child sex trade, calling for new measures to end the “sale, purchase and violation of children”. In a series of articles, he described the girls involved as “the maiden tribute to modern Babylon” – or innocents sacrificed on the altar of Victorian sexual “double standards”. Building on earlier campaigns against child prostitution spearheaded by organisations such as the Ladies’ Association for the Care of Friendless Girls, the ensuing public scandal around Stead’s articles contributed to the passing of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act. This raised the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16, after which sex with a girl under 16 became a form of abuse liable to prosecution.
But this important reform had little impact on public and professional attitudes. Young victims of abuse continued to be removed from their families and placed in moral rescue homes or church penitentiaries, some certified by the state as “special reformatories”. It was they, not the perpetrators, who were judged to require reform.
Prosecutions were rare. These girls were also separated from other vulnerable children because of fears that they would corrupt them. Some of these rescue homes were formally reserved for “girls with moral contamination and knowledge of evil”. Some 20th-century “approved schools” for young offenders and those in need of protection continued to be set aside as “treatment schools” for girls who had been sexually active or found to have a sexually transmitted infection. This continued into the 1940s. The message here was clear: sexually active girls were trouble, even if they were victims of abuse.
Meanwhile, the child sex trade continued. And the children involved continued to be cast as culpable for their involvement in it, even by many of those who had been newly employed to protect them. Women police officers, for example, were hired during and after World War I to develop new approaches to young offenders and victims. They routinely blurred these lines in ways that would have lasting consequences, not least in contributing to the professional paralysis that has underpinned Britain’s most recent child sexual exploitation scandals.
One of the first women to join the Metropolitan Police, Lilian Wyles, wrote in her memoirs about her experiences of dealing with so-called “juvenile prostitution” in the 1930s and 1940s. She recalled one wartime case involving a “pretty, well-built” ten-year-old girl who “had discovered that she could earn money by hanging around the back doors of public houses and accosting half-drunk men as they came out”. She goes on that the girl “had marked down a disused air-raid shelter to which she would take these men who she had invited to assault her”. Wyles describes how “the small procuress” then gathered together and “coached” a small group of young girls to do the same, taking a substantial cut of their two shilling fee.
The idea that a ten-year-old could be held fully responsible for this situation stands as a tragic testament to the fact that 60 years after Stead’s intervention, girls like her were not seen as victims by either the public or by professionals. As recent investigations into historical sexual abuse have all too clearly shown, it was attitudes like this that allowed other serial abusers such as the TV celebrity Jimmy Savile to continue to exploit vulnerable girls and boys.
The ‘colour’ problem
In addition to Lord Macdonald’s view that the latest Newcastle case was a “profoundly racist crime”, there has been speculation about why the authorities did not intervene more quickly in Rochdale, Newcastle and elsewhere. Some have suggested the authorities did not want to be seen to be “targeting” the Asian community in neighbourhoods where racial tensions were often already running high.
But historical examples suggest that this lack of intervention might be linked not only to professionals’ views of certain kinds of girls but to certain kinds of “mixed-race” relationships. In the past, poor white girls’ association with migrant men was often read as evidence of their “wayward” lifestyles.
In 1896, London City Missionaries involved in welfare work around the East End docks complained that girls they knew as “Canton Kitty”, “Calcutta Louisa” and “Lascar Sally” were “turning parts of the city into perfect pest-spots” through “the commingling of the worst vices of East and West”. Three decades on, a report in 1930 by social researcher Muriel Fletcher investigated Liverpool’s “colour problem” and concluded that there were four types of girl who “consorted” with “coloured men”. She listed these as those who already had an illegitimate child, those who were “mentally weak”, those already working as prostitutes, and young women looking for adventure. Fletcher recommended that special rescue homes be set up for them and their “half caste” illegitimate children.
Writing in the 1950s, sociologist Michael Banton explored this theme further in his study of Stepney’s “coloured quarter” in the east end of London. He reported that the young white women living there and frequenting “coloured cafes” were known locally as “utilities” because of the sexual services they “offered” to migrant men. Banton believed that they “almost always [had] a family background of deprivation and rejection” and were “personally unstable [with] no settled residence”.
By no means all these young women were victims of abuse. But some were and their needs went unmet. While accounts by social scientists such as Banton were pioneering and helped pave the way for later studies of multicultural communities, they also contributed to a lasting stigmatisation of these young white women and their lifestyles.
Investigations into child sexual exploitation rings in Rochdale and elsewhere suggest that the girls involved were effectively demonised by many agencies. They were viewed by many in the police and social services as ‘chaotic’, cast as unruly, unreliable and unwilling to accept advice or support offered.
The UK has been trying to end child sexual exploitation and abuse since at least the 1880s. These efforts have foundered – in part because we have struggled for so long to see the young girls involved as victims with rights and needs and frequently failed to prosecute perpetrators. There is still a long way to go.
This article was updated on August 18 to correct that Rochdale is in Greater Manchester, not South Yorkshire.