There has been a strange atmosphere in Rotherham since the publication of Professor Alex Jay’s report on the exploitation of children in the area. Some people say they feel personally guilty and ashamed of the place, but most have one of two responses: disgust towards the council, or semi-vindication because they knew it was happening but no one would listen. People told the police. People told the papers. People told their councillor. People knew someone who worked at social services and they’d been saying for ages the police turned a blind eye.
I know some people who work in social services in the area, and between 2006 and 2013 two of them told me that across South Yorkshire ere was large-scale physical abuse of women, sexual grooming and abuse of girls under 16, and trafficking and exploitation. This was going on, they said, not only in the built-up areas of Rotherham, but also in the smaller towns and villages in the hinterlands, 23 % of which are rural.
Race was mentioned several times, and the specific complaint I heard was that in the tense aftermath of 7/7, the police were so worried about inflaming local muslim men that they ignored instances of them abusing women. It might be worth adding that the women (it was women who mentioned this, they were very angry about it) alleging this were white, but what most people would call liberal and left wing, and not given to racist opinions in other matters.
However,in contrast with the media reports on the Jay report, they did not dwell on ethnicity so much as a) men with links to countries in Eastern Europe that allowed them to traffic young women, and b) the frequent movement between different addresses and counties that made their activities difficult to track.
“You’ll get a bloke who’ll be keeping two or three families of women and young girls in different houses,” one woman told me in 2008. “You go, and if the women answer the door they tell you to come back when he’s there. If he thinks you’re onto anything, he moves them around between houses. He’ll tell you they’re his daughters or nieces, but them you go again and they just won’t be there – he’ll say they’ve gone home. It’s anybody’s guess where they are.”
And as important as the nationality and religion of the men concerned was the sheer scale of the problem. With the police ineffective, and the culprits hard to track down, the exploitation was – and still is – so common that social services can’t keep up with it; this is writ large through the whole report. The executive summary makes it plain that this is still a problem: “By 2009 the children’s social care service was acutely understaffed and overstretched, struggling to cope with demand…There is [now] a central team in children’s social care which works jointly with the Police and deals with child sexual exploitation. This works well but the team struggles to keep pace with the demands of its workload.”
Of course this is not so engaging an angle, because the modern narrative, as worked by UKIP, now demands not only foreign predators, but also a negligent and/or decadent political/civil service class betraying The People. Every media brand has its variant: If it’s not the feckless council and the muslims, it’s the politicians who allowed places like Rotherham to stagnate and sexual exploitation to become a career option. If it’s not them, it’s the media who have sexualised young women to the extent that men have been encouraged to desire them, and can no longer keep their hands off.
All or none of that might be true. What I’ve noticed it is how little discussion there is of the victims – even when we’re being told how awful it was tha police officers dismissed them as complicit in the sex, they still sound like distant objects rather than people.
I can imagine how the police saw some of the girls they dismissed, because in all honesty it’s not entirely different from how the social workers – particularly the women – saw them. The media reports inevitably cite the extreme examples, the inveigled 11 and 12 year olds , the barely-pubescent girls who were raped, the girls trafficked from Kosovo and Serbia and Pakistan, but they are not the whole story. A third of the girls involved were in care, and I remember one woman who worked in residential telling me how some of the teenage girls she looked after drove her mad. Bored, unloved and without much in the way of job prospects they put too much emphasis on their sexuality as a source of entertainment and esteem. The woman dreaded having to introduce new girls to the home: “Is she pretty?” is the main thing the girls already there would ask. “I’ll fucking hate her if she’s pretty.”
If the girls were pretty they were at best ostracised, at worst beaten up. They would find other friends where they could until they were accepted. In time many of them would become the attackers themselves. They were unapologetic, and weren’t all easy to like. And when I’ve talked to older police officers – not Rotherham ones – off record, they’ll say they get fed up of almost always dealing with the same kind of kids, they get used to crime being committed by the same kinds of kids, you can’t believe a word those kinds of kids say. In that situation, it would be easy to not feel bad about ignoring a girl with a complaint, whether or not you’re trying to avoid upsetting muslim men in the locality.
You can set all this against an old, widespread distaste for over-sexualised young women. In 2006 the philosopher spent six months living in a semi in S66 (an area of Rotherham that socio-economically-speaking “has the most typical postcode area in the country”) in order to research a book Everytown: A Journey Into The English Mind, about “what the English really think”. In his chapter on Youth he spends several pages describing the precocious dress and behaviour of teenagers in the town.
“I opened a copy of the Rotherham Record one week to see a picture of some Year 8 (12-13 year-old) pupils at Maltby comp who ‘put on a dance festival to raise funds for local charities,’” he writes at one point. “They were dressed like the fabled totty down The Masons on Sunday: skimpy tops, short skirts, and one with fishnet stockings. The sexualisation of youth has gone very far if this can be printed without this even raising an eyebrow. But of course if an adult man were even to express a sexual interest in someone of that age he would be considered a pervert. It’s as though we accept it is normal for the young to be sexy but not for the people older than them to notice.”
Knowing what we know now, it would be easy to attack this and other similar passages, but I dunno. I went to see Baggini speak and he seemed a decent enough man, and it isn’t as if he was/is only person with those thoughts. Let’s just that knowing what we know now, it might have been worth wondering what was going on in the heads of the teenagers he saw snogging in the city centre, or dressed in miniskirts at The Masons. Because what was going on their heads might explain why some of the girls in Rotherham were so easy for the abusers and exploiters to pick up in the first place.
To me, the question to ask is: what if, one day in say 2008, two parents who were, say, well-educated, well-paid professionals – say lawyers – had gone into a police station with an articulate, high-achieving, pretty, university-material 16 year old daughter, and said the girl had been hanging out with dodgy men who were now sexually exploitating her? It’s at least highly likely that in this case, the assumption would have been that something was awry. Parents and police would understand something had gone wrong, that there was a reason the girl had been hanging out with the men in the first place, and that the situation could be rectified. It would not be seen as a case of ingrained and endemic behaviour.
That girl would have been blamed less, and a lot of people would have seen the abusers as more guilty, and the police would have felt more compelled to do something about the crime. Which is why I think just talking about the criminals, and our own feelings about the crime, won’t stop this happening again.