Community responses to child sexual exploitation Pt4 – Addressing the cultural issues

This is the last of four blogposts about what I think are the main ways in which communities can help prevent child sexual exploitation. These are:

– helping the children to be less vulnerable
– making the perpetrators more visible
– providing support and challenge to the professional bodies tasked with protection functions
– addressing cultural issues that help to sustain abusers and minimise abuse

I’ve covered the first three bullet points in the first three posts. Here they are:

This post, then, picks up what I’m calling “cultural issues”.

When you read the title of the blogpost, did you think I would be writing about race? Ethnicity? Religion? Quite often when people talk about a “cultural issue” they are trying to imply the culture of those “other” people who are different from “us”, usually for reasons of race, ethnicity or religion. That’s not want I want to write about. I’m talking about “us” now. A massive “us” that includes the whole population of this country, irrespective of race, ethnicity or religion. The cultural issue at the heart of what went wrong in Rotherham belongs to all of us. That’s why only a whole community response will do.

The cultural issue is the objectification and commodification of people and how that stops us from seeing people as people and instead makes us categorise and label them, and treat them in instrumental ways.

This “news” item was top of the Most Viewed list on the Guardian website this morning.

Should we, or should we not, look at pictures of a naked woman? This woman is a stranger to most of us; a woman who did not choose to share the pictures. And yet somehow we need to be reminded that there’s an ethical argument to treat a fellow human with respect?

It’s “back to school” season, so naturally advertisers are plugging school uniform ranges. And American Apparel attracts its sixth – sixth! – censure for appearing to sexualise children, in this most recent case by using “upskirt” shots of school wear as part of its campaign.

It’s pretty clear that American Apparel doesn’t care if girls (and boys) are being gang-raped, traded, drugged and threatened with violence by serial rapists, if they can attract a bit more media attention, they’re happy to edge towards child sexual abuse imagery. The exposure more than outweighs the possible taint to the brand because….who gives a fuck?

You can’t have this, and not have Rotherham.

You can’t hurrhurrhurr over an up-skirt shot one day and then be all outraged that your peers, the perpetrators – oh yes, they are your peers – treated the victims in Rotherham, in Derby, in Oxford, in Rochdale, in Peterborough and elsewhere, like fucktoys. In fact, the existence of the word “fucktoy” in the modern lexicon is symptomatic of a culture which repudiates personal agency and bodily autonomy, of young women in particular, and sees them as a collection of holes to be penetrated.

You can’t pore over the “All Grown Up headlines in the Daily Mail, to see whether the girls (and it is always girls) are looking childlike or fuckable: and then be surprised that your peers, the police officers and social workers who should have protected them – oh yes, they are your peers – behaved as though the lines were blurred and the victims somehow chose the way they were seen, and treated.

You can’t call the abduction of a child by a teacher a “relationship” and then be surprised when the police tell you that your own 15yo is “consenting” or social workers agree that the 30yo abuser she is “in a relationship” with should attend GP appointments with her about contraception. You can’t let this nauseating headline stand:

As though once someone has abused a child, a newspaper should be seeking out and publishing the abuser’s views on what the victim does next.

How about this?
You can’t stand by when a school excludes a 12yo after she reported a rape, on the grounds that she was a willing participant and breached school rules by having sex in the grounds, and then expect other schools to protect victims and expose perpetrators. You need to know that 12yo’s can’t consent because they are children and you need to be not in any way ambivalent about that. So that you can put pressure on schools to safeguard children properly.

What do I mean by ambivalent? I mean this:


If we are not fighting this, we are letting it happen.

After many days of misdirection, someone with clout finally came out with a useful analysis of the problem in Rotherham and elsewhere. Nazir Afzal points out that the power imbalance that made abuse possible in Rotherham is the oldest one in the book: the misuse of male power.

He’s entirely right.

Yes, there are sometimes female abusers and yes, boys are abused too, and when they are they are no less victims than the girls. Overwhelmingly though abusers are men, and more often than not their victims are girls.

Quite independently of race, ethnicity or religion, we have a culture that does not respect women’s privacy and bodily autonomy, that doesn’t respect children and childhood and sexualises child-related images for profit, a culture that promotes the idea that children are, or soon will be “ready” for the sexual use of adults, a culture that looks directly at a victim and sees someone who needs punishing. A culture that quietly sorts our children, especially our girl children, into those you can get away with abusing, and those you can’t. We do this because it serves male power and male sexual aggression.

We can stop this. If we want to.


6 thoughts on “Community responses to child sexual exploitation Pt4 – Addressing the cultural issues

  1. Have a look at veronafathersmirfieldblog

    Abuse by ‘trusting’ priests was endemic at the seminary during the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was covered up then, and is still being covered up today.

    However, what is important is that for many adults that were abused as children there , the blog has given them the opportunity, for the first time, to write and be supported by others in similar situations.

  2. Pingback: #Rotherham #ZoeQuinn #TropesvsWomen | A Hat Full of Ness

    • I did read it and these blogposts are a response to that report. I read it on the day it was published and tweeted as I read, so there’s a commentary here: as I unpicked it.
      This is a big part of my day-to-day work. The problem is not unique to Rotherham and the professional failings reflect the fact that the professionals are drawn from the community and culture in which the abuse grows and thrives. We are mirrors to the communities we serve. This is why I wanted to write these four blogposts on the community response. Safeguarding and child protection are shared responsibilities.

  3. I posted this blog on my Facebook as I thought some of my friends would like to read it. One of them – a community psych nurse left this comment – I thought you’d like it.
    ‘As NHS staff we have compulsory ‘diversity’ training and compulsory ‘radicalisation’ training…. It is patronising to us and condescending towards ‘minorities’ I saw that a researcher in Rotherham who discovered the extent of abuse was sent on diversity training too – because clearly we are all racist…..This (the article) is the kind of stuff we should be looking at.’

  4. Thank you for taking the time and thought to write this series. I will use the articles to inform my voluntary role of safeguarding coordinator and to teach others, and have printed them. I think I am unusual in thinking “suspect everyone” with watchful eyes. I also dislike the attitude that policies are to “cover ourselves”. No, they are to help keep children safer. So many people refuse to see what they don’t want to believe. I am going to deliver a clear message to members of my organisation, based on fact and with sensitivity to triggers for people. but basically it will be “wake up”. Thank you.

    • Sorry to take so long to approve your comment and to reply. I’m really pleased you plan to use the posts as you’ve outlined. I’ve used them as the basis for training too, and I know others have.
      Keep up your great work educating those around you. x

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