In January 2011 the Times proclaimed a “conspiracy of silence” around groups of Pakistani men sexually exploiting white British girls. Political correctness and fear of appearing racist had trumped child protection, the paper claimed.
Soon the terms “Pakistani” and “Asian” were being conflated, much to the disgruntlement of other British Asians and a heated media debate ensued around the “Asian sex gang” problem. Jack Straw demanded the Pakistani community take responsibility, while BNP leader Nick Griffin gleefully decried “Muslim paedophilia”, campaigning with natty slogans such as “Our children are not halal meat”. The EDL were regulars at major trials: either in the courtroom taking notes or outside spitting hate.
The defendants in question are at most nominally Muslim. Practising Muslims certainly aren’t supposed to have sex with children. But race has proved a contentious and enduring feature of this crime’s coverage. Opinions have been vociferous and commentators have rushed to explain a racial profile that is yet to be established clearly. And there have been official studies and action plans. Today saw the culmination of a major investigation, the latest in a series of high-profile trials involving large groups of adults sexually exploiting British children. All nine of those found guilty of crimes in the area of Rochdale, Greater Manchester, , had conspicuously Asian names.
As researchers specialising in this crime, we are repeatedly asked: “Are on-street groomers Pakistani?” The honest answer is yes and no. There is still no reliable estimate of the number of “on-street groomers” nationwide, let alone of their ethnicity. Crime is usually measured using police or court records. Those on-street grooming cases that are actually reported are difficult to disentangle from other crimes. This is because on-street grooming is not a criminal offence. Instead, cases are charged under a wide variety of offences, from rape to internal sex trafficking to false imprisonment.
At present, the closest we have to a national estimate comes from CEOP‘s 2011 scoping study into “localised grooming”, roughly synonymous with on-street grooming. Response rates to the researchers request for data from police, children’s services and the third sector, were low. Based on these patchy data, CEOP suggest there are over 2,000 “potential offenders” in the UK. Most of these, however, will never have been formally identified, let alone arrested, charged or prosecuted. Ethnicity data were available for just one-third. Of these, 49% were white and 46% Asian: the proportion of Pakistani Asians remains unknown. However, in a country where Asians constitute 7% of the general population, this is a striking figure.
We believe that there are two main profiles of the on-street groomer. First, we have the white offenders, who typically offend alone. So far, nothing new: the lone white male is the norm for UK child sex offences. Second, however, there are Asian offenders, many of whom are of Pakistani origin. They seem much more likely to offend in groups, lending their abuse a curiously social dimension. In our research, which focuses on large offending groups, we analysed police data from five major on-street grooming investigations. Of the 52 suspects charged, 83% were Asian Pakistani, 11% Asian other and 6% white British. These are shocking statistics and the over-representation of Asian offenders within this dataset certainly merits attention. There may be important factors that explain why the bigger networks have been largely Asian. Nonetheless, it is crucial to remember that these cases do not paint a full picture of this crime. If on-street grooming continues to be reduced to the big Asian networks alone, a whole host of other offenders will get overlooked.
The current obsession with “Asian sex gangs” focuses too narrowly on one dimension to this crime, making the emergent profile of the “Pakistani groomer” misleading. It is also unhelpful: there are more than 1 million Pakistanis in Britain. Are we going to order surveillance on all the adult males, take their fingerprints, get their DNA profiles? After all, a tiny minority may be abusing children. Racial profiles are notoriously problematic. Their application raises serious ethical issues and risks isolating the non-deviant majority. Ask anyone with an Arabic-sounding name “randomly” selected for extra searches by US airport security. Not always that accurate in the first place, these profiles are also liable to change, and quickly.
There have been so few investigations of large offending groups that a few cases involving big non-Asian groups could easily shift these offender profiles in a whole new direction. Whether this happens or not remains to be seen, but entrenched stereotypes have a nasty habit of persisting, even when the evidence moves on.
At the moment, our nationwide figures on on-street grooming are patchy and incomplete. We need a better, more efficient system of data collection and collation. What’s more, these data need to be comparable and consistent across the country and across different agencies involved. For this to happen, we desperately need a clear definition of this crime type, agreed upon and adhered to by all relevant statutory agencies, including the police, children’s services and the third sector.
In future, this approach would yield a far more accurate picture of offending and inform more effective and targeted responses.
In the meantime, there are plenty of things to be getting on with that don’t depend on offender profiling. The best bits of policing nationwide need to become more widely adopted: innovative anti-exploitation teams, training programmes for frontline officers and brave approaches to covert investigations. Often dubbed the missing part of the jigsaw, healthcare and education have a crucial part to play in spotting and supporting victims. Underused provisions which could protect victims giving evidence in complex cases should revisited. For example, pre-recorded cross examinations by a neutral third party could save victims the trauma of being interrogated by multiple defence barristers without disadvantaging defendants. Finally, hotels, off-licences, taxi firms, takeaways, bouncers, and indeed all of us, must be more alert to suspicious behaviour and must not be afraid to speak up.
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