The recent appearance of Trevor Phillips, the former head of Britain’s Commission for Racial Equality and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in the Channel 4 documentary, Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True made headline news in the media and on the internet. He was applauded by many on the right as a brave individual but others are more sceptical about his views on the relationship between race and crime and his inferred support of racial profiling of criminal activity. Phillips’ views linking race and crime come hot on the heels of the recent series of high profile convictions and inquiries into child sex grooming by Asian perpetrators in Rochdale, Rotherham and Derby and other areas of England. The victims were white working-class girls and young women, identified as vulnerable due to their social environment.
The media has made much of the fact that it has been suggested that, in Rotherham in particular, the authorities were disinclined to take action because the victims were white and the perpetrators black. However, this ignores the fact that in most of the recent high profile cases of historical abuse those involved are wealthy and powerful white men who exploited vulnerable children who were then silenced by disbelief and fear. It also ignores the fact that many young Asian women have been the victims of abuse by black and white men.
Historically concerns over child sexual abuse emerged in Britain around the 1870s driven by the Social Purity Movement and the media and drew attention to the exploitation of girls by wealthy white men, but increasingly the focus shifted towards race. In 1909, for example, Glasgow Parish Council published a report entitled, A Great Social Evil In Scotland, drawing attention to a ‘seething gulf of sexual depravity through the seduction of young girls’, many of school age. The report conducted by James R. Motion, Glasgow Parish Council’s Inspector of the Poor, was based on a decade of personal investigations and criminal proceedings brought to court by the Parish under the Children’s Act (1908). It detailed the extent of child sexual exploitation of young girls by wealthy men from the city’s office district, in hotels frequented by the middle classes, in middle-class suburbia and in taxis paid for by wealthy men. Young girls were seduced by the men who offered them relatively large sums of money for sex. The Parish also uncovered sex grooming operations, one run by two local men, involving up to twenty girls, many under twelve years of age. The girls were lured by flattery, small sums of money and even bread and jam. These two men were prosecuted but those from the office district, suburbia and the wealthy more generally were not. It was believed that their conduct, performed in ‘private’ could not be confirmed as Scottish law requires two forms of corroborated evidence.
As well as a ‘slum dwelling class of men’, fathers, kin, neighbours, taxi drivers, artisans, clerks and students were also identified as having sex with underage girls. The majority of these girls were deemed to come from dysfunctional homes in which over-crowding, poor environment and incompetent parenting meant they had lost all innocence thus making them susceptible to temptation. Most of the men were not prosecuted because of lack of evidence. Neither were the Brazilian sailors who were accused of sexually exploiting over twenty girls, most of whom were under the age of consent. The sailors had been docked in one of the city’s ports but had left by the time the evidence came to light. They were said to have groomed the girls by providing chocolate, scarves and cheap jewellery. Ignoring the wealth of his own evidence which showed many powerful Scottish men were sexually exploiting children, Motion lamented that it was ‘truly remarkable the enormous influence some of these foreigners exert for evil over women belonging to this country, whose downfall they have accomplished’. He maintained, the worst offenders are foreigners, by which he meant Italian, Jewish and Irish immigrants, although he qualified this by observing that, ‘for our own reputation we would like to believe this at all events’.
Debates, investigations and prosecutions of contemporary and historical cases of child sexual abuse are to be more than welcomed, but to concentrate on racial profiling, on the experiences of working-class white girls and geographically on Greater Manchester masks the catalogue of forms of sexual abuse endured historically by young people across Britain irrespective of their class, gender, race and geography. It also detracts from the reality that neither class nor race explains the incidence of child sexual exploitation; rather it is the deviant conduct of individuals and groups of perpetrators.