Have you ever tried to explain to a 14-year-old girl that she does not have to have sex with all her boyfriend’s friends to show that she loves him? That she has, in fact, been raped? Have you taken her on the bus to get her contraception, only to watch her throw the pills out of the window on the way back?
I had to do this, when young myself and working as a residential care worker. It was my duty to report a child missing if he or she did not come back to the home at night. For some girls, that was most nights. The police and my co-workers cheerily referred to these girls as “being on the game”.
If you want to know about ethnicity – as everyone appears to think this is key – these girls were of Caribbean descent, as were their pimps. The men who paid to rape these children, they said, were mostly white.
That was London in the 80s, so the whole “child protection is in tatters” number is not news. Child protection services have not worn down: they have been torn apart. Care has never been a place of safety, and anyone who wanted to know that could do so. Just look at who is in prison, who is homeless, who is an addict and ask how good our care system has ever been.
I had wanted to stay in social work, but after a placement answering calls on what was known as the frontline I realised that most of my work would be sorting out emergency payments for food and heating. People needed money, not cod psychoanalysis. It was also obvious that social work systems were not only failing, but under attack. First they came for the social workers (bearded do-gooders), then they came for the teachers (the blob) … this is how neoliberal ideology has been so effective in running down the public sector.
Now we are to feign suprise that the victims of this failure emerge, and they turn out to be girls of the underclass. Slags, skets, skanks, hos: every day I hear a new word for them.
The report on Rotherham is clear-eyed about who targeted the girls: men of Pakistani and Kashmiri descent, working in gangs to rape and torture girls. The men called the girls “white trash”, but white girls were not their only victims. They also abused women in their own community who had pressure put on them never to name names.
Certain journalists, including Julie Bindel, have been covering this story for years and have never shied away from describing the men’s ethnic origin. Ethnicity is a factor but there is also a shared assumption beneath the police inaction and the council workers’ negligence: all of them deemed the girls worthless. The police described them as “undesirables” while knowing they were indeed “desired” by both Pakistani and white men for sex. They were never seen as children at all, but as somehow unrapeable, capable of consensual sex with five men at the age of 11.
Heroin use, self-harm, attempted suicide, unwanted pregnancies, all of this was reported to the authorities. Meanwhile, “care” was being outsourced and some of these girls were moved to homes outside the area. This just meant the rapists’ taxis had to go a bit further.
The running down of children’s services to a skeletal organisation in an already deprived area is spelled out in the report, which talks of “the dramatic reduction of resources available … By 2016 Rotherham will have lost 33% of its spending power” compared with 2010. Buckinghamshire, by contrast, will have suffered a 4.5% reduction.
It is as if everyone has agreed who is worthless and who isn’t; who can be saved and who can’t. The police, the local authority, the government, and indeed the grooming gangs, appear to share the same ideology about sexual purity – and its value.
The rightwing likes the cheap thrill of an underclass woman, drunk and showing her knickers, and now blames rape on political correctness gone mad, as though a bit of robust racism is the answer to misogyny.
OK. So let’s join the dots to Savile and the other recent sex-abuse scandals. We have the police in on the case; we have institutions basically offering up the most vulnerable as victims; we have a protection racket centred around fame rather than ethnicity. At the top we have abusive men, at the bottom powerless young girls and boys. So the bigger picture is the systematic rape of poor children by men. Not all men – I have to say this to be politically correct, don’t I?
The right can make it only about race. I have no problem in calling certain attitudes of certain Muslims appalling. I just can’t see them in isolation from class and gender.
The macho environment in which the girls were not listened to, or even seen as children, is part of a continuum of thought in which girls, once deemed sexually active, even if it is against their will, are seen as damaged goods. Thus they can be bought and sold in a market that has made it apparent it no longer considers them worth protecting. Where is the profit in that?
Whatever resignations are proffered, what is horrifying is this wholesale resignation to an economic caste system. Our untouchables turn out to be little girls raped by powerful men.