Sexual exploitation of vulnerable children has become the social norm in some parts of Greater Manchester, fuelled by explicit music videos and quasi-pornographic selfies, an MP has warned.
The systematic grooming of boys and girls remains a “real and ongoing problem”, a year after Greater Manchester police (GMP) was forced to admit it had failed abuse victims in Rochdale, said Ann Coffey, a former social worker who is now the Labour MP for Stockport. “My observations will make painful reading for those who hoped that Rochdale was an isolated case,” she writes in a significant report.
She said Britain needed a big change in attitudes towards child sexual exploitation similar to how perceptions of gay rights have changed over recent decades. She believes such exploitation should be declared a priority public health issue, like smoking, obesity, alcohol and drug use, so that a more strategic approach can be developed.
Coffey said police, social workers, prosecutors and juries are often inherently (albeit unconsciously) prejudiced against vulnerable teenagers – perhaps explaining why, out of 13,000 reported cases of major sexual offences against under-16s in the past six years in Greater Manchester, there have been only 1,000 convictions.
The report also suggests there is a significant underestimation of child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester: GMP figures on recorded sexual offences against under-18s between 1 June 2013 and 31 May 2014 show that only 111 cases out of 1,691 were flagged on the police computer as child exploitation.
During the eight months Coffey spent researching her report, schoolgirls, some prepubescent, told her that being harassed by older men while in their school uniform was simply “part of everyday life”. They also reported online abuse, but said it didn’t bother them. “Big men will stop little girls in the road and the street. In person, it’s real. But you can block it online,” said one girl.
They complained that men regularly tried to touch them or entice them into their cars, but that when police were alerted, officers told the girls: “Do not be causing trouble.” One girl told the MP: “The police have a stereotype of what we are, and we know that, so we do not go to them for help. We think: what’s the point? Young people do not call the police because we know how they look down at us. We have to just focus on getting away from the guys.”
Another said: “If my house got burgled, I would go to the police; but if someone touched me, I would not go to the police because I feel it would be a waste of time.”
Coffey said teenage boys should be educated on how to treat and respect girls. Lads at Factory Zone, a youth group in Harpurhey, north Manchester, said it was becoming increasingly common for boys to “control” girls and keep them “on discipline”. A youth worker, Kemoy Walker, told Coffey: “This involves constant ringing to check what girls are doing and demanding photos to prove their whereabouts, telling them what to wear and often keeping them in the house … I find it scary and it is becoming more and more common. You can see in the girls’ eyes that they are scared and are being controlled.”
But boys are also victims of sexual exploitation. Many of the young people Coffey spoke to often found themselves in risky situations, sometimes without even realising it. One boy said the man at the local chip shop was always offering him vodka, while another had been offered a pair of Vans trainers by a man. Neither initially saw the offers as part of the grooming process.
“I have been concerned about the number of people who have told me that in some neighbourhoods child sexual exploitation had become the new social norm,” said Coffey. “They say there is no respect for girls: gangs of youths pressurising vulnerable young girls (including those with learning disabilities) for sex, and adults allowing their houses to be used for drinking, drug-taking and having sex.”
Coffey added: “This social norm has perhaps been fuelled by the increased sexualisation of children and young people, involving an explosion of explicit music videos and the normalisation of quasi-pornographic images. Sexting, selfies, Instagram and the like have given rise to new social norms in changed expectations of sexual entitlement, and with it a confused understanding of what constitutes consent.
“I think we have lost the sense of what a child is. Sexual predators out there are having their quite unacceptable views confirmed through messages in the wider media: that children are just sexualised young adults.”
The key recommendations of the Coffey report are as follows:
• The removal of all references to “child prostitution” in legislation, because the term carries an implication of choice on the child’s part.
• All responses to child sexual exploitation by statutory agencies in Greater Manchester should explicitly include “boys and young men”, to address concerns of under-reporting.
• All police response officers and community support officers should receive training about child sexual exploitation crimes.
• More information about child sexual exploitation should be given to the public generally and to those who are the “eyes and ears” of the community, including pharmacists, school crossing patrol staff, school nurses, refuse collectors, bus drivers, park attendants, housing officers, and shopkeepers, as well as taxi drivers and hoteliers.
• The building of a multimedia digital network led by young people to spearhead the fightback against sexual exploitation, including a high-profile weekly radio show produced and hosted by young people on exploitation-related issues.