Walking through the streets of Queens, New York, with her two best friends at the age of 12, Melanie Thompson was being assessed. Two boys from her neighbourhood – a few years older but familiar faces from middle school – made a calculation and invited the girls indoors.
“It was really innocent at first, we were just joking around. Then they gave us alcohol and I ended up blacking out,” Melanie recalled. “When I woke up, my two girlfriends were gone. I was being raped by one of the boys.”
Melanie tried to find her clothes and escape from the basement. But she was trapped; an older man entered. “He told me I wasn’t going anywhere,” she told The Telegraph, waiving her right to anonymity. “My trafficking had started.”
Human trafficking – including sex and child trafficking – has increased worldwide in recent years. In the United States, it is now the fastest growing organised criminal activity.
“We’re seeing a very high degree of an escalation in sexual violence, and a very high degree of human trafficking taking place in and around New York City and throughout the state,” warned Dorchen Leidholdt, director of the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families, the largest legal services programme for domestic violence victims in the US.
Escape attempts through a window failed. As punishment, Melanie’s face was burnt with cigarettes, a gun held against her head and told that next time she would be killed. “I know where your sister goes to school,” her pimp threatened, “I know where she lives, where she hangs out.”
Melanie was taken to underground strip clubs and raped. “He would make me dance and then sleep with the men who would stand around watching me dance, this was all before the age of 13,” she says.
Between 6pm and 7am, Melanie would be forced to walk the “track” – roads in the US known for sex work. One evening, another girl on the track said: “I feel like I’ve seen your missing poster in the train stations”.
While Melanie was trafficked just over a decade ago, the pandemic has “absolutely” caused a spike in the number of people being trafficked, Ms Leidholdt said.
“It’s the deadly combination of people losing their jobs, increasing poverty, and many victims sheltering in their homes with abusers. We’ve seen a spike in homicide of domestic violence victims,” Ms Leidholdt said.
During April 1 and Sept 30 2020 – a period in which New York experienced state-wide Covid-19 restrictions – the number of situations in which people needed immediate emergency shelter nearly doubled, compared to the same period in the previous year, according to trafficking helpline Polaris.
One New York Police Department officer confirmed Ms Leidholdt’s statements, telling The Telegraph that human trafficking cases and homicides have skyrocketed since Covid-19 lockdowns and are a “major problem” across the state.
But while New York State has “very effective laws” addressing both sex trafficking – a Class B felony which carries a maximum sentence of 25 years imprisonment – the New York Police Department is failing to step up, Ms Leidholdt said.
“Unfortunately, we find that these laws are not being enforced by the police, or that many prosecutors are not enforcing them,” she said. “That has enabled the sex trafficking industry in our city to increase and flourish – especially during the pandemic, when there has been so much poverty, vulnerability, isolation and violence.”
Alexi Meyers, a former prosecutor in human trafficking cases in Brooklyn, said that the lack of police engagement has led to an increase in pimps trafficking children living from foster care homes.
“We’ve noticed an uptick in recruitment of children outside child welfare centres [foster care homes] – that’s due to a shift in policy where the NYPD aren’t arresting the sex buyers, and there’s an attitude of free markets, and like, open air sex markets – where it’s not even hidden anymore out on the street,” Mrs Meyers said.
“One detective told us last year that on Saturday nights the Brooklyn track looks like the Long Island Expressway – a traffic jam of men rolling through to buy sex,” she added.
Ms Leidholdt, who is also a co-founder of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, said communication between human trafficking advocates and the NYPD has deteriorated over the past two years.
“When the pandemic hit, there was so much backsliding in terms of our ability to engage with police. We’ve worked hard to reach the NYPD but we have our work cut out for us, let’s put it that way,” Ms Leidholdt added.
It comes as the NYPD’s crime statistics for August 2022 saw an overall increase by 26 per cent compared to the previous year. Five of the seven major crime categories saw a jump: a 38 per cent increase in robbery, a 34.7 per cent increase in grand larceny, and a 31.1 per cent rise in burglary.
Approached for comment, a spokesperson for the deputy commissioner of public information said the NYPD had shifted its policy in 2017, which has led to overall arrests of prostitution-related charges declining, from 2,682 in 2014 to 193 arrests in 2021. There have been fewer arrests of sex workers – which trafficking advocates support – however, arrests of pimps and buyers have also decreased.
“Arrests of buyers (johns) and promoters (pimps) of sex have also gone down,” the spokesperson said. They added that the NYPD is refocusing efforts to cases involving sex trafficking, indentured servitude and the exploitation of children.
When Melanie was found by the police 13 years ago, she was arrested under a warrant used for runaway children. While waiting for officials, Melanie said she was handcuffed to a metal bench.
“They were trying to intimidate me, saying ‘you’re being arrested for prostitution’. The cops were making jokes. They were saying: ‘How bad do you want to see your mum?’” she recalls. “They left me there for a while. I was banging on the chair that I was attached to and trying to get someone’s attention because I really had to use the bathroom.”
Melanie said she urinated over herself before she was allowed to see officials.
Activists say police have engaged in how to better support victims of trafficking over the past decade, since Melanie’s detention, but victim support and training is still greatly needed. The DCPI spokesperson said the NYPD coordinates with several social service agencies who work with sex workers to help connect them to prompt and supportive services.
Local girls and women account for the largest group who are sex trafficked in New York, according to Ms Leidholdt, particularly those living in vulnerable households or foster care, LGBTQ+ people who are made homeless, and those with histories of sexual abuse.
In Queens, there is also a high incidence of sex trafficking through brothels of Asian women, principally from China and Korea, most of whom are undocumented, Ms Leidholdt said.
“There is significant trafficking from Latin America, highly organised family-based trafficking, typically of young women. They promise vulnerable young women, who are usually in conditions of poverty and teenagers, romance, marriage and support. Then they slowly groom them into sex trafficking – scores of women,” she added.
Mrs Meyers added that “communities often traffic their own”. In 2020, 42 per cent of trafficking victims in New York were brought in by a member of their families, according to Polaris. Thirty-nine per cent were recruited through an intimate partner or marriage proposal.
Ms Thompson, Ms Leidholdt and Mrs Meyers are all calling for better engagement and support services from the NYPD.
“There’s a lot of talk around what we do to keep [victims] safe or get them out, but there’s nothing really that focuses or targets on rehabilitation, so that we do not relapse,” Melanie said.
“Stop the arrest of people who are in prostitution, but keep the criminal penalties against sex buyers and exploiters, including brothel owners,” said Mrs Meyers, adding: “Seeing a 12-year-old child pregnant with a child from an abuser, there’s nothing worse. You need to fight for these women.”
There are 175,000 searches for sexual images on Pornhub that trigger child-abuse checks every month in the UK alone, according to data provided by a groundbreaking new chatbot designed to intercept illegal activity on the adult site.
The startling figures are revealed as the chatbot is rolled out on Pornhub, the world’s biggest pornography site, after a trial that began in March.
When someone visiting the Pornhub site uses one of 28,000 words that are linked to the abuse of children – including codewords – it will prompt a pop-up message informing them that no results exist and that they are searching for potentially abusive and illegal imagery.
The user will then be directed into a conversation about their behaviour and encouraged to get help from Stop It Now!, a helpline aimed at supporting offenders and preventing people watching online child abuse.
Tech experts at the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) – a UK-based organisation that removes images of child abuse from the internet – have spent more than two years designing the chatbot, using research gathered from offenders by a child protection charity, the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. The project has been funded by Safe Online – End Violence Against Children. Pornhub agreed to host the technology.
This is the first time a chatbot has been used to target potential abusers and the charities say they were pleased when Pornhub’s owner, MindGeek, allowed them to use it on its site. Pornhub is visited by 15 million people a month in the UK alone, a larger audience than many mainstream TV channels.
Susie Hargreaves, the chief executive of the IWF, says moving into prevention is vital. “The courts can’t keep up with this crime,” she says.
“In 2021, we removed a quarter of a million webpages containing child sexual abuse material from the internet – an increase of 64% on 2020. In the first month of the UK lockdown there were eight million attempts to access just three of the websites on our block list. These are really scary numbers.
“Prevention is key and it is to MindGeek’s credit that they stepped up to help. We needed a site with a lot of traffic, which MindGeek have provided, and I should stress that this year we have removed 169,000 pages so far with illegal content from the internet, and only one of them was on Pornhub.”
Child abuse charities are aware that working with MindGeek will be seen as a divisive move. The company has faced a string of serious allegations in recent years related to allegations of nonconsensual videos, films of children and extreme content on its sites.
In 2020 MindGeek announced it would be banning unverified video uploads after allegations by the New York Times that it had been hosting child abuse videos. MindGeek came under huge pressure to make reforms to its operating model – including losing the business of Mastercard and Visa. An investigation in the New Yorker this year reported that nonconsensual and underage videos – including those with children – have ended up on Pornhub.
The investigation follows a 2021 lawsuit that alleged MindGeek violated US sex trafficking and child pornography laws by allowing, and profiting from, its users to post pornographic videos featuring people under the age of 18. MindGeek has denied the allegations.
MindGeek’s chief executive, Feras Antoon, and its chief operating officer, David Tassillo, resigned in June, though MindGeek rejected claims the resignations were linked to the allegations.
Donald Findlater is the director of Stop It Now! and the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. He acknowledges the very serious criticisms of MindGeek in recent years but said working with them has helped reach many offenders at the beginning of their journey.
“We thought very long and hard about a collaboration with Pornhub. But this is pragmatic. We know from speaking to people who contact our helpline or who are arrested that their route to watching the abuse of children often involves accessing legal porn and then searching from there.
“To be clear, that is not the journey all offenders make, but it is the journey for some and we need to serve warnings to them – that children were harmed to make these images and are further harmed by continual viewing.”
The numbers involved in the online child abuse crisis are huge and growing all the time. About 850 people, virtually all of them men, are arrested each month in England and Wales for downloading indecent images or grooming children online. In 2010 there were only 407 arrests across the entire year – a 25-fold rise.
Dan Sexton is the chief technology officer at the IWF. “Our job is to eliminate child sexual abuse so we need to go where we can do that – that would apply to many websites,” he says. “If we can reach people earlier, reduce the number of people who search for children, then it will reduce demand.”
The Guardian has previously reported on concerns around pornography that fetishises child abuse, rape, incest and “revenge porn”.
Hargreaves did not want to comment on wider criticisms that the porn industry promotes fantasies of sex with minors through films acted by adults. “The issue is so huge, we have to focus on real children who are being sexually abused.”
A spokesperson for Pornhub said: “Pornhub has zero tolerance for child sexual abuse material, and we are honoured to partner with leading organisations like IWF and Stop It Now! to deploy this groundbreaking technology that will help deter bad actors before they commit a crime. While Pornhub utilises deterrence messaging worldwide, the chatbot serves as an additional layer of social intervention being piloted in the UK.
“We encourage other tech platforms to implement tools like the chatbot as part of a strategy of deterrence.”
Findlater is optimistic that despite the huge scale of the challenge, the chatbot is just the beginning. He says: “UK law enforcement and tech experts are really at the forefront globally of tackling the online child-abuse crisis and I think this chatbot can continue to grow and develop and eventually protect children from abuse which is what we all want to achieve.”
I’ll spare you specific examples: we all know the kind of material under discussion in The Aesthetics of Degradation, a searching meditation on the brand of hardcore pornography whose erotic currency consists primarily in implausibly lurid spectacles of control and domination. “The array of humiliations evinced in pornography over the past two decades,” writes Adrian Nathan West, “seem less the result of individual perversions than the kind of systematic refinement commonly associated with competitive marketing and research and envelopment in hierarchically organized positivist societies.” At what point, then, does pornography cease to be eroticism and change into something else, something qualitatively different? We are in a discursive terrain of semantic ambiguity; a starting premise of West’s analysis is that extremely degrading pornography tends to marginalize sexual desire as such, “substituting predominately sensual fantasies of doing-with for predominately visual fantasies of doing-to [… with] a heightened emphasis on humiliation, violence, and visual impingements on female bodily integrity.” Taxonomically speaking, it might be more appropriate to place it in the category of sadistic entertainments occupied by snuff movies and the like, rather than the realm of erotica. This formulation invites a number of possible objections with regard to freedom and consent, each of which West examines in turn.
“Pornography,” writes West, “is a play of illusions constantly struggling to transcend its irreality.” It is perhaps for this reason that the depiction of abuse is so popular among its users. To put it simply and crudely: A woman having an orgasm on-screen may or may not be faking it, but a woman being urinated on on-screen is, genuinely and verifiably, being urinated on. So the oft-repeated moral defense that such abuse isn’t “real” because it is staged is manifestly disingenuous; the things being depicted have, self-evidently, actually happened. West gives similarly short shrift to another common argument, that the actors involved give their consent: “It is fallacious to suppose we possess a single subjectivity and are incapable of forcing ourselves into situations contrary to our will.” If this feels a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut — casually panning out to an attack on freedom of contract, the entire basis of economic existence for the past three hundred years — it tells us something about why the debate around pornography is so compelling even to people who have no particular interest in the material: it contains, in concentrated form, many of the ethical dilemmas that underscore all our lives as workers and consumers.
West raises a more subtle and immediately pertinent point when he questions whether it is even possible to give informed, meaningful consent on behalf of one’s future self, when undertaking something one has never previously done, and which is likely to — indeed, appears designed to — cause psychological harm. If, as a society, we are sufficiently sophisticated about consent to understand that in certain circumstances it is vitiated — say, when a person is underage, or mentally infirm, or extremely intoxicated — then why can we not take proper account of the likelihood of psychological damage arising from certain forms of extreme ill-treatment? West also discusses the psychological phenomenon known as repetition compulsion, in which victims of abuse feel compelled to reenact a trauma. He speculates that a significant proportion of porn actresses may well suffer from this condition, in which case the profession would amount, in effect, to an industrial-scale abusive exploitation of a self-selecting group of vulnerable people.
West’s primary target is indeed an industry that is both exploitative and, in its fraudulent pretensions to moral propriety — its “cession of ethics to legalistic sophism” — borderline psychopathic. But a concern with the end user is never far from the surface; moving away, as it were, from the production side to the consumption side, the implications of such sadistic pastimes for gender relations at large are hugely significant. It is hard to quibble with West’s assertion that there is a direct link between the systematic subjection of an individual to humiliation or distress and that person’s “symbolic annihilation.” In this regard, it is worth noting that making computer-generated images of child abuse is, quite rightly, forbidden by law: because, even though there is no “victim” involved in their production, it is understood that the dissemination of such material is likely to fuel certain proclivities that will lead, in turn, to actual real-life abuse. That the same sophistication of insight is not extended to material that portrays the abuse of women — in a world rife with domestic violence — is an anomaly that warrants scrutiny.
The Aesthetics of Degradation is an idiosyncratic work, but its eccentricities do not significantly detract from its readability. One inevitably finds oneself wondering if West is holding something back in terms of his reasons for writing the book: a number of personal reminiscences, such as a recollection of feeling physically ill after seeing a gaping on-screen anus, have a certain melancholy candor, but the matter of the author’s own relationships with pornography and sexuality are kept, for the most part, tantalizingly off-stage. This is probably for the best, though: it would have meant a very different sort of book, and likely a less interesting one. What we have instead is a brief, punchy provocation, informed by a strong sense of human compassion — an incitement to readers to think deeply and honestly about a question of profound social importance.
Houman Barekat, LA Review of Books, 2016
An abuse survivor can sue Visa over videos of her posted to Pornhub, a US court has ruled.
Serena Fleites was 13 in 2014 when, it is alleged, a boyfriend pressured her into making an explicit video which he posted to Pornhub.
Ms Fleites alleges that Visa, by processing revenue from ads, conspired with Pornhub’s parent firm MindGeek to make money from videos of her abuse.
Visa had sought to be removed from the case.
Ms Fleites’ story has featured in the New York Times article The Children of Pornhub – an article which prompted MindGeek to delete millions of videos and make significant changes to its policies and practice.
Her allegations are summarised in the pre-trial ruling of the Central District Court of California.
The initial explicit video, posted to Pornhub without her knowledge or consent, had 400,000 views by the time she discovered it, Ms Fleites says.
She alleges that after becoming aware of the video, she contacted Mindgeek pretending to be her mother “to inform it that the video qualified as child pornography”. A few weeks later it was removed
But the video was downloaded by users and re-uploaded several times, with one of the re-uploads viewed 2.7 million times, she argues.
MindGeek earned advertisement revenue from these re-uploads, it is alleged.
Ms Fleites says her life had “spiralled out of control” – there were several failed suicide attempts and family relationships deteriorated – then while living at a friend’s house, an older man introduced her to heroin.
To fund her addiction, while still a child, she created further explicit videos at this man’s behest, some of which were uploaded to Pornhub.
“While MindGeek profited from the child porn featuring Plaintiff, Plaintiff was intermittently homeless or living in her car, addicted to heroin, depressed and suicidal, and without the support of her family,” Judge Cormac J. Carney’s summary of her allegations says.
MindGeek told the BBC that at this point in the case, the court has not yet ruled on the truth of the allegations, and is required to assume all of the plaintiff’s allegations are true and accurate.
“When the court can actually consider the facts, we are confident the plaintiff’s claims will be dismissed for lack of merit,” the company said.
The Judge ruled that, at the current stage of proceedings, “the Court can infer a strong possibility that Visa’s network was involved in at least some advertisement transactions relating directly to Plaintiff’s videos”.
But Visa argued that the “allegation that Visa recognized MindGeek as an authorized merchant and processed payment to its websites does not suggest that Visa agreed to participate in sex trafficking of any kind”.
It also argued, according to the judge’s account of its position, that a commercial relationship alone does not establish a conspiracy.
But Judge Carney said that, again at this stage of proceedings, “the Court can comfortably infer that Visa intended to help MindGeek monetize child porn from the very fact that Visa continued to provide MindGeek the means to do so and knew MindGeek was indeed doing so.
“Put yet another way, Visa is not alleged to have simply created an incentive to commit a crime, it is alleged to have knowingly provided the tool used to complete a crime”.
A spokesperson for Visa told the BBC that it condemned sex trafficking, sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse material.
“This pre-trial ruling is disappointing and mischaracterizes Visa’s role and its policies and practices. Visa will not tolerate the use of our network for illegal activity. We continue to believe that Visa is an improper defendant in this case.”
Last month MindGeek’s chief executive officer and chief operating officer resigned.
The senior departures followed further negative press in an article in the magazine the New Yorker, examining among other things the company’s moderation policies.
Mindgeek told the BBC that it has:
- zero tolerance for the posting of illegal content on its platforms
- banned uploads from anyone who has not submitted government-issued ID that passes third-party verification
- eliminated the ability to download free content
- integrated several technological platform and content moderation tools
- instituted digital fingerprinting of all videos found to be in violation of our Non-Consensual Content and CSAM Policies to help protect against removed videos being reposted
- expanded its moderation workforce and processes
The company also said that any insinuation that it does not take the elimination of illegal material seriously is “categorically false”.
In a restaurant in Manchester last Wednesday my phone began to vibrate so often that I thought it was in meltdown. Minutes earlier I had posted a message on Twitter reacting to the findings of an inquiry into the grooming and abuse of young girls in Telford.
The message read: “Hard to understand why Telford scandal is not front of every paper. 1000 children.” It went viral and was eventually viewed two million times.
A three-year independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in the Shropshire town had uncovered child abuse lasting decades. So why were the media not shouting about it in every newspaper, radio broadcast and TV bulletin? Was it apathy? Concern at media outlets over how to report on the culturally awkward subject of Asian men, largely of Pakistani heritage, abusing scores of children? Or are we so fascinated by the power struggles of Tory politicians that we don’t care about life in towns and villages far away from London?
Halfway through my starter, I asked my lunch partner, Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor for northwest England who brought down the Rochdale child sex abuse ring, what he believed.
He blamed apathy. Fatigue. We’ve seen it all before. “At first everybody was reading about the Ukraine war and talking about it. But that has started to fall away. It’s the same with the child sex gangs,” he said.
The blitz of stories about grooming gangs has felt endless. Court cases. Council reviews. Police watchdog reports. Last month a report by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), called Operation Linden, found that South Yorkshire police let down 1,400 abuse victims in Rotherham — enough children to fill a decent-size secondary school.
The same month, Greater Manchester’s authorities published their own review of historical child sex abuse, which found children had been left exposed to sexual exploitation because of “serious failings” by the police and Oldham council. This included a council welfare officer convicted of 30 rapes.
Child sex gangs have been rooted out in Newcastle, Oxford, Halifax, Keighley, Derby, Peterborough, Bristol, Huddersfield, Manchester, Coventry, Middlesbrough, Burton-on-Trent, Bradford, Birmingham, Nottingham, Hull, Sheffield … I could go on, but you get the picture.
“They’re in the news for 24 hours, then it’s gone,” Afzal said. “It’s today’s newspaper, but not tomorrow’s.”
And after each scandal nothing seems to change. Like the police and social services, we move on, and lurch to the next scandal of mass rape in a post-industrial town. That’s the problem. But how do we fix it? Be more proactive, Afzal argues. He makes a good point.
Victims often feel criminalised and made to believe it is their fault — that they chose a certain lifestyle and are paying for it. These young girls are so traumatised by their abuse that they are rightly suspicious of the authorities.
They find it hard to trust social workers and detectives. Children like that are not going to easily approach such people, so you have to go out and find them.
Roughly a decade ago, there was a scheme in Greater Manchester in which social workers would go out at night and visit the staff and customers of the night-time economy – the takeaway shops, pool halls and taxi ranks. This is an economy that, for whatever reason, has a disproportionately high number of Asian men.
It is in the dimly lit streets and litter-strewn pavements of the night-time economy that the perpetrators meet their victims, luring them in with gifts of food, cigarettes, booze and free rides. A victim’s mother once told me her 14-year-old daughter was performing oral sex in exchange for a bag of chips or a box of chicken. She cried to me on the phone. The whole family is broken.
The 14-year-old met her abusers in a chicken shop. Local authorities, like all public services, are firefighting, with budget cuts due to austerity and holes in their finances due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Money is stretched thinly – and proactive work is always the first to go. But police and social services must recognise this repeating pattern and disrupt it. Set up teams of community police officers and social workers. Get out there and target the night-time economy. Find those victims and earn their trust. Break the cycle.
Obvious evidence of child sex crimes in Telford was ignored for generations leading to more than 1,000 girls being abused, an inquiry has found.
Agencies blamed children for the abuse they suffered, not the perpetrators, and exploitation was not investigated because of “nervousness about race”.
The inquiry was set up after the Sunday Mirror revealed gangs had been abusing girls in the town since the 1980s.
Chairman Tom Crowther QC said the abuse had thrived unchecked for decades.
His report makes 47 recommendations for improvement by agencies involved. West Mercia Police has apologised “unequivocally” for past events as has Telford & Wrekin Council.
The report found agencies dismissed reports of child exploitation as “child prostitution”.
Mr Crowther said: “The overwhelming theme of the evidence has been the appalling suffering of generations of children caused by the utter cruelty of those who committed child sexual exploitation.
“Victims and survivors repeatedly told the inquiry how, when they were children, adult men worked to gain their trust before ruthlessly betraying that trust, treating them as sexual objects or commodities.
“Countless children were sexually assaulted and raped. They were deliberately humiliated and degraded. They were shared and trafficked. They were subjected to violence and their families were threatened.
“They lived in fear and their lives were forever changed. They have asked, over the years: how was this allowed to happen?”
Other key report findings include:
- Teachers and social workers being discouraged from reporting abuse
- Offenders becoming “emboldened” by the absence of police action, with abuse continuing for years without concerted response
- Exploitation was not investigated because of nervousness about race, that investigating concerns against Asian men, in particular, would inflame “racial tensions”
- Even after an investigation leading to seven men being jailed for child sex crimes West Mercia Police and Telford & Wrekin Council scaled down their specialist teams “to virtual zero” in order to save money
The investigation was known as Operation Chalice and saw two Telford brothers among those jailed. A court heard the brothers sexually abused, trafficked and prostituted, or tried to prostitute, four teenagers between March 2008 and December 2009.
The report found the most common way children were exploited was through a “boyfriend” model, where a child would meet a man, who would persuade them to become his girlfriend.
Perpetrators, it said, sought out “vulnerable” children and would begin giving them lifts, buying them food, alcohol or cigarettes which led to the children becoming involved in sexual activity with the men as a “favour” as payment for the gifts.
Most of those responsible for the abuse did not use contraception and “pregnancies were expected to be (and in many cases were) terminated.” Some of those abused went on to bear the perpetrator’s children.
In several cases, victims received death threats against them or their families if they tried to end the abuse.
The report references the case of Lucy Lowe, 16, who died along with her 17-year-old sister and mother in a house fire started by Azhar Ali Mehmood, 26, the father of her daughter. She had become pregnant at 14 to Mehmood.
The report continued to say children were often abused in nightclubs and takeaways with witnesses also describing a “rape house” in Wellington, Telford, to which young people were taken.
Within schools, it said, there was a “reluctance” to report concerning activity without “concrete proof” which was an “overly cautious approach”, while “obvious” indicators like absences and changes in behaviour went unremarked by school staff.
The report said, in the most recent figures from the first six months of 2020, police received 172 referrals related to child exploitation.
The “dreadful, life altering crime has not gone away – in Telford or elsewhere,” the report said.
It also outlines recent police evidence of “an unacceptable, and quite frankly offensive attitude”, towards child abuse victims, with “disparaging language being used”.
In his statement, Mr Crowther said he looked back as far as 1989 to draw his conclusions, but had heard from victims exploited as long ago as the 1970s.
“I saw references to exploitation being ‘generational’; having come to be regarded as ‘normal’ by perpetrators and inevitable by victims and survivors some of whose parents had been through similar experiences,” he said.
He urged agencies to accept the recommendations made in the report and hoped the report “goes some way” to giving a voice to the survivors.
Mr Crowther recommended the formation of a joint review team to publish an annual report on child abuse in Telford.
Following the inquiry’s publication, survivor Joanne Phillips, who gave evidence said: “Victims were being identified as child prostitutes. Once you have been convicted that label will never leave you.
“Prosecutions are damaging to your life.
“Some children went to prison for not paying the fines. Convictions should be completely expunged.
“Today I feel incredibly proud of the girls in Telford….I cannot express enough how proud I am for seeing this through and their resilience and bravery.”
Lucy Allan, the MP for Telford, who has been campaigning on the issue since 2016, said: “Today is a very important day for victims and survivors of CSE, not just in Telford but right across the country because this report is damning, it is devastating.
“There are clear patterns that existed well before this report was commissioned that people knew about CSE, we had had high profile court cases in Telford and we should have taken learnings from that and we quite clearly didn’t.
“The saddest thing is that victims and survivors, their voices weren’t heard, they weren’t taken seriously and that should never have happened.”
The report’s recommendations should be adopted by local authorities around the country, she said.
Telford and Wrekin Council has said it “apologises wholeheartedly” to the victims.
“Child sexual exploitation is a vile crime that disgusts us and all right thinking people.
“The independent inquiry acknowledges we have made significant improvements in recent years.”
It said it was working to provide support for victims and it was already carrying out many of the inquiry’s recommendations.
Assistant Chief Constable Richard Cooper, of West Mercia Police, said he would like to say sorry to the survivors and all those affected in Telford.
“While there were no findings of corruption, our actions fell far short of the help and protection you should have had from us, it was unacceptable, we let you down. It is important we now take time to reflect critically and carefully on the content of the report and the recommendations that have been made,” he said.
He said the force now has teams dedicated to preventing and tackling child exploitation and works better together with organisations to safeguard children.
West Mercia Police and Crime Commissioner, John Campion, said victims and survivors had been let down.
“I cannot say with absolute certainty, just because lessons have been learnt, that it will never happen again.
“However, my drive as PCC remains resolute to ensure the system, that is there to keep people safe, continues building on the progress that has been made.”
Shropshire Council, which neighbours Telford & Wrekin said these crimes are “happening right across the country”.
It said awareness of the crime is now “far greater” and it has “safeguards” in place to help people living in the area.
I’ve just returned from a conference in Rome called Prostitution: Is Italy ready for the Nordic model?. The event was the first of its kind to be held in the Italian senate and it has caused some controversy.
A new bill drafted by senator Alessandra Maiorino was launched at the event, which, if approved by parliament, would criminalise the buying of sex and decriminalise those in prostitution. Known as the Nordic model, this approach to tackling the harms of the sex trade was first introduced in Sweden in 1999 and has since been adopted by a number of countries, including the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, France, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Israel.
Outside the venue, a small protest group representing sex workers and allies accused the organisers of “talking about our lives and bodies without even inviting us to the discussion table”, despite the fact that the views of pro-legalisation individuals are in the evidence that is included in the bill. Perhaps more significantly, the voices of those women who have survived the sex trade and since left it are loud and clear in this debate.
The tide is turning in Italy about the sex trade. Maiorino, a parliamentarian in the Five Star Movement party, has garnered cross-party support, with speakers at the conference representing youth, violence against women and gender equality.
Evaluation shows that this Nordic model approach has reduced the number of women in prostitution and that it challenges the culture of acceptability of men paying for sex. There are calls from abolitionists, including many sex trade survivors, to introduce the law globally.
Italy has a history of legislating against the sex trade. In 1958, senator Lina Merlin introduced the Merlin law, which effectively abolished legal brothels. Before the law was introduced there were 560 state approved brothels. The law also abolished the keeping of records of prostituted women, freeing them from the stigma associated with selling (but not buying) sex and providing support to leave. The key aim of the law was to reduce the numbers of women being forced, coerced or exploited into prostitution. It is regarded by Italian feminists as the foundation for a human rights critique of commercial sexual exploitation.
The law periodically comes under fire from those in favour of legalisation. The most recent example came in March 2019 whenit was challenged by the court of appeal in Bari in relation to a case in which businessman Giampaolo Tarantini was convicted of aiding and abetting prostitution by recruiting “escorts” for the then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Lawyers argued that prostitution is organised differently than in 1958 and that women now have sexual freedom and therefore can freely choose to be sex workers. The appeal was rejected by the constitutional court and the Merlin law was upheld.
According to Maiorino, there is more violence, abuse and exploitation in the sex trade than in 1958. “There are increasing ways in which women can be coerced into prostitution,” she said.
In fact, as Ilaria Baldini from Resistenza Femminista, a feminist activist group, told me, prostitution across Italy was “totally normalised” and the police often ignored the criminal exploitation of women in brothels and on street, rarely targeting pimps or buyers.
In March, Roberto Saviano (whose book Gomorra exposed one of Italy’s most powerful mafia networks) wrote an article for Corriere della Sera, arguing that legalising prostitution in Italy was necessary, that prostitution was a “real profession” and that the only way that women can be protected within the sex trade is to “regulate” it.
The article caused huge controversy and the newspaper was inundated with emails from anti-sex trade feminists, demanding a right to reply. Monica Ricci Sargentini, a reporter at the newspaper, supported the call for a feminist response; as a result, she was issued with a written warning and threatened with a three-day suspension.
Despite the significant resistance from pro-legalisation activists in Italy and elsewhere, its benefits are clear. Everywhere it has been implemented, the number of women in prostitution has fallen, as has violence – including homicide – against them. Neither is it an overly punitive or “carceral” law; proposals within Maiorino’s bill for sex buyers are typically modest: for first offenders, a fine of €1,500 to €5,000 and a police caution. Those that reoffend more than once in five years can be fined up to €15,000. A prison sentence of between six months to three years can be avoided if the buyers participate in a perpetrator re-education programme.
On the other hand, legalisation is always disastrous, as I discovered during my research. Germany introduced blanket legalisation in 2002 and, as parliamentarian Leni Breymaier told delegates in Rome, it has since become one of the fastest growing destinations for traffickers of women and children.
“There should never have been the scandal of Berlusconi,” she tells me. “And nor should any Italian men be led by his example.”
Spain voted on Tuesday in favour of a proposal to draw up legislation to abolish prostitution, cracking down further on pimping and introducing tougher penalties for men buying sex in a controversial initiative that has split the women’s rights movement.
Until now, prostitution has been tolerated in Spain, with many brothels operating as hotels or other lodging establishments, although sexual exploitation and pimping are illegal.
The move is part of a progressive drive by the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to extend women’s rights, and would see sex workers treated as victims to be protected rather than criminalised as they would be under any outright ban on prostitution.
A total of 232 lawmakers voted for the proposal, 38 voted against it and 69 abstained. It now faces a lengthy process during which lawmakers can suggest amendments that can be approved or rejected.
At the end of the process, lawmakers must vote again and only then will the law be sent to the Senate.
The Socialists, who rule in a minority coalition with far-left junior partner Unidas Podemos, want to introduce longer jail sentences for pimping, removing the present requirement for police to demonstrate that an exploitative relationship exists with the sex worker.
The proposal would also punish anyone using a premises for prostitution, and men buying sex, with aggravated sentences if the victim is a minor or classed as vulnerable.
The proposal has sparked intense debate in the local women’s rights movement.
Some organisations who work with trafficked and prostituted women, such as Medicos del Mundo, view it as a step in the right direction, while others like Antigona, a group of academics who are in favour of legalising prostitution, say it risks driving undocumented migrants underground and leaving them more vulnerable to trafficking networks.
Natalia, a former sex worker now employed by sex workers’ union Otras, said the current legislation “infantilises” women in the trade.
“Obviously this work has problems, and we need help to obtain rights, but not from the point of view of victimisation”.
Trabe, which provides accommodation for victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation, said any new laws should grant social protections to prostitutes, while Medicos del Mundo said the Socialists had to refine their proposal or risk organisations which help women being accused of facilitating prostitution.
Amelia Tiganus is a sex-trade survivor, originally from Romania. She has been campaigning to introduce laws to criminalise demand – the men that pay for sex – for a number of years. This week saw her wish come true, when the Spanish parliament voted in favour of clamping down on pimping and introducing criminal penalties for men buying sex.
Until now, prostitution has been tolerated in Spain, with many brothels operating as hotels or other lodging establishments, although sexual exploitation and pimping are illegal.
Tiganus was prostituted in Spain, where she still lives. She has long been involved in a campaign to end the sex trade, working since 2015 with Feminicidio as coordinator of its online training platform and projects for the prevention and awareness of prostitution, trafficking and other forms of violence against women. She is currently documenting the number of murdered prostituted women in Spain.
Tiganus has published several articles on the sexual exploitation of women and girls. In the past two years, she has given more than 100 lectures and workshops throughout Spain and Argentina. I spoke to Tiganus about being trafficked and abused in state-sanctioned brothels, and about her life and activism after escaping prostitution. Here is her story.
Last Monday, James Martin was sentenced to four and a half years in jail for killing Stella Frew. They had argued in his van, then he accelerated away with her hanging off its side, eventually running Frew over, causing her catastrophic injuries. Martin sped away with her handbag in the van, which he later dumped.
The cause of their altercation? Martin refused to pay her for the sex act she had just performed on him. Like many women who sell sex, Frew struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and was under their influence when she approached Martin. Her daughter described her for the court as the “kindest, most warm-hearted woman” who had been abused and hurt by men her whole life. The judge commented that Martin had shown barely any empathy for his victim.
And so it has always been. Prostitution is laced with mortal peril: women who sell sex are 18 times more likely to be murdered than women who don’t, according to one study. Yet these women have throughout history been cast as second-class citizens, not worthy of the same concern as other victims.
How best to prevent violence against those selling sex, the vast majority of whom are women, is a question that has long divided feminists. For some, it is about decriminalising the selling and buying of sex, which in England and Wales would mean dropping criminal offences such as kerb crawling, soliciting and running a brothel. There will always be prostitution, so the argument goes, so best to keep it out in the open. Others agree that the selling of sex should be decriminalised in all circumstances and think women should be provided with ample support to get out of prostitution, but argue that the buying of sex, an almost exclusively male activity, should always be a crime.
The full decriminalisation argument is driven by a belief that it is possible to sufficiently strengthen the agency of those who sell sex to transform it into “sex work”, like any other job. You can see what makes it an appealing frame, powered by an archetype that has evolved from the Pretty Woman male saviour narrative, to the sex-positive woman sticking two fingers up at a socially conservative society by making bags of money doing something she loves. Sex work is a choice that should be respected and we should destigmatise it by decriminalising the men who buy it and regulate it to make it safer. Women railing against this are depicted as prudes constrained by their own squeamishness about sex.
There are two reality checks that bring these theoretical arguments crashing down to earth. The first is that for every woman or man selling sex who regards it as a positive choice, and there are some, there are many more who have been trafficked or exploited and are effectively enslaved to criminal networks, working for a pittance, or for drugs to forget the trauma of being forced into selling yourself to be penetrated again and again, or for nothing at all.
In one investigation into sex trafficking, Leicestershire police reported that 86% of the women in brothels they visited were Romanian; in Northumbria, it was 75%. Numerous studies have shown just how dangerous prostitution is: a majority of women selling sex have experienced severe and repeated violence, with more than two-thirds suffering from PTSD at levels comparable to war veterans. Women who are actually or effectively being forced into selling sex have little voice in policy debates, although there are prominent survivor networks that argue for abolition.
Second, as the feminist campaigner Julie Bindel exposed in her 2017 book The Pimping of Prostitution, decriminalisation and regulation has not been the success its advocates claim. Bindel visited and interviewed women working in legal brothels in the Netherlands, Germany, Nevada, New Zealand and Australia and found exploitation to be rife, with legalisation acting to empower brothel owners. In one Las Vegas brothel, women weren’t allowed out unaccompanied or without their manager’s permission. In a German brothel, women had to service six men a day at the minimum rate just to make back the room rent. In a New Zealand brothel, women said men could simply complain to the manager and get their money back, leaving them with nothing.
Decriminalisation increases the overall extent of prostitution in a country without decreasing its harms or delivering any of the promised benefits of regulation. In New Zealand, Bindel revealed there were only 11 brothel health and safety inspections over a 12-year period. And decriminalisation makes it even harder for the police to combat trafficking; Spanish police describe how difficult it is to investigate when they enter a brothel and clearly frightened and distressed young women tell them they are working there by choice.
Decriminalisation can’t make prostitution safe because it is inherently dangerous and exploitative. How is a woman selling sex supposed to maintain safe boundaries or withdraw consent when a man physically capable of killing her is hurting her?
The men who buy sex all too often escape scrutiny. The Invisible Men project documents the nauseating way men talk online about their experience of women selling sex, very little of it printable. Research finds that men who buy sex are also more likely to abuse their partners, have a stronger preference for impersonal sex and to commit rape and other sex offences.
Correlation may not equal causation, but it’s not hard to imagine how using women for a price, even if it hurts them, further hardens already toxic attitudes towards women. These men have a vested interest in the sanitisation of their sex-buying. Perhaps the most extraordinary example is the former MP Keith Vaz, who chaired a home affairs select committee inquiry that came down against criminalising those who buy sex, and who a few months later was exposed as having offered to buy cocaine for two men selling sex.
There should be zero stigma, only help and support for those caught up in prostitution. But we legitimise the men who engage in the harmful practice of buying sex to our detriment. In the UK, it is estimated about one in 10 men have paid for sex; in Spain, where it is decriminalised, it is much higher. To accept that prostitution is always going to happen, and therefore the best we can do is regulate it, not only means tolerating the abuse of women: it is to be complicit in its expansion.