Muslim sex grooming? No, the Oxford case is more complex

One recommendation in a damning 133 page report into child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Oxfordshire risks undermining a catalogue of organisational indifference, a lack of knowledge around CSE, and missed opportunities.

The Times front page leads with the headline ‘Calls for national debate on Muslim sex grooming’. Indeed, one (out of 16) recommendation did state:

“With a significant proportion of those found guilty nationally of group CSE being from a Pakistani and/or Muslim heritage, relevant government departments should research why this is the case, in order to guide prevention strategies.”

It is a valid point but there are other alarming factors to also consider. But before we arrive there it must be stated unequivocally that ‘political correctness’ did not deter individuals from intervention. The report confirms that agencies did not refuse to act due to ‘racial sensitivities’.

Yes, the victims were white, and the perpetrators were of Pakistani heritage. But their criminal motivations fall into methods of control: emotional, physical and sexual violence (not religion). The gang ‘actively targeted vulnerable young girls from the age of about the ages of 11 or 12. Sometimes the men would come across the girls while the girls were out drinking or playing truant’. As one victim stated, “School was bad for me – I was made fun of as a foster child. So I bunked off.” Others had run away from home (prior to grooming), others experienced domestic violence from their fathers, and some simply sought male emotional dependency.

Evidence from the prosecution noted that the men targeted those from ‘unsettled home lives’ who shifted between paternal and care homes. Why? Because it ‘made it less likely that anyone would be exercising any normal parental control over them or looking out for them’.

Emotional control was the result of the men lavishing gifts upon their victims to secure their trust and confidence. To further the control, the victims were given alcohol and introduced to drugs (cannabis, cocaine and sometimes heroin). The resulting addiction only became satisfied when exchanged for sex.

Extreme physical and sexual violence solidified control (including assaults with weapons and various forms of rape). One victim described it as an inescapable ‘living hell’. Other victim statements included ‘They threatened to blow up my house with my Mum in it’ and ‘I was expected to do things – if I didn’t they said they would come to my house and burn me alive. I had a baby brother’.

Drug dependency meant many victims were simply unaware of their surroundings and experiences. A drug-induced state became the only coping mechanism in the face of unspeakable and extreme violence.

Nor did the review find evidence of a top-level cover-up and during a press conference, the chair of Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children Board (OSCB) Maggie Blyth said: “[There was] a culture across all organisations that failed to see that these children were being groomed in an organised way by groups of men.”

Part of this cultural problem was language. Negative language distorted how authorities determined the victimhood of the girls. Too often, it amounted to simple victim blaming, and framed it around the girls getting themselves ‘into trouble’. Some of the language used by the police in their Missing Persons database is rather telling:

“[The missing person] is believed to be prostituting herself… to pay for drugs’, ‘putting themselves at risk”

“She is a streetwise girl who is wilful…”

“She associates with adults who have warnings for firearms and drugs. It is possible she is prostituting herself”

“… Deliberately puts herself as risk as she goes off with older men that are strangers”

Yet the review framed this problematic language in the context of a longstanding way for describing ‘children of that age who led a wild, risky life of premature sex and early excesses of drink and drugs’. So the perception of being a ‘wayward’ teen blinded staff from looking deeper at the issue of CSE.

Other notable examples included a partner agency of the local NHS Trust reporting a girl ‘hanging out’ with older men, a social worker then described these men to the school nurse as ‘lads’. School health records of the victim incorporated the words ‘prostituting herself’.

The term ‘boyfriend’ was applied to girls aged 13-15 with males in their late teens, and even early thirties. Again, such language helped erase their sense of consent and what defines non-consensual and lawful activity.

When an allegation of sex with a 13-year-old came to police attention, one detective said: “She is a 13 year old girl who could easily be mistaken for being 16 years old”. When the case reached the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) it was decided that because the victim ‘acted’ and ‘appeared’ 16, in their view, meant there was no ‘realistic’ prospect of conviction.

Victims often displayed an abrasive attitude to the authorities. An abrasiveness born in part from the control their abusers held other them (either through drugs, misplaced loyalty, threats of extreme violence and sexual violence).

The lack of understanding of CSE, victim blaming and an inability to ‘connect the dots’ of abuse created a friction that made many victims uncooperative. A lack of empathy and ‘professional curiosity’ compounded this problem. As one senior social worker told the inquiry: “The police response lacked curiosity – they would pick the child up, give them a telling off and drop them back at the children’s home.”

Testimonies from victims highlight the above issues: ‘If a perpetrator can spot the vulnerable children, why can’t professionals?’ ‘They didn’t stop to think ‘why?’ ‘They did not look on me as a child. In my head I was older, but really truly I wasn’t’.

Victims also made serious allegations against the police. One example included a complaint against a man who trafficked a victim from a children’s home. He was arrested, released and free to continue trafficking victims.

Another victim stated in the report: “I turned up at the police station at 2/3am, blood all over me, soaked through my trousers to the crotch. They dismissed it as me being naughty, a nuisance. I was bruised and bloody”.

Others reported an indifference from social workers but not all examples positioned authorities in a negative light. Individual social workers or police officers received praise from victims for simply listening to their stories and treating them with a basic level of decency.

Amid various improvements after the scandal made headlines in 2013, the Superintendent of Oxfordshire Police now meets mosque leaders every two months, and some of the discussion points look at CSE warning signs. A bi-monthly Independent Advisory Group where CSE is always on the agenda involves all faith groups. Through the local authority, Oxfordshire mosques and their linked madrassas work to ensure safeguarding (that includes DBS checks, basic training and a safeguarding policy).

To reduce sixteen national and organisational recommendations into the cheap ‘Muslim sex grooming’ headline undermines the serious and systematic faults in place. Similarly with Rotherham, a narrow and racialised perspective avoids the necessary and important discussions about how authorities understand CSE and the necessity of avoiding victim blaming. But that requires more than a cheap headline to fix.