Politics | ‘The right kind of perpetrator’: Race, religion and gender in the Rotherham child abuse scandal
New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Monday, October 6, 2014 16:05 - 5 Comments
The recent publication of the independent enquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham has returned the spotlight to this shameful episode in the town’s history. But while the report quite rightly blamed the catastrophic and multiple failures of the local council, police and child protection agencies, media coverage of it has focused, once again, on the race, religion and ethnic background of the perpetrators. This is because such a focus fits into the populist right-wing discourse around the supposed tyranny of political correctness and feeds a generalised sense of white victimhood. It wrongly attempts to explain the exploitation of children by means of the supposed deviancy of the Pakistani/Muslim community, encouraging a racial and religious profiling of child sex crimes that minimises the role of white men in abuse. Rather than helping the victims, this approach serves to distract attention from the prominent role of white, establishment figures in sexually exploiting children.
The key finding of the Jay report that commentators have pounced on is that “Several [Rotherham Council] staff described their nervousness about identifying the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being thought as racist; others remembered clear direction from their managers not to do so.”. This line appears to have been the cue for the right-wing press to declare open season on all Muslims, Pakistanis and even Asians as well as the politically correct left-wing politicians who are supposed to have enabled them. The Daily Mail led with “Betrayed by PC cowards” whereas The Sun preferred “1,400 victims of PC brigade” and “Scandal of race fears”. Apparently “the Left-wing council let [the exploitation] go on because the rapists were Asian”. The Telegraph’s columnists blamed “an imported culture of vicious misogyny” in which “men of Pakistani heritage slak[ed] their lust on young girls they regarded as white trash”. “In the face of such evil” Allison Pearson’s Orientalist fantasy piece begged, “who is the racist now?” Some commentators, such as Sun columnist Katie Hopkins, simply read directly from the far right’s propaganda: “If you follow a religion where your imaginary prophet is a paedophile I suspect you think it is OK to rape young white girls too” she tweeted.
What is never explained, however, is why identifying the perpetrators of the abuse by their ethnic background would have been useful to those tasked with stopping it. Instead, these are just further calls for collective punishment of one of the UK’s most victimised communities. Race and its new, more politically correct synonym, culture, are invoked to create a convenient scapegoat; to paint a black and white picture in which complexities are erased in a blur of emotional fury. They reveal the underlying fear and irrational rage of conservative white Britain against the immigrant Other.
Actress Samantha Morton, who grew up in and was abused in children’s homes in Nottingham during the 1980s, recently spoke at length about her experiences to The Guardian newspaper. Her analysis of the demographics of abuse is rather different to that peddled by the middle-class opinion writers in London. Her abusers were “local boys, mainly white” she said, adding that “if the home had been in Hyson Green maybe it would have been Pakistani men. I don’t think it was race-specific. Not at all”. Wasn’t the ethnicity of the perpetrators of the Rotherham abuse simply a reflection of the fact that the night time industries of this Northern town (taxi driving, takeaways) were largely staffed by members of the Pakistani community?
When the Rotherham cases first made headlines in 2012, expert researchers into the phenomenon of on-street grooming, Ella Cockbain and Helen Brayley, gave their assessment of the evidence:
“We believe that there are two main profiles of the on-street groomer. First, we have the white offenders, who typically offend alone. So far, nothing new: the lone white male is the norm for UK child sex offences. Second, however, there are Asian offenders, many of whom are of Pakistani origin. They seem much more likely to offend in groups, lending their abuse a curiously social dimension.”
Between 80-90% of child sex offenders are white men according to the CPS’ lead prosecutor on child sexual abuse, Nazir Afzal, although coverage of white grooming gangs has not made as many headlines as those involving Asians. Recent prosecutions of four white men and one Asian man in Derby and 10 white men in North Yorkshire did not receive anywhere near the same level of coverage in the national media as those involving gangs of predominantly Asian men. Then there is the rather different treatment of sex abuse committed by white male celebrities like Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris and Cyril Smith not to mention those yet to be unearthed by an investigation into a paedophile ring believed to have involved members of Parliament. These cases have also affected large numbers of children (as many as 450 over 6 decades in the case of Savile) and also featured extensive collusion and cover up by the authorities. Yet we do not hear about Australian Harris’ “imported culture of vicious misogyny” or editorials castigating the deficiencies of Smith’s Lancashire upbringing. There are no calls for white men to suffer for the crimes of a few of their number. These men were viewed as abhorrent exceptions rather than representative of their ethnic group, a luxury those from minorities are rarely afforded. Simply put, these were not the right kind of perpetrators.
The generalisation that seems most apt regarding the perpetrators of these crimes is that they were men. All of the offenders in all of these cases were male and the majority of their victims were female. It is the sexual objectification of women and girls and total disregard of the desires and needs that results in abuse. In a society where it is common for girls to be sexualised from an early age and assessed by their desirability to men and a culture that encourages men to see what they can get away with in the bedroom, it is no surprise that sexual abuse occurs on a large scale. It is also not surprising that some male authority figures like policemen and council officials disbelieve the victims. This conspiracy of silence is most likely when those committing the abuse are men in powerful social positions who can use their money and influence to cover up their crimes. But that is a threatening and complex conclusion and implicates too many with male privilege, power and influence, a description that fits the owners of many of this country’s newspapers. It’s much easier to say the problem is one of savage swarthy foreigners, unable to control their lust for white flesh. The communities that are damaged by such harmful fairy tales have little access to media resources in order to tell a different story.
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