Child sexual exploitation: police campaign is guilty of victim blaming

Published January 14, 2015 by JS2

Manchester’s campaign focuses on children and young people rather than abusers

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The phrase “It’s Not Okay” headlines a new police campaign in Manchester, aimed at highlighting the sexual exploitation of children in the city. As part of my training as a social work student, I’m working with young people who are at risk of being sexually exploited. It’s a bold statement, but who is it addressed to? What assumptions underlie this warning and inform how we, as (soon to be) professionals, tackle the problem and work with young people?

The campaign coincides with Ann Coffey’s report, released in October 2014,which describes child sexual exploitation (CSE) as a “cultural norm” in certain parts of the city. Coffey’s report, entitled “Real Voices”, is explicit in putting the voices of young people, literally, at the forefront of her recommendations. The decision to prioritise the voices of young people speaks directly to the criticism levelled at other local authorities (notably Rochdale and Rotherham) for ignoring and blaming young people. Yet I can’t help feeling the recommendations formulated in the Coffey report, and the coinciding police campaign, have not gone far enough in re-framing how we understand child sexual exploitation, and what we do about it. There’s something in the language that does not speak to the cultural shift that Coffey champions.

The website for the It’s Not Okay campaign elaborates on the message and makes it clear who it’s intended for: “It’s not okay for someone to manipulate you into doing sexual things for their own or someone else’s benefit.” Similarly, the Coffey report recommends “build[ing] resilience against CSE in children and young people”. Is this warning, then, aimed at children and young people? How does a child build resilience against an adult sexual predator? Should children be landed with this responsibility?

The sentiment behind these statements is bolstered by the story that is retold, via the campaign and the report, about CSE. Coffey warns that “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”. Can the organised exploitation of children be reduced to a communication issue, that young people are not good enough at saying no? To me this is a sugar-coated, online version of the “what was she wearing?” culture of blame that has plagued rape reporting.

In 1999, academics Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith took to task rape prevention and resilience training for young women. They argued that our professional focus on teaching young women how to refuse sex not only makes women and girls accountable for their rape, but is counterproductive insofar as it implies that other ways of refusing sex (with silences or even weak acceptances) are open to reasonable doubt. Kitzinger and Firth, using examples from ordinary conversation, demonstrated that people – men – understand refusals even when they’re not explicitly stated. Add to this the recurring theme of drugging, alcohol use and blackmail used by perpetrators in grooming gangs. The idea that consent is “confused” or that we need to build young people’s “resilience” against the actions of these men minimises the crimes that are being committed against them.

As social workers we need to provide a platform for the voices of young people, but we also need to check that our own, professional voice does not echo the victim-blaming culture that the Coffey report very explicitly seeks to address. When I talk about CSE to my colleagues, to other agencies, and to young people, I want to be talking about gender and the entitlement that is afforded to all men, not by social media as Coffey claims, but by a society that still values the lives of girls and women less than the lives of their male counterparts.

When I read about strategies to tackle CSE I want to read about co-ordinated approaches to working with the men who groom young girls and boys. The introduction of injunctions for suspected perpetrators in Birmingham and training programmes for the city’s taxi drivers are an example of this focus being redirected. When I’m working in a multi-agency context I want it to be made explicit that we are working in and against a criminal justice system characterised by a culture of disbelief that continues to be biased against women.

As a profession we have the privilege, and the responsibility, not only to re-tell the stories of young people in our care but to re-write them. To do this we not only need to educate children and teens, who already have brilliant voices: we need to educate ourselves.

Lauren W is a social work student at the University of Salford

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