By Elli Wilson
Alexis Jay’s report on the abuse of over 1400 children over a 16 year period in Rotherham, and the “collective” failings of the police, social care and the local authority makes for tragic, uncomfortable reading. Unfortunately, whilst the scale and extent of the victims’ suffering and the authorities’ failures were certainly shocking, they did not surprise me. Britain today is still a deeply prejudiced country in which sexism and classism run deep, social services are underfunded and overstretched and young, underprivileged victims are likely to be dismissed as ‘unreliable’ or even complicit in their own abuse. In such conditions, it is hardly astonishing that vulnerable children and young people are abused and then failed by those meant to help and protect them.
With so much public anger and disgust over what happened in Rotherham, there would seem to be no better time than the present to start a national conversation about what causes rape and sexual abuse and how it can be prevented. However, in a depressingly predictable state of affairs, much of the coverage of the horrific abuse has focused on the fact that the perpetrators were predominantly British Pakistani and most of the known victims were white working-class girls.
In reality, perpetrators of sexual crimes in Britain are predominantly white. The only trait that almost all perpetrators of rape and sexual abuse share is their maleness. Sexual violence is not a crime committed by one ethnicity against another; it is a crime of male violence against women and children. Alongside class, gender is the overriding factor in the Rotherham abuse case, as with all other incidents of sexual violence.
By focusing on the ethnicity of the perpetrators in Rotherham, there is a danger that the threat of rape and sexual abuse will be othered and obscured. It is far easier and more comforting to think that such horrifying crimes are only a problem for certain sections of society, than to face the fact that in 21st century Britain children – primarily girls – are abused and exploited across all socio-economic groups and by men of all races. This is not a problem that we can safely categorise as belonging to one section of society whilst shaking our heads disapprovingly; the causes are deeply rooted in our attitudes and our establishment.
This is not to deny that different communities have different challenges in the fight to tackle abuse. For instance, Ruzwana Bashir eloquently described the culture of shame that can make it difficult for British Asian victims of abuse to seek help and justice. However, it is not as if survivors from all backgrounds don’t encounter disbelief and victim blaming attitudes. This is precisely the problem with the media’s fixation with ethnicity in relation to systemic sexual abuse; it hides the fact that the factors which contributed to the Rotherham scandal are not specific to a certain sub-culture but rather permeate all levels of society.
The scale of the abuse in Rotherham unmasks the toxic misogyny and classism that intersect to create an environment in which underprivileged girls can be raped, and then held in contempt by those meant to help them. Whilst the details of the Rotherham scandal may be particularly shocking it is important to remember that such abuse does not exist in a vacuum. If we do not engage in serious work to change attitudes of the public and those in power, and to end misogyny and victim blaming, then many other girls will be the damage of society’s collective failure.