It’s ‘vulnerable’ children who are targeted by rape gangs, right? That’s how the media report it. The short answer is ‘not really’. This is a misleading way of looking at it. If you are targeted by the gangs, you become vulnerable.
It’s a comforting thought though that only ‘vulnerable’ children are affected, because it allows people to assume that this is happening to others. It happens to those from ‘bad’ backgrounds. Or, it only happens to the ‘working classes’. Or, it only happens ‘Up North’. Or, it only happens in the poor areas of our cities. Or, it only happens in cities not in rural areas. Or it only happens to ‘the vulnerable’. Not to us.
But all of this is false.
Of course it’s sadly true that many of the girls (and boys too may also be victims) who are targeted come from very difficult backgrounds, and this may make them more likely to be picked out by the predatory gangs. But it’s very misleading to think that ‘being vulnerable’ is what explains the abuse. It can only help explain who is targeted first.
In a herd of antelope, if one has a broken leg, the lions are obviously going to go for the wounded animal. When that one’s picked off, next the lions go for will be the antelope with the limp. Then the oldest, or the youngest, or the slowest. But there will always be some animal in the herd who’s the weakest. And there will always be some animals who are simply unlucky, who happen to be on the outside of the herd when a pride of lions strikes.
This is how the abusers operate.
We must be very wary of this comforting mantra that ‘the vulnerable’ are the ones abused. And for several reasons.
It encourages the thought that the victims are somehow at fault. It’s victim blaming, but at one remove – it may not be the fault of the child, but we can blame the parents, blame the community, blame the schools, social services, blame our sexually permissive culture. But this is wrong. For there’s only one group to blame. The perpetrators. And indeed, in many cases, parents, and sometimes others as well, have gone to endless lengths to try to protect their children. Yet, still, there’s a suspicion that if only the parents had done their job properly, their child would have been safe. This simply deflects from the evil for which the perpetrators are fully responsible.
And the idea that it’s ‘vulnerable’ children who are abused overlooks how powerful the techniques of the abusers are. It’s not just girls who are out late at night hanging around town centres drunk with no one to look out for them. That’s the general picture that many still have, and media reports often encourage this. But the blame must always lie with the perpetrators. I’ve just read an article about street pastors in Telford looking out for young teenagers drunk on the streets. This illustrates the point perfectly. As alarming as it might be to think about young people of that age out and about at night and too drunk to know what they are doing, there is only one human response – to make sure they get home safely. What would any reasonable person do if they saw a 14 year old girl too drunk to stand? Call her parents? Or rape her?
The techniques the abusers use create further vulnerabilities. That’s the whole strategy of ‘grooming’. As unpleasant as this term is, it does at least help to highlight the insidious methods used to gain increasing power over victims. One of the first things perpetrators do is to break the bonds between a child and her family, and with those of her friends who are not also being exploited. Taking advantage of adolescent rebellion, they involve girls in ‘secrets’ like underage drinking or smoking and escalate from there. They persuade girls that their parents don’t really care for them – like they do. They isolate victims from anyone who might be able to help them see that the exploitation is wrong. The aim is to remove the victim to a world where the abusers have total power – either through flattery, bribes and brain washing, creating drug addictions, or additionally with outright threats. So no wonder girls portrayed in media stories all look vulnerable and cut off from their families. If they weren’t to start with, they are now. Those media reports that it’s girls from care homes who are being abused? Well, some of the girls were in care before the abuse started. But others were there only because they were being abused.
The abuse in fact affects whole families and whole communities which have suffered cascading consequences from the crimes of the perpetrators. The exploitation of the child creates vulnerabilities in all those connected to her. Parents may be driven to exhaustion by the anxiety of trying to protect their child. They may suffer ill health, they may have strains in their other family relationships, they may suffer economically or lose their job from trying to track where their daughter is. The whole family may suffer terrible trauma from fear of physical attacks such as threats of arson from the perpetrators and their associates. Siblings may suffer appallingly from all this. So it’s a bit misleading to say that the children who are being exploited are the ‘vulnerable’. They are made vulnerable – and so are all around them.
So we should correct the media reports that ‘vulnerable’ girls are being targeted. More or less any child of the right age could be targeted by these evil criminals. And the abuse affects not just victims, but their families and their communities.
We should rather focus our attention on how powerful the perpetrators’ techniques can be, on how wide-reaching the effects can be, and on the sheer depravity of their actions. Anything else looks alarmingly close to blaming the victims.
Dr Paula Boddington is a philosopher mostly specialising in ethics. She also has degrees in psychology and in law. She has held posts at the universities of Oxford, Cardiff, Bristol, and the Australian National University.