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Abuse in Oxford – turning a scandal into a race scare

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The horrific child sexual abuse exposed in recent court cases has been labelled an Asian 'grooming' scandal. Judith Orr spoke to Ella Cockbain about how the issue is being exploited to further demonise Muslims
Issue 2354

The conviction of seven men in Oxford for horrific sex offences against six girls led to a flood of racism in the mainstream media.

The girls were aged between 11 and 15 when they were abused. They faced brutal sexual assaults between 2004 and 2011.

Time and again girls or their families complained to the police. But the police ignored them.

One girl’s parents were distraught when she disappeared for days at a time and turned from a “bright and happy child” to a “lost soul”. 

They reported her missing as many as 70 times. The police eventually told them to give up looking for their daughter.

The Oxford case exposed what happens when the system fails young vulnerable people. 

But much of the media, and some politicians, have responded to these shocking crimes by looking to race to explain them.

We are told that it is mainly Muslim or Pakistani men who sexually exploit children. 

Such abuse is commonly called “street grooming”. But there is no such criminal offence.

University College London academic Ella Cockbain is researching child exploitation. 

She told Socialist Worker that there is “a fixation that white girls are deliberately or exclusively targeted”.

The mainstream parties have helped to fuel this. 

Former Labour home secretary Jack Straw has claimed that some Pakistani men see white girls as “easy meat”. 

Tory baroness Warsi used the term “fair game”.

But Ella said, “My research has found nothing to support that. It actually suggests the opposite. 

“The complainants who have gone to court in the cases that I’ve looked at are about three quarters white, and one quarter black and minority ethnic.

“This idea that people are trawling the streets looking for white girls hasn’t had much empirical support at all. 

“In the cases I have worked on it’s much more opportunistic and casual.

“Lots and lots of different people are approached. Friendship networks of the victims and peer networks of the offenders are used to recruit.”

But as Ella pointed out, “That doesn’t sell papers as much as a narrative of a poor white British girl being overcome by the swarthy foreigner.”

It is relatively new to see child sexual abuse as a racial issue. 

Guardian journalist, Nick Davies, did several major reports into child sexual abuse throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. 

These didn’t refer to the race of the perpetrators or their victims. 


Instead the emphasis was on how the bleakness of victims’ lives led them into what was described as a form of prostitution.

Ella told Socialist Worker that it was the Times newspaper that first declared it had uncovered a new racial crime trend in January 2011. It called this “on street grooming”.

The Times described this as a “plague on Northern towns”. 

It said that the police were not dealing with the abuse in case they were accused of racism.

Yet the vast majority of those on sex offenders’ registers are white. 

Some 95 percent of those on the Greater Manchester sex offenders’ register are white, in a population where 89 percent of people are white.

Revelations about child abuse have recently hit institutions including the Catholic Church, the BBC and the care system. 

All the perpetrators in these cases were white.

Yet the Times made its dramatic conclusions about Pakistani men and abuse without reference to actual crime statistics. 

Instead it looked at press reports between 1997 and 2011 of cases of “child sexual exploitation in the community involving two or more adults and only girl victims.”

Ella pointed out that using press reports to measure crime “will naturally echo media biases about newsworthiness”. She added, “This appeared to be a definition almost seemed designed to produce a certain result.

“One of the most dangerous things the Times did was to claim there was ‘a conspiracy of silence’ on the issue. 

“It means anyone who challenges the racialised portrayal of the crime is automatically accused of covering up.

“The case investigated by Derbyshire police, Operation Retriever, was the big case which kicked this all off. 

After that they had another case that involved a group of largely white men and it got nothing like the coverage.”

A number of newspapers last year used a study by Ella and another UCL colleague to bolster the view that mainly Pakistani men carried out “street grooming”.

But this was a study of just two cases. The Times had to publish the researchers’ letter of complaint about the misuse of their work. 

Yet racist stereotypes remain resilient. 


This media obsession with crimes committed by Pakistani men against white girls is dangerous. 

It means non-white and male victims are ignored. 

And it risks leaving some victims open to abuse if their abuser doesn’t fit the stereotype.

In Oxford the girls and their families tried to get the police and the authorities to take notice of what was happening for seven years.

As with so many of the recent child abuse cases, the real scandal is that they failed to protect abuse victims.

Five out of the six girls abused in the Oxford case had been in care. 

The girls themselves were seen as a problem—and were refused the support and help they so desperately needed. 

We have come a long way from a time where sexual exploitation was seen as child prostitution and victims even sometimes faced prosecution.

From 2000 official agencies must deal with young people under the age of 18 exploited through prostitution as victims of abuse rather than perpetrators of crime. 

But attitudes to young women and girls can still shape official responses. 

One care worker described a victim as “glowing with hormones” and “very confident about her body’s power and movement”. 

The victim was 11 at the time.

With the rise of raunch culture, today’s society treats women and girls as sex objects at an ever younger age. They are constantly told that their bodies and sexuality are a valuable commodity.

Sometimes those who feel that they have few alternatives can find themselves being used for the only currency they feel they possess. But this shouldn’t be mistaken for them exercising choice.

One of the survivors of the abuse in the Oxford case escaped when she was 16. 

Now 21 she said, “I’ve done pretty well. I have lived my life completely differently, but I felt awful at the time and it still feels awful all these years later. I hated myself. 

“I felt proper dirty and disgusting, like I was worth nothing. I still live with it, every day.”

The moral panic and racism that these cases have generated do not open up a debate about solving the problem of child exploitation or abuse.

“Instead of simply chasing prosecutions,” Ella said, “early intervention and prevention is the way to go. I would like more thought put into how to stop this happening in the first place.” 

This needs debate about the nature of our society, about how alienation and women’s oppression can distort relationships. 

We need to address what sort of society is it that some young people can be drawn into abusive relationships and think that they aren’t worth more. 

We need to explore expectations of the role of the family and what happens when this breaks down when the care services are being run down by privatisation and cuts.

The police cannot offer a solution. They are part of a state riven with racism and sexism, they reproduce the prejudices about working class people and young women.  

The media and politicians claim to care about abuse victims. But they refuse to address the problems that vulnerable young people face.

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