Child sexual abuse is a difficult issue to discuss at the best of times. The conversation around child sexual abuse is more challenging when we move from a stereotypical offender-victim paradigm (i.e., white male perpetrators and young white female victims) to non-traditional offender-victim paradigm (e.g., learning disabled offenders, minority offenders and/or female offenders). The main issue is that the conversation surrounding the non-traditional offender-victim paradigm can become conflated with issues of political correctness, potential racism, potential sexism and discrimination. I am not saying that these concerns are not real or important, but rather they should not be used as a roadblock for avoiding difficult sexual abuse questions, as has seemed to be the case in the recent child sexual abuse scandal in Rochdale, England. Child sexual abuse is a wide and varied field and, as such, it is important to recognize that anyone can be a sexual abuser and/or a victim.
On Tuesday 26th August 2014 Professor Jay released her independent enquiry into the sexual abuse of children by members of the Asian community in Rotherham, England, between 1997 and 2013. The independent enquiry was called for by Rotherham city council (BBC) and suggests that (at a conservative estimate) 1,400 child victims were violently and systematically abused over a period of at least 15 years by organised “gangs” of Asian male perpetrators in the Rochdale area. In the report Professor Jay highlights a number of systematic failings made within and across a range of public services (i.e., social services, child services, the police and local government) which enabled the abuse to continue. The main failing appears to be an inability to respond appropriately to the role of minority groups in the perpetration of child sexual abuse. Professor Jay highlighted in the report (as well as in her press release) that “Several staff described their nervousness about identifying the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being thought racist; others remembered clear direction from their managers not to do so” (Jay, 2014; 2).In the subsequent media coverage that has emerged over the last couple of days, since the publication of the report, it has become evident that the race and minority status of the perpetrators played an important role in Rotherham city council’s reaction to the reports and prosecution of the sexual abuse (i.e., that victims were not listened to, stories where downplayed and opportunities to investigate/follow up where missed) (BBC News, Telegraph). The Rotherham case is not the only large scale case to come to light in the UK over the last couple of years involving the preparation of child sexual abuse within and by minority communities, with recent cases in Oxford, Derby, Rochdale & Peterbough (BBC). This is not to say that minority communities are more, or less, likely to commit child sexual abuse anymore than non-minority communities; rather we are starting to learn more about abuse that exists within these communities.
Minority communities can often be classed as “hard to reach” communities in respect to sexual issues (including sexual health and sexual abuse) because of perceived beliefs, culture, social structure, and approaches in discussing sexual matters (Cowburn, Gill & Harrison, 2014; ESRC online debate 2 - Access to and the impact of sex offender disclosure on minority groups). This means that traditional/mainstream approaches to policing, public engagement and education around sexual abuse may not work as well with these communities. Hence, we need to talk with different “publics” about sexual abuse in different ways (McCartan, 2013). In this case, talking to a minority community will not be the same as talking to a mainstream “white” community, the same way that talking to a working class community might not be the same as talking to a middle class one (ESRC Online discussion 1: Public understandings of sexual abuse and sexual abusers; Leverhulme Online discussion 1: Sexual abuse as a Public Health Issue). This means that prevention, ideally, shoule be multifaceted and tailored to the communities at hand. A one-size-fits-all model can present both ethical and logistical dilemmas.
When the mainstream engages with minority communities in conversations about sexual violence and prevention this needs a two-track approach: respecting their cultural beliefs and own ways of engaging on the topic, while simultaneously conveying the broader social and cultural approach in a way that they can engage with. One of the best ways of doing this is through the use of community “stakeholders”; people from the community who are invested in the community (Kemshall, 2012; NIACRO Base 2), and therefore accepted by them, and willing to work with the mainstream in developing a coherent, achievable approach to sexual abuse.
The development of a systematic, far reaching, and in-depth approach to sexual violence is challenging, and, to do it properly, means that we have to be willing to have the uncomfortable conversations as well as the easy ones. As a society we need to recognise that sexual abuse can be perpetrated by anyone regardless of education, economic means, or community status ., We should not avoid confronting uncomfortable sexual abuse claims because it may be challenging or politically difficult. We should pursue every claim of sexual abuse with the same rigour, customize prevention efforts to respect cultures and demographics, and only then will all of society truly understand the reality and pervasiveness of sexual abuse.
Kieran McCartan, PhD
Cowburn, M., Gill, A. K., & Harrison, K. (2014). Speaking about sexual abuse in British South Asian communities: offenders, victims and the challenges of shame and reintegration. Journal of Sexual Aggression. iFirst – http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13552600.2014.929188
Kemshall, (2012) Public sector and voluntary responses: dealing with sex offenders. In: J. Brown and S. Walklate (eds.) Handbook on Sexual Violence. London: Routledge
McCartan, K. (2013) From a lack of engagement and mistrust to partnership? Public attitudes to the disclosure of sex offender information. International Journal of Police Science and Management, 13 (3), pp. 219-236.