Grooming Children into Prostitution

“A pimp is someone who freeloads off the misfortune of women and children.” (Indoctrinated: The Grooming of our Children into Prostitution)

There have recently been a number of high profile cases of girls being groomed by gangs into what experts are calling child sexual exploitation but which is essentially another name for the sexual abuse and prostitution of children. The extreme Right have latched on to the fact that many of those convicted have been Muslim Asians. However, that is a red herring and doesn’t alter the fact that there is a huge problem of girls and young women being groomed into prostitution not only by groups and gangs but also by individuals.

“Girls as young as 12 or 13 were being trafficked around the north-west of England. Men who worked in the takeaway trade or as taxi drivers – professions that gave them unsupervised access to young teenagers – were grooming girls by offering them gifts, slowly winning their trust, and then forcing them to have sex. Some victims were driven between Rochdale, Oldham, Bradford and elsewhere to have sex with men for money.” (New Statesman, August 2012)

In this article I use the United Nations definition of child as a person under 18. It is important to remember, however, that one’s 18th birthday is not a magic line that suddenly makes you competent to negotiate the complexities of life independently. The reality is that the path from childhood to adulthood is perilous and young people need extensive material and emotional support to navigate that path successfully without catastrophe.

For simplicity I mostly refer to the victims as girls and the perpetrators as men. Less commonly boys are victims and in rare cases women are perpetrators, but the dynamics are generally similar.

What is grooming?

In this context, grooming is the process by which someone with more power (usually a man or older boy) manipulates a girl or young woman to participate in prostitution. The timescale varies – it may take years or just a matter of days – and it can take place online or “in the real world”.

“‘They don’t just say, ‘Oh, I’ll give you a free kebab if you have sex with me’ – that doesn’t happen. They become your friend. Girls are told, as my daughter was always told, don’t speak to strangers – but these men aren’t strangers anymore.’ Children like Tom’s daughter would go to the Balti House and other takeaways, where gang members worked, to socialise. The men would befriend them, over a period of weeks or months, offering free food or free taxi rides home. ‘It made me feel like I was pretty,’ Tom’s daughter told police. Then they would be invited to a seedy flat above the takeaway, or driven out to the countryside, and told they had to repay the favour. ‘It’s part of the deal,’ Tom’s daughter was told the first time she was raped. ‘I gave you vodka, now you give me something.’ Only then, after working to build up trust, would the threats of violence begin.” (New Statesman, August 2012)

The grooming process happens in stages. Obviously the details vary but typically it is something like this:

  1. Initial contact – This may be the perpetrator himself or another child, such as a classmate, who later introduces the girl to an older man, maybe a brother or cousin.
  2. Befriending – The perpetrator showers the girl with gifts and attention so that she becomes infatuated with him and regards him as a boyfriend.
  3. Isolating her – He encourages her to tell her parents she is staying over with a friend or to truant from school. He may give her cigarettes, alcohol or drugs with the aim of encouraging addictions. He may use pornography to soften her up to exploitative sex.
  4. Sexualizing the relationship – He initiates sexual contact and if she resists, he reminds her that she owes him for all the gifts he has given her.
  5. Control and exploitation – He starts demanding that she performs sexual acts for others. If she resists, he threatens her or her family members – perhaps using physical violence, perhaps by threatening to publicise photos taken of her during sexual acts or by threatening to tell her school or parents she has truanted, etc. She may or may not be aware that money changes hands for the sexual acts. She is unlikely to see any of it.

Grooming by individuals and groups

Many girls and young women are groomed by individual men who become their pimp.

“They become involved with a ‘boyfriend’ who initially treats them better than they have ever experienced before. The boyfriend gradually becomes extremely controlling, and eventually violent. He introduces commercial sex in terms of his pressing need for money, and ‘If you love me, you will do this.’ He quickly transitions from ‘just this once’ into ‘You are just a whore, my whore!’ and requiring daily prostitution. He continues controlling the victim with alternating emotional manipulation and explosive violence, while living on her earnings, for as long as she lasts. […]

Being trapped, under the control of violent and merciless men, without hope of outside help, sets the stage for Stockholm Syndrome. When the victim cannot successfully fight or flee, she may try to form a protective relationship with her captor. She hopes that if she can prove her love and loyalty to the pimp, she can ‘love’ him into being good. This can become such a desperate attachment that she actually believes she loves him, and passes up chances to escape. Stockholm Syndrome often is the real reason for what others see as the ‘choice’ to stay in the sex industry.” (Parker, 1998)

The relationship with the pimp may last for years. Anna T had this experience. In her poem, “What’s wrong with prostitution?” she tells of her experience. Here is an excerpt where she tells of her pimp who was also her partner:

“That my pimp stroke kids dad wasn’t all he was cracked up to be
A simple control freak that had lots of demands
Who if I didn’t obey would be free with his hands”

Grooming of girls by groups of men is increasingly common. The brutality in some of the reported cases is hard to comprehend. Sometimes they use parties as a mechanism to groom girls.

“Parties are organised by groups of men to lure young people. Young people are offered drinks, drugs and car rides often for free. They are introduced to an exciting environment and a culture where sexual promiscuity and violence is normalised. Parties are held at various locations and children are persuaded (sometimes financially) to bring their peers along.

Children are also encouraged to associate with others via Facebook, Bebo, ooVoo, etc. The parties may be held some distance from the child’s home, enabling the perpetrators to force the child to have sex in return for a lift home. Drugs and alcohol are used to suppress the children’s resistance. Images may be taken of them without their clothes for purpose of future bribery.” (PACE website)

Some studies distinguish between gangs and groups – the term gang being used for more durable social groups of children and young people who see themselves as part of a discrete named group, whereas the term group is used for looser networks of people of any age. Some key differences have been found between how grooming and prostitution play out in gangs and groups. One is that groups are often formed with the explicit purpose of child exploitation whereas gangs are formed for other purposes but the violence and hyper-masculinity of street gangs leads to the sexual exploitation of girls. (Office of Children’s Commissioner 2012)

“The girls were drugged, raped, prostituted and trafficked around the country. The group of men subjected the girls to acts of sexual depravity of such extreme violence that police sources said it amounted to torture. They isolated them and turned them against everyone: adults, carers, loved ones, social services, the police. The girls were completely brainwashed. Girl D described how she was branded and sold to other men for £600 an hour. Over five years she was repeatedly raped by groups of men. The police say the total number of girls could exceed 50. ‘This was happening in Oxford – the city of dreaming spires. If it was happening there, the ramifications for all cities are huge.’” Edited extract from Guardian report 14 May, 2013.

Why do they do it?

“Beyond commercial profit, professionals suggested motives for sexual exploitation that included the exertion of power and control, a desire to humiliate, sexual gratification and a belief in entitlement to sex.” (Office of Children’s Commissioner 2012)

Grooming girls into prostitution is about greed and cruelty.

  • It’s easy money – Girl D was sold for £600 per hour. The men were mostly working in fast food outlets or as taxi drivers or security guards and so were probably earning close to the minimum wage. This means that they could pocket more from one hour of prostituting one girl than in a week of normal work.
  • They get to play God – In the Oxford case, the police described what the perpetrators did to the girls as extreme violence and torture and other cases are not dissimilar. The men clearly wanted to hurt and humiliate the girls – they had no empathy, no recognition of their common humanity, no sense of responsibility.
  • They can get away with it – Although there have been convictions in the last couple of years, these cases are clearly just the tip of the iceberg and most perpetrators get away with it.

So how come in cities all around the country men are ruining children’s lives in this way? What causes it? How come they think it’s OK?

Undoubtedly there is a connection with the neoliberal policies of the last decades – the withdrawal of the safety net, the erosion of local services, public sector jobs, and community values, increasingly entrenched poverty within a culture that celebrates wealth and makes consumerism the highest good.

There is evidence that the mainstreaming of porn and its increasingly brutal and sadistic nature are normalising male sexual violence, eroticising abuse of power, and contributing to the “othering” of girls and women more generally.

“Othering is a process that goes beyond ‘mere’ scapegoating and denigration – it denies the Other those defining characteristics of the ‘Same’, reason, dignity, love, pride, heroism, nobility, and ultimately any entitlement to human rights. Whether the Other is a racial or a religious group, a gender group, a sexual minority or a nation, it is made rife for exploitation, oppression and indeed genocide by denying its essential humanity.” (Gabriel, 2012)

The acceptance of prostitution as a legitimate business activity also makes it more acceptable (Financial Times, 29 May 2014).

Is racism a factor? As mentioned earlier, the far Right have made a big deal of the fact that many of those convicted of these terrible crimes are Asian and Muslim and many of the victims were white. However, this is not the whole story. The figures do show that a disproportionate number of those convicted are of Asian origin compared to the general population but more white men have been convicted of these crimes overall. Some in the police have suggested that a more credible link is their involvement in the night time economy of kebab takeaways and taxi drivers, which brings them into contact with vulnerable girls. (Guardian, 13 May 2013). A study by the Office of Children’s Commissioner found that a disproportionate number of victims are from ethnic minority communities.

Racism is a form of othering and it is not unreasonable to suppose that those who are “othered” because of their ethnic origin also “other” other groups. The segregation of communities through religious schools and other factors that lead to segregated schooling and housing is likely to contribute to this.

None of these factors exonerate the perpetrators – I raise them merely to emphasise the dangers of  policies, such as faith schools, that contribute to the segregation of communities, and attitudes from politicians and the mainstream media that blame immigrants for all of society’s woes and thereby contribute to racist attitudes within society, and the importance of policies that contribute to racial and ethnic harmony, the status of women, and healthy sexual relationships.

Why do the girls fall for it?

“The evidence points to several factors that can increase a child’s vulnerability to being sexually exploited. These include: living in a chaotic or dysfunctional household; history of abuse (including familial child sexual abuse, risk of forced marriage, risk of ‘honour’-based violence, physical and emotional abuse and neglect); attending school with young people who are sexually exploited; experiencing a recent bereavement or loss; and […] children who were gang-associated either through relatives, peers or intimate relationships, or living in a gang neighbourhood.” (Office of Children’s Commissioner 2012)

If you’ve spent any time around kids, you may have noticed how many are vulnerable, needy, troubled – perhaps because they’ve been neglected at home or sexually abused, or because they haven’t got anyone looking out for them, or they’ve been in care, or their families are chaotic or drowning under the multiple pressures of poverty, long hours, lack of extended family support, social isolation and so on. But in fact all children are needy by definition – they all have needs for care and affection and they all depend on adults for these needs to be met.

And even in well-functioning families, people seldom tell girls the terrible truth that many men are sexual predators who will lie to get what they want. Girls are socialised to please, to put other people’s needs before their own. And the state of sex education is generally parlous, so girls don’t get much help there.

And then there’s the mass media that teaches girls that their chief value is as an object for the male gaze, that they need a boyfriend to be whole, that glamorises prostitution, makes it seem edgy.

Any policy that puts pressure on families – such as the withdrawal of the safety net, zero hour contracts, poverty pay, moving vulnerable families to housing in other cities away from their support networks, the lack of affordable housing that means families have frequent changes of housing which often interrupts education and uproots children from their peers – affects the ability of the family and the “village” to provide children with the extensive support they need.

How widespread is it?

“Oral rape was reported most frequently, followed by anal rape. Vaginal rape was the least frequently referenced form of abuse. There was a consensus amongst experts that anal and oral rape could be viewed as more humiliating and controlling than vaginal rape and, as such, may be favoured by those who are sexually exploiting children.” (Office of Children’s Commissioner 2012)

The 2012 report by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner into the prevalence of child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups found:

  • There were 2,409 confirmed victims of child sexual exploitation by gangs and groups during the 14-month period from August 2010 to October 2011 and this was definitely an underestimate of the actual scale of the problem.
  • There were 16,500 who showed signs of being at real risk of child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups.

These figures exclude those at risk from individual perpetrators. The victims ranged in age from 4 to 19, with a peak age of 15. The vast majority were girls, with a higher proportion being black or from ethnic minorities than in the population as a whole.

These are huge numbers. For each one of these children, the effects will last their entire life. They have been stripped of their right to explore and discover their sexuality in their own time and on their own terms. Their horrific experiences will isolate them from people who have had more fortunate lives and will make everything harder – relationships, friendships, motherhood, work. For each girl, it is a catastrophe and for society that has to be a catastrophe. These girls are our future. An attack on our children is an attack on the very fabric of our society. We cannot simply avert our eyes and think it doesn’t matter so long as our own children are safe.

And we cannot simply avert our eyes from the terrifying fact that these figures show that there are an enormous number of the men in this country who are prepared to pay for sex with vulnerable girls. Without this demand, the biggest factor motivating the pimps – that it’s easy money – would not be there. This is why the Nordic Model makes paying for sex a criminal matter. It sends out a strong and unambiguous message that buying human beings for sex is wrong. At the same time, the Nordic Model decriminalises the women and children involved in recognition of the abuse of power involved and in order to reduce the obstacles to them rebuilding their lives outside prostitution.

My Dangerous Loverboy

My Dangerous Loverboy is a pioneering campaign that aims to raise awareness of the sexual exploitation and trafficking of young people. They use this short film alongside other educational resources to open up people’s eyes to the harsh realities of sexual exploitation.

Indoctrinated: The Grooming of our Children into Prostitution

Although American, this film provides a good introduction to how grooming works.


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