Article: Street Grooming, Criminality and Culture

Author: John Pitts |

In this critique of the recent Quilliam Foundation report which claimed a link between Asian culture and the street grooming of vulnerable young women, John Pitts identifies problems with this claim and argues that social and local factors need also to be considered. He suggests that the links made between Pakistani Muslim culture and CSE are too simplistic and that further research is needed that takes account of other factors.

In their Group-based Child Sexual Exploitation: Dissecting Grooming Gangs report (2017) Haras Rafiq, the CEO, and Muna Adil, a researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, endeavour to wrest the debate about the involvement of South Asian men in the street grooming of vulnerable White girls from both ‘bigots who wish try to sow hatred within our society and the Politically Correct Brigade who have tried to stifle this debate’ (p.2). They bemoan the fact that:

The lack of a serious, research-based, academic report on the nature of these crimes has led to a void in the public dialogue that has been repeatedly exploited by groups who wish to demonise entire communities. (Rafiq and Adil, 2017: 2)

This is not quite accurate because there is a substantial academic literature on this issue, although most of it concludes that the ‘myth of over-representation’ is a result of a media-orchestrated ‘moral panic’ (see for example Cockbain, 2013; Gill and Harrison, 2015; Quraishi, 2017). However, as Goode and Ben-Yehuda (2011) argue, ultimately the concept of moral panic rests upon an assumption of disproportionality; the idea that public concern is out of proportion with the reality. Disproportionality is evident they say if: (a) any statistical claims are demonstrably false; (b) the putative problem is nonexistent; (c) absurd rumours flourish; (d) some problems are emphasised at the expense of similar, but more significant, ones, and; (e) media and related attention increases despite no change in the rate of the demonised behaviour. If, on the other hand, as Rafiq and Adil demonstrate, the statistical claims prove to be a fairly accurate assessment of the scale of the problem; if, as was exemplified by dozens of successful prosecutions in a multiplicity of locations, the problem is shown to exist; if, when all the facts are gathered, most of the rumours turn out to be true; if the media do not significantly overstate the scale of the problem, and if these concerns do not result in political or legal change, as Stanley Cohen (1966, 2002), the scholar who coined the term, suggest that they would, then it is not a moral panic.

What Rafiq and Adil (2017: 2) aim to offer is anobjective approach’ which gives an ‘academic and nuanced context to’ the issue. Refreshingly, they acknowledge that, as people of Pakistani origin themselves, they had hoped to find that the phenomenon was essentially a construction of a sensation-seeking media, but they conclude that, in fact, the problem is all too real. Their report does not generate new information about the nature of the abuse. Their data sources; a report published in 2013 by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection agency (CEOP), newspaper reports of the trials of perpetrators, and the published deliberations of public enquiries, are already in the public domain. However, from these sources they have undertaken an analysis of 58 cases of grooming gangs which has led them to explain the phenomenon primarily in terms of the cultural inheritance of the perpetrators.


The Scale of the Problem

The 2013 CEOP report Contact Sexual Offending against Children by Non-related Adults was based upon a data collection exercise involving the 42 Police Forces of England and Wales. 31 forces responded.  The 31 police forces identified 2,120 lone perpetrators involved in cases of ‘non-familial contact child sexual abuse’ and 65 instances of group and gang associated sexual offences. CEOP distinguishes between two types of group-based abuse. Type 2 group-based abusers have ‘a longstanding sexual interest in children’ and 100% of those identified in this category were White. Type 1 group-based abuse involves targeting a victim, or victims, based on their ‘social and emotional vulnerability’ and the report notes that:

The focus here appears to be on the sexual abuse of teenagers and young adults on the basis of their vulnerability, rather than as a result of a specific preferential sexual interest in children. (CEOP, 2013: 10)

Fifty seven instances of Type 1 group abuse included data on ethnicity. Half of these were ‘All-Asian’ groups, 21% were ‘All-White’ groups, and 17% were groups containing ‘Multiple Ethnicities’. In terms of numbers of abusers, 75% per cent of recorded Type 1 group abusers were ‘Asian’.  The study found that 229 Asian men and 70 White men were involved in Type 1 group abuse. While 75% of recorded Type 1 offenders were ‘Asian’, ‘Asian’ people constitute only 7.5% of the UK’s population (The Office for National Statistics, 2012). By contrast, while 17% of Type 1 group offenders were White, White people make up 86% per cent of the UK population. This appears to indicate a very large over-representation of ‘Asian’ men involved in Type 1 group sexual abuse.

This said, as Rafiq and Adil note, in 2011 the UK’s Asian population was around 4,373,339 people meaning that Asian CSE offenders represent 0.01% of the UK’s Asian population and 0.03% of the UK’s ethnically Pakistani population. Thus they conclude that:

… to say that the Asian population living in the UK has a CSE problem, or even that the British Pakistani community has a CSE problem is wholly inaccurate and a misrepresentation of the facts. It is more correct to say that there is strain of Asian men, mostly confined to towns and cities in the North of England, that have developed an unfortunately successful method of identifying and grooming young, vulnerable girls to engage in sexual activity with them. (Rafiq and Adil, 2017: 13)


The Nature of the Problem

Rafiq and Adil maintain that these men represent a socially isolated and poorly educated subgroup which has failed to understand the far less restrictive sexual mores within Western culture and the legal prohibitions placed upon the exploitation of the young, vulnerable people. As a result, the authors claim, these men ‘still subscribe to outdated and sexist views of women embedded within their jaded interpretations of Islam’ (Rafiq and Adil, 2017: 15), and are enacting the attitudes and practices of a fiercely, sometimes violently, misogynistic subculture of Pakistani Islam. These views, they say, are passed down from generation to generation until ‘the lines between faith and culture dissolve, making it difficult to criticise one without being seen as a critic of the other’ (ibid.).

But if these men really were unaware of the legal prohibitions on the sexual exploitation of young, vulnerable people in Britain it is unlikely that they would have gone to such lengths to prevent their victims from revealing it. Moreover, rather than ‘importing’ behaviours that are tolerated in their country of origin, as Rafiq and Adil imply, it is equally possible that they have imported forms of criminality that are as unacceptable, albeit less well policed, there as they are here. In their recommendations the authors advocate for ‘better education with regards to cultural expectations in order to minimise the gap between origin and adoptive cultures’ (Rafiq and Adil, 2017: 16). This may well be necessary but if the perpetrators of these crimes really are unaware of the illegality of their actions, it will also be necessary to clarify the difference between cultural expectations and the law because while one can usually ignore the former with relative impunity, ignoring the latter could, and in the cases discussed by the authors, has, led to the imposition of severe penalties.

When brought to trial some of these men have tried to defend themselves by saying that, unlike women in the Pakistani, Asian or Muslim community, the White girls they targeted were ‘trash’ or ‘slags’ anyway and deserved everything they got. This racialised targeting of White girls by Asian men, Rafiq and Adil suggest, is a product of their:

… divisive, unevolved cultural identities that psychologically pit ethnic communities against one another so that girls from within the Asian community are seen as commodities to be ‘protected’, whereas girls from outside of the community are seen as fair game. Cultural notions of ‘family honour’ being linked to a girl’s sexual behaviour still exist in large parts of South Asia, and therefore targeting a girl from within the diaspora community would be seen as an attack on the community itself. (Rafiq and Adil, 2017: 17)

Whilst there may be some truth in this argument, as Shaista Gohir (2013), author of Unheard Voices, observes, Asian girls and young women are also vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and even enforced involvement in prostitution at the hands of these same men because they are even less likely than White girls to report the abuse (cf. Razzall, 2016). Moreover, the assertion that the young White girls are ‘asking for it’ is an excuse deployed by child molesters and rapists the world over and, sadly, as the enquiries into street grooming have revealed, is also a view expressed by some of the White professionals charged with their protection.

Beyond all this lies a larger question however because, if the cultural determinants of street grooming are as powerful as Rafiq and Adil believe, we have to ask why only a tiny fraction of the 2.5 million or so South Asian men in Britain, most of whom have been exposed to similar cultural beliefs, do not perpetrate these crimes. It is not clear how the profoundly conservative views about gender and sexuality, highlighted by Rafiq and Adil, which are shared by many British Muslims, translate into the actions of men who, in all of the cases they cite, gained the trust of the girls by giving them gifts of food, alcohol and drugs and the promise of friendship. These men used Class A drugs to seduce or tranquilise the girls in order to traffic and prostitute them, gaining their compliance through the threat or administration of often extreme violence. Moreover, in many cases the girls were not only used as a source of income via prostitution, they were also forced by their abusers to traffic Class A drugs. A recent investigation by the Sunday Mirror in Telford (Sommerlad and McKelvie, 2018) suggested that some of the young women were murdered. Clearly then, regardless of the fact that they may have been engaged in conventional social life, living in families and pursuing legitimate careers, the perpetrators of these crimes were not typical members of the Muslim or Pakistani community. In reality they were intermittently, active participants in a particularly toxic ‘subculture of delinquency’ (Matza, 1969) whose beliefs, values and behaviours were not simply at odds with, but stood in marked opposition to, those of their law-abiding peers.


A Distinctive Modus Operandi

In Birmingham in 2010, a report compiled by West Midlands Police (WMP) identified groups of ‘Asian’ men grooming school girls with alcohol and drugs and then sexually abusing them (Oldham, 2010). The report was not made public in order to avoid inflaming racial tensions in the run-up to the 2010 General Election. The police identified 140 predominantly White school children, some as young as 13, deemed to be at risk and 75 suspects, most of whom were from the Pakistani community. The report noted that several of the suspects were members of organised crime groups. By 2015, 372 suspects were under investigation, half of whom were ‘of predominantly Pakistani origin’ (ibid.: 11). The WMP ‘Problem Profile’ noted that ‘sexual “predators” were targeting houses, hotels, parks, supermarkets, and a ‘takeaway’, 15 neighbourhoods, and a special school’ (Daily Telegraph, 2015: web).

In Local to Global: Reducing the Risk from Organised Crime, the Home Office (2016: 1) describes organised crime as:

Individuals, normally working with others, with the capacity and capability to commit serious crime on a continuing basis, which includes elements of planning, control and coordination, and benefits those involved. A significant proportion of organised criminals are motivated, principally, by the desire to make money. Others, such as the perpetrators of organised child sexual exploitation, have different motivations.

In the case of the crimes cited by Rafiq and Adil, the perpetrators appear to have been motivated by both the desire to make money and personal sexual gratification. In almost all of the cases they cite, the organised crime groups consisted of men with a shared ethnicity and religious faith who, characteristically, lived in close proximity to one another in areas of South Asian settlement. They were in regular face-to-face contact and, not infrequently, the groups included members of the same family or clan.  The involvement of friends and family with a shared ethnicity meant that levels of trust between actors was higher or, conversely, that should a member of the group betray them, the other members would ‘know where to find them’, or members of their family, in order to visit retribution upon them. This is a feature of organised crime groups more generally, whether it be the Chinese Triads in Manchester, the African-Caribbean Street Gangs in South London (Pitts, 2008), the Turkish and Kurdish heroin traffickers in North London or the White British men who fixed the LIBOR rate in the City of London (Vaughan and Finch, 2017).

The groups had what, in street gang studies, are described as ‘structural features’ and a division of labour (Andell and Pitts, forthcoming; Densley and Harding, 2018). Thus, there were drivers, sometimes taxi drivers, who cruised locations looking for girls and young women who they thought they could exploit. The drivers would sometimes contact younger men and boys who would then ‘bump into these girls by chance’, start conversations and eventually become their ‘boyfriends’. Other men would arrange for taxi drivers, some of whom were retained by local authorities to transport the girls to school or between children’s homes, to procure them. In most cases senior figures in the groups would establish links with large numbers of men with an interest in sex with young, often under-age, girls and either provide venues where this could take place or traffic the girls to the men. In several cases these groups were ‘multi-commodity dealers’ in that they trafficked and sold both young women and illegal drugs, while some were also involved in the trade in illegal firearms. In ‘pimping’ these girls they generated income which augmented their other legitimate and illicit income streams. Gohir (2013: 12) writes:

Prostitution becomes another part of their business; an additional way of making profit from the girls … some suggested the girls were a substantial source of income. As one interviewee put it: “A main ringleader controlling six or seven girls could be making £3000 to £4000 [i.e. £144,000 to £192,000 p.a.] per week”.

Indeed, the criminal entities that these Asian, Pakistani or Muslim street grooming groups resemble most closely are international People Traffickers and the Urban Street Gangs and Dangerous Dealer Networks described by the National Crime Agency (2016). Recent UK studies (cf. Pitts, 2008; 2016; Firmin, 2009; 2011; Beckett et al, 2013; Harding, 2014) indicate that street gangs, composed of African-Caribbean, Mixed Heritage and White young people, are similarly abusive to the Gang Girls who occupy the bottom rung of the gang hierarchy. Gang Girls (aka ‘Links’, ‘Slags’ or ‘Skets’) are usually aged between 12 and 16, are shared between gang-involved young men for sex and are constantly at serious risk of ‘multiple perpetrator rape’ (Beckett et al, 2013; Pitts, 2013).  These practices are not peculiar to the Muslim, Asian or Pakistani community but are akin to those of gangs and organised crime groups in a multiplicity of different countries and cultures (cf. Hagedorn, 2008).


Location, Location, Location

Rafiq and Adil (2017: 4) observe that these offences and offenders are ‘mostly confined to towns and cities in the North of England’ but they do not explore why this might be. One obvious explanation is that these are areas of Asian, Pakistani or Muslim settlement, but so is London and, as such, this suggests that other factors are in play.

Routine Activity Theory stipulates that a criminal act occurs as a result of the convergence of a ‘motivated offender’, a ‘suitable target’, and the absence of ‘capable guardians’ who are able and willing to exercise control and supervision (cf. Felson, 2002). Although the model is simplistic it re-directs our attention from the characteristics of perpetrators to the social and economic conditions in which particular offences are most likely to occur. (The readers of Youth & Policy will not need reminding that an important group of capable guardians, street-based youth workers, has ceased to exist in most of the areas affected by street grooming).

In August 2012, Daniel Trilling interviewed John Rigg, director of Meadows Care, one of the providers of private care homes in Rochdale. At the time, there were 47 private care homes in Rochdale while Haringey in North London, by contrast, had just two. Some of the homes in Rochdale belong to local companies like Rigg’s while others are owned by private equity conglomerates who must balance the interests of the children with those of their shareholders. In the wake of the Jay Inquiry (2014: 11) these homes were castigated for ‘dumping large numbers of vulnerable children from all over the country on Rochdale’s streets’. John Rigg said:

Here’s why: when a local authority anywhere in the country needs to take a child into care and it doesn’t have any free beds of its own, it sends out an email to private providers … whoever can offer the home and support that best fits the child at the most attractive price gets the commission. Like any other industry, children’s care homes have concentrated where conditions are most favourable. The north-west of England, with its modest salary costs and property prices, has proved an ideal location. In Rochdale, vulnerable children from all over the country are funnelled into homes, supposedly monitored by social workers who may be as far away as Essex or Exeter. (Trilling, 2012: 11)

In April 2014, a high court judge threw out a £600,000 libel case brought against Colin Lambert, leader of Rochdale Borough Council by Mr Rigg’s Meadows Care Limited and Pathfinders Childcare Limited, who claimed that ‘by innuendo’ he had damaged their businesses by accusing them of being ‘directly culpable for failing to look after children in their care’ (Collier, 2014: 13).

As John Rigg attests, private residential children’s homes tend to be located in areas like the North West of England, where property is relatively inexpensive and salaries are low. These are also the areas where street grooming has come to light most frequently. The homes are often located in or adjacent to neighbourhoods characterised by low incomes and high crime rates (Andell and Pitts, 2018). Costs are kept low by employing the minimum number of, often untrained, staff who tend to be transient because the job is stressful and other minimum wage jobs, as and when they appear, may seem more attractive.

Thus, changes in the routine activities of state agencies charged with safeguarding vulnerable girls and young women, due to pressures from central government to reduce costs, have led to a concentration of suitable targets while simultaneously undermining the capacity of the responsible professionals to exercise an appropriate level of guardianship, thereby rendering the girls vulnerable to groups of opportunistic motivated offenders.


Future Research

In their recommendations, Rafiq and Adil (2017: 14) suggest that more research is needed to establish why ‘Asian ethnicity men are more likely to appear in this crime profile’. If this research is to produce answers it will need to broaden its concept of culture from one which regards current behaviour as a ‘read-off’ of the historical social practices of particular ethnic or religious groups, to one more akin to Raymond Williams’ conception of culture as a mechanism whereby social groups adapt to the exigencies of their contemporary social and economic predicament. For Williams, culture contains both residual and emergent properties, thus the culture of the street groomers is neither synonymous with the actor’s culture of origin nor that of the ‘host’ culture but shaped by effects of migration, modernism, racism, social marginality and illicit opportunity. Besides, most of the attitudes and behaviours revealed in Rafiq and Adil’s report, are not peculiar to any particular ethnic or religious group but are characteristic of what is referred in the sphere of international gang studies as ‘street culture’.

Thus, future research will also need to look beyond culture to the social and economic context; the ‘political economy’, of street grooming.  Rafiq and Adil are asking ‘Why Them?’, and this is an important question, but future research will need to ask ‘Why There?’ and ‘Why Then?’. It will need to consider the policies and practices that create obstacles to the effective safeguarding of these vulnerable young people and the kind of politics that will help to restore services and professional practices which might keep them safe.

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Last Updated: 6 April 2018


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John Pitts is Vauxhall Professor of Socio-legal Studies at the University of Bedfordshire’s Institute of Applied Social Research.