The appalling nature of the recent sex abuse cases being discussed in the media may be shocking but wild theories about race and religion are obscuring the fact that the statistics of child sex abuse deserve much closer study.
Paedophilia is essentially a crime of white males who make up 95 % of convicted offenders in prison, according to a speaker on BBC Question Time on May 10th 2012. However, the proportion of black and minority prisoners has increased significantly in recent years, so it can be assumed there has been a proportionate increase in black and minority sexual offenders - after all, this is a crime of opportunity, greed and lust, and has nothing to do with race. In 2007, 15% of the population of Whatton Prison for sexual offenders were from black or minority ethnic backgrounds, reflecting the recent rise in the general non-white prison population in the UK.
In the USA, 70% of those serving time for violent crimes against children are white according to statistics provided by the online Counter Pedophile Investigating Unit.
It is difficult to obtain reliable information on the extent of sexual offences due to under-reporting. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre's (CEOP) in a recent assessment received 2,000 reports of victims, despite only limited returns from local authorities and police forces. Attempts are being made to improve the quality of data - for example, in 2010/11 there were 45,326 cases recorded by the police of serious sexual assault in England and Wales, a 4% increase compared with the previous year. 4300 were cases of sexual assault against females under the age of 13 and 310 were cases of sexual "grooming." Yet according to one measure of crime against children (National Statistician, 2011) there were 878,000 offences against 10 to 15 years olds (not all sexual offences), yet the majority of cases (68%) were not pursued due to insufficient evidence to proceed.
It is clear that urgent steps must be taken to improve the quality of data regarding sexual offenses against children. Young girls are being exploited because of their vulnerability and accessibility, not because of their race or religion. The current sensationalist reporting on the sex grooming cases in the UK makes much of the fact that currently 11 Asian men are on trial relating to sex grooming of young girls aged 11 to 16. Reports ignore the fact that 36 white men are also on trial for the same offense, yet they are not being demonized for dehumanizing white girls as "easy meat". Attempts to make issue of race or religion in these cases are pandering to racists and Islamophobic ignorance; according to Resources Aimed at the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (RAPLAN), the sexual abuse of children " takes place amongst all class groups, all racial categories, regardless of affluence, religion, poverty or any other broad societal category. "
Current media hysteria also ignores that fact that there is an entire industry of white middle aged men who travel to East Asia to engage in child sex in countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. According to UN reports, the commercial exploitation of children can take many forms including child trafficking, prostitution, sex tourism, mail order bride trade, pornography, stripping, battering incest, rape and sexual harassment. WHO (2006) together with the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect defines the commercial exploitation of children as "the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to or for which the child is not developmentally prepared, or else that violates the laws or social taboos of society".
The role of the internet in enticing children into sexual activity with paedophiles is causing increasing concern and media coverage and a recent report from UK Cybercrime (2009) notes the rapid increase of households with internet access in the UK and the fact that sexual grooming through the internet has increased 16% from 2008 to 2009. The inability of society to protect innocent children from child pornography and sex grooming is a problem needing critical analysis and urgent action. It is tragic that these crimes are still being underreported and that traditional policing methods and community safety strategies are proving to be inadequate. Virtual cyberspace allows for social networks in chat rooms between paedophiles, endorsing and validating their behavior of coercion, control and aggression allowing for a growing incidence of exploited and damaged children.
Further work is needed to prevent grooming for child prostitution through the internet, for the collection of more relevant data, for retraining and awareness-raising among professionals and above all, to overcome cultural barriers, so that Britain's Asian communities are being responded to with cultural competence. It is too appalling to contemplate that the police and the Child Protection Service ignored a witness who claimed she was being raped 5 or 6 times a day, on the grounds that pressing charges may be perceived as racially insensitive.
It is time it was acknowledged that greed and lust are universal and that the victimization of children has little to do with race or religion. No society is immune to immorality. No community can afford to ignore the need to protect all our children, of all races and religions, all the time.
However, the services reported that the scale of online and mobile abuse has markedly increased even since 2010. Almost all services reported it as an increasing priority, and some have identified that the majority of their service users were initially groomed via social networking sites and mobile technology.
Much has been done this year to raise the profile of child sexual exploitation as a priority concern for the UK, and specifically for authorities which have local responsibility for protecting young people. However, we are yet to see how this effort has translated into action, so Barnardo's and all agencies focused on tackling sexual exploitation will need to ensure that the momentum is maintained and leads to real change.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale. He obtained his PhD from Cambridge University.