The Office of the Children's Commissioner's (OCC) interim report on child sexual exploitation (CSE) in England launched yesterday to a barrage of criticism, including claims of a 'half-baked methodology' and deliberate blindness to racial crime trends. Among the most vociferous of critics was the Times, the inventor of the spurious crime category of 'on-street grooming'. Is this political correctness trumping justice once again, or are some groups increasingly so caught up with 'Asian sex gangs' that they cannot accept evidence that CSE is a broader, more diverse phenomenon than Rochdale-type offending groups alone?
While the report does address ethnicity, it does so in the aggregate, stating that one in three of all suspects were Asian. For those, like the Times, who are desperate to see the 'Asian model' recognised as a distinct category of CSE, this was not enough. Yet, terms like the 'Asian model' are misleading and unhelpful, as they rest on two implicit (and rather wobbly) assumptions. First, that Asians and Asians alone follow this particular MO (although aside from race, the perceived differentiating characteristics of this MO from others remain unvoiced). Second, that this (at best vaguely delineated) MO is the only one that Asian CSE offenders use. Perhaps the OCC has missed a trick in failing to confront these dodgy assumptions head on?
CSE is a vast, sprawling umbrella term, covering numerous different categories of exploitation: online paedophile networks, schoolchildren who exploit one another and sexually violent gang members are all lumped in together, alongside, it seems those who abuse their position in the family or workplace to exploit children. Among the vast array of different CSE groups possible, only gangs were singled out for special attention. The report's greatest limitation is not, therefore refusing to categorise by ethnicity, but refusing to categorise at all. In their reasonable desire to prove that CSE is more than kebab shops and shisha pipes, the OCC has grouped so many forms of exploitation together that the nuances of the phenomenon have been lost. Similarly, the national picture has been showcased at the expense of exploring local variations: leaving question marks over the usefulness of the piece for local crime prevention and victim protection. This is a classic case of aggregating data to the point where potentially interesting or insightful patterns have been obscured. As readers, we remain none the wiser about the relative prevalence of different forms of CSE, their geographical distribution and the characteristics of those involved.
Breaking down a big sprawling issue like CSE into distinct categories isn't easy, but it is important. Even seemingly non-contentious things like ages can be misleading in the aggregate. When the report stated that victims ranged from four to 19 years, did this really mean that all types of CSE featured this full age range? Probably not, but without access to the disaggregated data it remains impossible to know. The report was well-intended in its aim to provide a national picture and it explicitly reminds us that any child can fall victim to CSE and any adult (or indeed child) can be a perpetrator. In reality, however, a little more precision and delineation could come in useful when working out response strategies. While it is important to be aware of CSE in its entirety, practical, useful, targeted responses require a little more direction. When the second part to the report comes out next year, we'd love to see not just the aggregate but the specific, the national and the local, and not just the 'who' of CSE but more on the 'how', 'where', 'when' and 'what'.