Girls are being sexually exploited on a massive scale, according to a report released this week entitled It's Wrong But You Get Used To It, the result of a two-year investigation into girls and gangs.
"We are talking about rape, including gang rape, of girls as young as 11," declared the report's leader, Deputy Children's Commissioner for England Sue Berelowitz, who likened the problem to "lifting a stone and finding these terrible ugly worms crawling out that nobody wants to acknowledge".
It is true; the terrible ugly worms do exist. Girls are used and abused in unimaginable ways by members of their own gangs and by rival gangs who use rape as a tool of retribution. In the last two years, as research for Feral Youth, I have heard stories of girls being used as bait, as decoys, as keepers of weapons and as objects in sex games. I've heard girls talk about being drugged, beaten, humiliated and emotionally blackmailed. One teenager I spoke to said that she lived in fear of attack, caught between a gang of her male school friends and the gang of her cousins. There is no doubt that girls with gang affiliations, as this report unveils, are the victims of widespread sexual, physical and emotional abuse and that most of the time, the crimes go unreported as the young women are too frightened, too ashamed or too involved to call it out. Often, they are convinced that they have brought it upon themselves (by wearing a tight top, 'linking' with the wrong types) and that rape isn't rape if you've done it before.
I welcome this report and the spotlight it shines on the under-represented and (I believe) growing problem of girls being abused in gangs. I admire Sue Berelowitz for undertaking such thorough and important research and I welcome the recommendations coming out of it. Of course sex education should be taught in schools with clear indication of what consent is and is not. Of course gang interventions should involve girls as well as boys. Of course police should identify girls associated with gang members and be aware that they might be at risk of rape (although quite how this will happen in practice and what will happen to those girls once identified, I'm not sure).
But tackling sexual crimes with sex education is like tackling knife crime with amnesty 'drop your knife here' boxes: it won't work on its own. Sexual violence in gangs doesn't happen in a vacuum. It happens because girls want to play a part in gang life. They want status. They want to belong. If you were to explain to a girl in a gang that she'd been identified as someone 'at risk of rape', she would most likely spit in your face. She doesn't want out; she wants to feel a part of something. In the words of a girl who, aged 18, admitted to stabbing a 17-year-old to death and who first thrust the subject of girl gangs into the headlines in 2008:
"When you are as desperate as most of us are in that situation, you do anything to get what feels like love... The boys would treat us as their bitches, phone whoever they felt like f***ing, order them to come over, and most girls would drop everything and do whatever was wanted."
Gangs are about feeling a part of something. If we want to prevent girls (and boys) from being involved in gang life and the abuse that goes with it, we need to give them other things to feel a part of - like the youth schemes and the free evening activities that this Government is doing its best to abolish under its austerity regime.
It takes time to realise the impact of funding cuts. Haringey was one of the worst-affected boroughs in the London riots. No surprise, perhaps, that 8 out of its 13 youth services had closed in the preceding months. The YMCA recently had to deal with massive antisocial behaviour issues in Lancaster after its community centre funding was slashed from £65,000 to £30,000. In contrast, charities such as XLP and Kids Company and indeed the YMCA have shown that with adequate funding, young people can avoid or even exit gang life and go on to lead positive and fulfilling futures.
Unfortunately, unless this Government reverses its short-sighted policies on public spending, more young people will turn to gangs in search of a place to 'belong' and more girls will suffer sexual exploitation as a result.