News Focus: Sexual exploitation of young people in Rotherham

28 August 2014

Robert Dingwall image

Professor Robert Dingwall, a part-time adviser to the School of Social Sciences at Nottingham Trent University, writes about the Rotherham sexual abuse scandal:

Alexis Jay’s report on the sexual exploitation of young people in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013 has rightly attracted a good deal of media attention and public concern. The experiences described are deeply troubling and should provoke both compassion and outrage.

However, it is far from clear that either the report’s author or the media framing of the story has got to the heart of the problem. The inquiry was too limited to go thoroughly into the social context within which these events occurred. Consequently, it left open the opportunity for yet another search for professional scapegoats. The situations it describes are not new, are not particularly associated with racism or political correctness, and raise serious questions about the nature of some traditional working class communities and their representatives.

Just over 30 years ago, I was part of a team that carried out one of the UK’s largest ever ethnographic studies, examining agency decision-making in child protection. In the course of this, two of us spent three weeks in an area very like Rotherham.

The sexual abuse of children had just been ‘rediscovered’ in the USA, so we consistently asked our informants in community health, social services and law enforcement about it. In this area, both social workers and health visitors reported their awareness of a widespread problem, but were frustrated by their inability to act upon it.

Child protection workers in such communities are not the naïve, middle-class do-gooders of tabloid stereotypes. They have often grown up in such areas, acquired a professional training and returned to use those skills for the benefit of others whose lives they have always seen at close quarters. Our informants were well aware of the troubled families, the prevalence of non-consensual under-age sex and the regularity of incestuous relationships.

However, they also understood the difficulties of action. Where a young woman complained of assaults, they had to be sure that evidence would stand up in the face of a code of omerta as strict as that of the Sicilian mafia. A family that broke the solidarity of the housing estates and mining villages would be subject to all kinds of pressures, from kin, neighbours, union officers and councillors, up to and including the ostracism meted out to the scabs who had worked during strikes. If a complaint were believed, violent community justice might follow.

More often, a whole neighbourhood would simply collude to insist that the complaint was a fabrication by someone known to be unreliable. The best that child protection workers could hope for was to hold out an invitation and an offer of support, in the expectation that this would rarely be taken up.

As we published our findings, we were able to observe what happened when two brave paediatricians on Teesside tried to challenge a similarly embedded culture of denial. Their careers were trashed, by the same Labour Party traditionalists that we had encountered and by the same tabloids that are now looking for new scapegoats. At a national level, the Labour Party has come a long way since its cowardice over Cleveland and its failure to confront the local interests trying to sweep the issue under the carpet.

What has still to be recognized, though, is the extent to which the experiences documented in Rotherham have deep historical and cultural roots that defy easy solutions. The sexual exploitation of young people concerned WT Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, in the 1880s, and was recurrently documented by subsequent social investigators, although often couched in euphemisms intended not to shock their liberal readers.

Our work, for example, echoed that of Margaret Lassell, the pseudonym of Jennifer Longford, writing about ‘Wellington Road’ in Bristol in the mid-1950s. Living in a community of this kind, she notes in passing her observations of under-age sex, incest, prostitution and attempted grooming. This is everyday life in another traditional community – dockworkers rather than miners or steelworkers.

The real challenge of Rotherham, then, is not that of sending a few hapless local councillors or social service managers to the guillotine. It is to think about what would bring cultural change to those poor areas that have been left behind by modernization. They exist everywhere and are neglected everywhere, except when it is convenient to demonize them for their backwardness or to mobilize them for some atavistic political agenda. Rotherham is not about service failures but about what sort of a nation we want to live in – and how we engage every citizen with that vision.