by Dr Kate Cook, Head of the Sylvia Pankhurst Gender Research Centre, and Senior Lecturer in Law at Manchester Metropolitan University
The “boyfriend model” of abuse, seen in the Newcastle sex exploitation trial is not new or rare. All perpetrators exploit the vulnerabilities of girls and young women, whether they are boyfriends, partners, husbands or members of a gang.
Former chief crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal is now leading calls for urgent research into the “boyfriend model” – whereby a vulnerable person is manipulated to believe they are in a loving relationship with their abuser – as it has been at the heart of a string of national grooming scandals. But I think there is a more urgent need for honesty, as many women and girls are suffering abuse in their relationships every day. This may not make it into the news but it’s there and it needs to be addressed.
In Newcastle, 18 adults were convicted of rape and other offences against girls and young women aged between 13 and 25. The adults entrapped the youngsters into ongoing relationships, before exploiting them. Afzal sees parallels with the infamous Rochdale grooming case, which he oversaw as chief crown prosecutor in the northwest. His calls for research have been supported by Labour MP Sarah Champion who says research is needed to investigate why “hundreds of Pakistani men” have been convicted. Indeed, her stand on the subject led her to resign from the front bench this week after a newspaper article she wrote on the subject attracted criticism.
As Afzal and Champion say, there are similarities between these cases. The offenders used a model of abuse which involves seduction, followed by cruelty and rape. The seduction may involve alcohol, drugs and/or money so that the young victims are coerced into becoming involved and then silenced by their sense of guilt. It is also true to say that these convictions included large numbers of British Asian men.
A hidden crime
This is not new and it can be understood as an extreme version of the experience many girls have. Many young girls are taught by the media, social media, friends – and often family – that they need to look a certain way, act a certain way and attract young men.
Sadly it is too often the case, that when some girls find a partner, they may be treated with disrespect (she isn’t pretty enough, slim enough or sexy enough). Sometimes, they will walk away, but in many cases, the girls stay and try to please “their boy” by changing themselves. When they do, they become more trapped in the relationship. The net can draw tighter, when friends and family criticise the boy, forcing the girl to choose between them.
There are young men who do not exploit this – but a good number do. They may move on from criticising to chastising. They may use violence or emotional abuse and in some cases may also extort sex. Sometimes, this is revealed to someone and gets acknowledged as being “domestic abuse”. However, it is often never spoken of and acts to imprison young girls in unhappy relationships.
The men – and sometimes women – in the gangs in Rochdale and Newcastle (and elsewhere) have simply followed this pattern in a more organised way, often targeting girls who are already extremely vulnerable. The behaviour of these men is not so different from that of countless others and there is nothing particularly Asian about this kind of abuse. Their behaviour can be compared to that of white male celebrities such as Jimmy Savile, Ray Teret and Stuart Hall who also used manipulation to get what they wanted from youngsters.
The gang cases help to shine a light on a continuum of abusive relationships – and what we need rather than research, is awareness. All sexual abuse crosses cultural boundaries. Domestic abuse is staggeringly common, with the police receiving an emergency call about domestic abuse every 30 seconds. We use a range of different labels for abuse, depending how we want to categorise the case or story we are talking about. Sometimes it is “sexual exploitation”, sometimes “domestic violence” or “relationship rape”. Considering these terms sheds light on how interchangeable they are.
All of these forms of abuse are problems created by abusive behaviour towards girls and women. To create a society where young girls are not so easy to abuse, we have to start to consider relationships differently. It is helpful to understand the links between the average boyfriend who demands sex every Saturday night and the man who rapes youngsters that another man has lured to a party.
Both are rapists in law, although the ordinary boyfriend rarely gets charged with any offence. The criminal justice system is more interested in the bigger cases. To create change, we need to hold all men accountable for their crimes. Both of these men exploit girls’ wishes to have a boyfriend. So another way to make a difference is to ensure that girls can find self-respect without being in a relationship.
The abuse revealed by the case in Newcastle is horrifying. But routine rape and cruelty goes on within many ordinary homes, around the country, attracting little attention. All of the survivors of this abuse suffer a great deal. All need justice and society needs to find ways to make changes. I don’t believe that it is useful to label particular groups of men as more likely to rape and exploit. Instead, there needs to be a national conversation about relationships and men’s attitudes to sex and women, or these cycles of abuse will continue.