The Home Office’s recent paper on Group-Based Child Sexual Exploitation has increased distrust between the British public and the media. Some of the headlines that the report invited seemed to be aimed at the far-right, for whom the issue of child sexual exploitation has long been a pretext for racism, disguised as concern. The overrepresentation of Asians as perpetrators seemed to have been anecdotally confirmed by numerous high profile grooming gang cases from Rotherham to Rochdale, and the notion that these cases were under-investigated by the police due to fears that they might be accused of racism seemed to vindicate white nationalist talking points about the danger that identity politics might lead the authorities to turn a blind eye to crimes committed by members of minority groups. The media’s coverage of this new report seemed to suggest that this “myth” has been put to bed by its findings. (American readers should note that, in the UK context, Asian usually refers to people of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin and, in the context of discussions of child sex exploitation, commentators often claim it specifically refers to Muslims from that region.)
In reality, what proportion of these sex offenders come from which ethnic backgrounds remains unclear. You would not know this from the jarringly celebratory tone of commentators who believe the report to be not merely a repudiation of the racist far-right canard about Asian grooming gangs, but a justification of their own pet prejudices, as confirmed in the headline: “most child sexual abuse gangs made up of white men.”
Of course, this headline is not as revelatory as it seems. It has never been seriously claimed that, in an overwhelmingly white country, a particular ethnic minority would account for most cases of child sexual exploitation. Headlines of this nature, which portray common understanding as revelatory, only play into the tactics of the far-right. Of course, the majority might be white, but aren’t Pakistanis and Bangladeshis still hugely overrepresented? they might protest. The Guardian seems to have made up its own answer: that the report “dispels the myth of Asian grooming gangs.” Precisely what myth is not clear, and of course no such fiction has been dispelled for the very real victims of Asian grooming gangs up and down the country for whom the apparent revelation that the majority of child sexual exploitation offenders are white will be of little consolation.
The report itself tries to settle the question of Asian overrepresentation, while admitting it lacks sufficient data to do so convincingly and can only tentatively suggest that it is unlikely that child sexual exploitation is uniquely endemic to any particular race or cultural group. It does all this without—as it reminds you on every page—reliable data on its side. Indeed, for a paper so thoroughly caveated with phrases like “missing data,” “treated with caution” and “skewed and incomplete,” it is remarkable that such confident proclamations have been made in its name. Home Secretary Priti Patel has shared her disappointment about the report’s limitations, noting in her foreword that “it is difficult to draw conclusions about the ethnicity of offenders as existing research is limited and data collection is poor” and that “this is disappointing because community and cultural factors are clearly relevant to understanding and tackling offending.”
Sadly, it wouldn’t be a case of media misreporting worth note unless both sides of the culture war felt equally aggrieved by the coverage. Leftists have called out media outlets who used mugshots from previous high-profile cases of largely Asian grooming gangs: If white men are the majority of child sex offenders, why aren’t white men in the pictures? they asked. Fuelling the unhelpful negative stereotype that child sexual exploitation is an Asian crime in the UK by using images of actual Asian perpetrators seemed like a journalistic liberty too far, inviting further distrust.
The report’s data is so scant that it undermines the “majority white men” headline. The study on which that claim is based also notes that “some studies suggest an over-representation of Black and Asian offenders relative to the demographics of national populations.” The report cites Berelowitz et al. (2015) to support both these claims, which are of course not mutually exclusive, though the public reaction might have you believe otherwise. On the basis of evidence, then, headlines could just as easily have made the latter claim about Asian and black overrepresentation, but instead chose the “majority white men” headline—perhaps partly because the report itself likes to repeat this point whilst distancing itself from the claim of Asian overrepresentation. Though there is some evidence of Asian overrepresentation, the report states, “it is not possible to conclude that this is representative of all group-based CSE offending.”
Of course it is not possible to conclude that an over-representation of Asians and blacks in the child sexual exploitation offences listed by a few studies can be extrapolated to all such offences nationally, but that does not mean that it is impossible for Asian and black over-representation to hold true on a wider scale. Indeed, this might be a relevant focus of further reports, as Patel promises in her foreword: “commitment to improve the collection and analysis of data on group-based child sexual exploitation.” It is possible that the Asian and black over-representation claim will be substantiated; just as it is possible that we will find conclusive evidence that all ethnicities are proportionally represented. Only time and more thorough research will tell.
The research that informed the report’s key conclusions is cited on page 26, wherein it lists and then dismisses five studies, four of which find Asian overrepresentation among child sexual exploitation offenders, and one that claims whites comprise the majority of offenders. No confidence is expressed in any of these findings. I take at face value the caveats that none of these studies tell us a great deal, but I worry that it will be trivially easy to refute the claims of “diverse backgrounds” and “no proven links” when one can use the report itself to summon up damning statistics.
For example, the study summarised in 76a, from the CEOP, finds that, “where data was available, 30% of offenders were White, while 28% were Asian.” Study 76c also from the CEOP finds that “looking at the offenders across all groups, of the 306 offenders 75% were Asian.” Study 76d by The Children’s Commissioner for England found significant Asian and black overrepresentation, reporting that “42% were White or White British, 17% were Black or Black British, 14% were Asian or Asian British.” Whether such figures are even meaningful—given that no data on ethnicity was recorded in 22% of cases and there is no standard procedure for recording these types of crimes—is up for debate. The final study by the police foundation summarised in 76e found that “those from ethnic minority backgrounds were overrepresented compared to the local area.”
It is fine for data to be inconclusive, and dangerously premature to make claims about something as serious, difficult to combat and badly underreported as child sexual exploitation. So why have serious claims about there being no overrepresentation of certain ethnic groups, and headlines about “white majorities” been made so earnestly and with such partisan vigour? It might be because the report itself seems keen to make conclusions for which it has no factual basis. Point 81 reveals the sleight of hand. After summarising research which almost every time finds Asian and black child sexual exploitation over-representation, then dismissing that research for its biases and missing data, the report claims: “Based on the existing evidence, and our understanding of the flaws in the existing data, it seems most likely that the ethnicity of group-based CSE offenders is in line with CSA more generally and with the general population, with the majority of offenders being White.”
How can this seem “most likely” given that most of the evidence in the report says the opposite? How can an “understanding of the flaws in the existing data” be enough to flip that data on its head? When the research is initially summarised, the evidence is said to be unreliable writ large. Later in the report, where difficult conclusions must be drawn, the evidence is unreliable in a specific way that allows us to reach more politically correct conclusions. This is wishful, not scientific, thinking.
Overall, it is dangerous to conclude anything other than that the data is unclear and we don’t know the truth yet, which puts the Home Office in the precarious position of welcoming further and more exhaustive research in the hope that their unsubstantiated guesses about the equal proportions of child sexual exploitation offenders are later proven. I welcome this further research and hope the data gets us closer to truth since, as the report admits, understanding the cultural and demographic attributes of often homogenous grooming gangs will be key to disrupting and preventing further offenses. We need to know the truth about the proportion of offenders by ethnicity in order to effectively combat these crimes. This makes is all the more unhelpful for people to use such an inconclusive report to such divisive ends, for the media to give this partisanship oxygen with misleading headlines and, most worryingly, for the report itself to suggest likelihoods beyond its scope.