Research shows that the public perception of ethnicity with regards to sexual exploitation does not add up in reality
Few will have escaped the recent media focus on what has become known as the ‘Asian grooming’ phenomenon. It follows a series of highly publicised prosecutions and rhetoric regarding ‘organised’ sexual exploitation of under-aged or young white females by Asian males.
Without seeking to undermine the seriousness of these offences that have come to light, it should be understood that there is nevertheless a need to place these incidents in some broader context within the ethnicity and crime debate. Criminologists would be correct in identifying the Asian grooming issue as an example of a modern moral panic. A moral panic has some base in reality but represents a distorted view about the socially constructed phenomena. Scholars of race and ethnicity are very familiar with the characteristics of typical moral panics. They begin with publicity from the media or government agencies, which is disproportionate to the statistical evidence of a crime or behaviour. This is usually followed by significant moral outrage, distancing, condemnation and politicised rhetoric, some of which resonates with campaigners and when politicians wade into the arena occasionally it leads to changes in the law and amends practices in the criminal justice system.
When examining the Asian grooming issue in the UK, there are a number of factors we should all reflect upon. First, much has been made of the offenders being representatives of the South Asian (Pakistani, Bangladeshi), and indeed of the Muslim community. This is the first issue that causes problems as it goes to the heart of a debate about the dangers of judging large diverse populations by the actions of a few. Second, the tendency to link any sort of criminal phenomenon to ethnicity or race or religion is fraught with various problems owing to a complex range of factors that determine the classification and processing of offenders throughout the system. When examining crimes recorded by ethnicity, only more serious (indictable) offences are recorded this way and many rely upon the ethnic category as observed by the police officer(s) at an early stage of the process. Third, any attempt to discuss crime being tied to or more prevalent within a particular ethnic group usually seeks only to criminalise that group whilst deflecting concentration upon the fundamental causes for the offending in the first place.
It is worth noting that, according to the Ministry of Justice, amongst White, Black and Asian defendants tried for sexual offences at the Crown Court during 2010, Asians account for 8%, Black people account for 9% and White people account for 71% of the total of the 7.4 thousand sexual offences processed for the period examined. Whilst Asians do not represent the largest proportion of offenders here, their offending rates are double in relation to their population density in the broader UK population. In other words, Asians only represent around 4% of the total population of the UK, but double that rate for people tried in Crown courts last year for sexual offences. Such statistics are only useful if we examine the complete social interaction which went into compiling them starting with, for example, the nature of the offence; decisions to report; and police action before we get into the finer detail about whether a case ends up in court or not. What we can conclude about the criminal statistics is that they only form a partial picture and in fact the total incidents of particular crimes are most certainly greater than what has been formally reported or detected. Extra-judicial factors are equally important to legal and procedural issues in determining whether particular sections or groups of society end up as formally prosecuted for certain offences.
It is worth noting that certain sections of society are more likely to come to the attention of the police, either via proactive policing in urban areas or targeted stop and search practices. In 2008/9 police stop and searches under Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 for South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire, where some of the recently publicised ‘grooming’ incidents have emerged, show significantly higher proportional rates of stops and searches for Asians as compared to their white counterparts. Variations in offending rates by ethnicity become virtually insignificant when criminologists supplement official crime data with self-report studies. In other words, official criminal statistics may give the impression that a particular crime is more prevalent in one or two ethnic groups whereas self-report studies indicate that it is more likely to be across all ethnic groups.
Finally, another perspective on this debate is to abandon the statistical analysis or even the disproportionate media coverage and view the crimes as part of a broader debate about how some men treat vulnerable girls and women and how as a society we can protect such persons from harm. The ethnicity or religion of the perpetrators or victims may be completely irrelevant to the criminal motivation or mens rea but the same culture or faith may provide an arena for the challenging of sex offending and the prevention of such crimes rather than seeking to deny their occurrence or the extent of their magnitude. There has to be an inclusive middle way whereby those wishing to engage with South Asian communities about sexual offending as a whole can do so without accusations of racism as well as avoiding the debate from becoming propaganda fodder for the far right. If you are reading this, then perhaps you can contribute to setting this process in motion.
Photo Credits: AFP
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