Comment: Criminology shows Rochdale abuse is not about race

By Ewan Cameron

The conviction last week of nine Pakistani men for sexual offences against children has led to a number of claims that 'race' was in some way connected or causal in the commission of these offences. However, to make this link is to overlook decades of research into sexual offending and over-simplifies an issue that should concern all of us.

The struggle to make sense of extremes in human behaviour often leads to a singular focus that excludes the wider picture. We seek easy answers and scapegoats so that we can relax safely in the knowledge that we have explained and isolated the causes of abhorrent actions. The murder of Jamie Bulger was blamed on violent films, the Columbine massacre on violent music, and the Norway massacre on violent video games. The most pernicious causal fallacies are often reserved for minorities and crime.

Much has been made of Judge Gerald Clifton's statements to the convicted men that, "all of you treated [the victims] as though they were worthless and beyond any respect…one of the factors leading to that was the fact that they were not part of your community or religion". This was seized upon by many as indication that the men's ethnicity and community of origin were related to the cause of their behaviour. Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale, advanced the idea that within Asian communities there may even be a "subculture" of sexual predators, collaborating to abuse young white girls.

However, if we are to understand sexual offending more completely, we need a level of analysis that explains all types of offenders, regardless of ethnicity. What do the Rochdale offenders in fact have in common with the overwhelmingly white population of convicted sex offenders in UK jails? 

Research by criminologists and forensic psychologists points to known 'risk factors' for sexual offending. Examples relating to child molestation include deficits in social and intimate functioning, the absence of empathy for the chosen victim, feelings of entitlement to sex, and a belief that children are capable of adult sexual interactions or can be 'taught' about sex by adults. These factors are considered 'preconditions' for an offence to occur and may lead an individual to seek opportunities to offend. 

Importantly, these risk factors are not confined to or more prominent within any one ethnic group. Attitudes and beliefs regarding children, particularly young females, as capable of consenting to and seeking sex from older males are distressingly common. Entitled, sexist and anti-social beliefs are found amongst members of all ethnic groups.

Critics of this argument may point to differences between cultures which they claim appear to predispose Pakistani or Muslim men to sexual offending. They might point to the greater dominance of men over women, the belief that marriage of female children to older men is acceptable, and a conservative, religious outlook on British women as sexually available, or "loose". However, in order to prove causality it is necessary to also explain why most members of such a culture are in fact not sexual offenders. In reality, the attitudes outlined above are not unique to Pakistani culture and are just as likely to occur within members of other communities. Therapists who work with sexual offenders come across such beliefs on a daily basis. If these beliefs are held strongly, and combined with other risk factors, sexual offending becomes more likely. In this way, the Rochdale men share much in common with sex offenders of all other ethnicities. 

By focusing on race, we also run the risk of forgetting other well researched truths about sexual offending – that most cases of child abuse are perpetrated within the home by family members or friends, and that all types of sexual offences are massively under-reported. Child sex abuse occurs in Britain on a daily basis, and is ignored by the public outside of 'sensational' cases such as occurred in Rochdale.

This is a community issue and one which cannot be easily solved. Attributing criminal intent to racial factors holds back progress in addressing societal issues, and undermines attempts to engage hard-to-reach groups, such as the victims of child sexual abuse. 

If there is a lesson to be taken from the Rochdale case let it be a wider understanding of sexual offending and the vulnerability of children and not that we are ready to accept scapegoats to cover up social issues.

Ewan Cameron is a provisional psychologist.

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