Rochdale: an anatomy of the sexual abuse scandal

Issue: 135

Judith Orr

The case of nine men convicted of appalling sexual exploitation of young women in Rochdale in north west England has unleashed a renewed tide of racism and Islamophobia.1 The media coverage of the case asserted that the most shocking aspect of the story was not the abuse itself, but the fact that the male abusers were Pakistani Muslims and the women they abused were white. Fascists and racists have used the case to mobilise, supported by the tabloids whose front pages were an invitation to see all Muslim men as dangerous paedophiles. At the same time the mainstream right used the comment columns to pour out their barely concealed racist filth about Muslims and Pakistanis. Even the judge in the Rochdale case, Gerald Clifton, joined in, saying, “I believe one of the factors which led to that is that they [the young women victims] were not of your community or religion.”

His words are now used on British National Party leaflets headlined “Racist Muslim Paedophilia”. Throughout the hearing the British National Party (BNP), the English Defence League (EDL), and other racist and fascist organisations picketed the court. It was revealed at the end of the case that on the opening day two barristers on the defence legal team, both Asian, were attacked outside the court. They pulled out of the case in fear for their safety and that of their families. The hearing was delayed by two weeks, the jury was discharged and new barristers were found to represent the defendants.2

At the end of the trial an investigation into whether jury confidentiality had been compromised had to be set up. This was after BNP leader Nick Griffin tweeted that seven of the men had been found guilty while the jury was still deliberating. The investigation concluded that there was no evidence that the jury had communicated with Griffin.

But the Nazis and the tabloids are not the only ones using the issue of sexual exploitation to stoke up racism. When children’s minister Tim Loughton was asked about the Rochdale case he said, “Political correctness and racial sensitivities have in the past been an issue.” He added that the authorities still “have to be aware of certain characteristics of various ethnic communities”.

As Hassan Mahamdallie pointed out in Socialist Worker about his experience living in Rochdale in the 1980s, “Rochdale police are not known for operating in ‘politically correct’ or ‘racially sensitive’ ways”.3 But the implication that there is something specific among Muslims or Pakistanis that makes them more likely to commit these crimes has become the common theme on the right. The first Muslim woman to serve in the cabinet, Baroness Warsi, joined the chorus in an interview in the London Evening Standard newspaper, saying:

There is a small minority of Pakistani men who believe that white girls are fair game. And we have to be prepared to say that. You can only start solving a problem if you acknowledge it first… This small minority who see women as second-class citizens, and white women probably as third-class citizens, are to be spoken out against… Communities have a responsibility to stand up and say: “This is wrong; this will not be tolerated… Cultural sensitivity should never be a bar to applying the law”.4

Columnist Melanie Phillips ranted in the Daily Mail, “The police maintain doggedly that this has nothing to do with race. What a red herring. Of course it doesn’t! This is about religion and culture—an unwesternised Islamic culture which holds that non-Muslims are trash and women are worthless. And so white girls are worthless trash”.5

TV historian David Starkey spoke at a conference of school heads shortly after the trial ended and proclaimed, “If you want to look at what happens when you have no sense of common identity, look at Rochdale and events in Rochdale… Those men were acting within their own cultural norms. Nobody ever explained to them that the history of women in Britain was once rather similar to that in Pakistan and it had changed”.6 This is the same David Starkey who showed his commitment to women’s equality when he denounced the “feminising” of history by women historians who turned it into “soap opera” for their “mainly female audience”.7

There has not been the same denouncing of the “cultural norms” of how women are treated when it comes to non-Muslim sex attackers. Look no further than the number of footballers in cases of alleged rape. The gross custom of footballers or their representatives cruising the shops of Manchester picking up women to have sex with even has its own term, “harvesting”. These women are brought to clubs and hotels where they are then assumed to be willing to have sex with numbers of footballers—coined “roasting”, often while being filmed.

In a recent case Ched Evans, Welsh international and Sheffield United player, was jailed for five years for rape. The teenager he raped after he and other male friends picked her up drunk in the street had her name revealed on social media and was abused for taking the case out against him. His sister and a group of fans even tried to organise a public tribute to him as a show of support at a match after he was imprisoned.8 We do not see front pages devoted to denouncing the misogynist culture of football, or calls for footballers as a collective to examine why a number of their colleagues have been accused of sex crimes.

Yet all the time Muslim representatives are called upon to denounce the crimes as if in some way by nature of a shared religion they are collectively responsible. On a Unite Against Fascism protest against the EDL I met Mohammed Shafiq who represents an organisation called the Ramadhan Foundation. He has been widely quoted in the media for saying that Pakistani men do have a specific problem in terms of sexual grooming. He spoke out against the racist backlash from the platform. Afterwards he was arguing with his friends that the “whole Pakistani community” had to take responsibility for what the convicted men had done. His position shows the contradictions and the real pressure many Muslims feel under the onslaught of Islamophobia.

Rape and sexual abuse are horrendous crimes whoever the perpetrator. Women often feel unable or unwilling to report assaults for fear they will not be believed, their sexual history will be on trial or they will be judged culpable because of what they wore or how they behaved.

The reaction to the Rochdale case was seen through the prism of race. But this will not bring us any nearer to understanding or stopping the problem of sexual abuse. In fact, if grooming and sexual exploitation are seen as solely a crime carried out by Pakistani men, many victims will not get the help and justice they deserve.

Racist stereotypes and women’s oppression

Whatever the spin, it is not concern for women’s rights but race that is driving the agenda in these debates and it is not for the first time. In January 2011, after a case in which two Asian men were convicted of rape and sexual abuse in Nottingham Crown Court, Labour MP Jack Straw declared that young Muslim men were “fizzing and popping with testosterone” and saw young white women as “easy meat”.9

These views reflect centuries-old racist stereotypes of black men as sexual predators, which deemed even consensual sexual relationships between a black man and a white woman an aberration. From the days of slavery through to the 20th century black men have been brutally punished for having sexual relations with white women. White slave-owners on the other hand saw raping their black slaves as perfectly normal.

With the rise of Islamophobia overt racism has been veiled in talk of “culture”. This approach has been used by both fascists and mainstream politicians alike in recent years. In the Rochdale case it has served the purpose of allowing naked prejudice to be dressed up as concerned commentary. Below the screaming headlines some tried to cite academic research to legitimise the racialisation of this crime.

One study in particular was regularly quoted. The research, by the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science at University College London (UCL), supposedly showed that Pakistani men are the main perpetrators of grooming and abusing young women. In fact, this study, done over a year ago, does no such thing. Eleanor Cockbain and Helen Brayley, the academics who did the research, are concerned at how their work is being used. Cockbain said, “The citations are correct but they have been taken out of context. Nor do they acknowledge the small sample size of the original research, which focused on just two large cases”.10

The study’s purpose was precisely to look at the nature of social networks of the perpetrators and victims in two cases that involved groups of Pakistani men. It explains that gangs and paedophile rings are rare and goes on to say, “Contrary to stereotypes of sinister paedophile rings, most child sex offenders act alone,” and quotes research on child sex offenders showing that “only 4 percent were involved in an organised network and 92 percent had no contact with other offenders prior to arrest”.

The researchers were worried that “limited data had been extended to characterise an entire crime type, in particular of race and gender”. They said of the cases they studied that there was no evidence that white girls were targeted by offenders, saying, “Though the majority were white, so too were the majority of local inhabitants.”

Referring to the Rochdale case Assistant Chief Constable Steve Heywood of Greater Manchester Police was careful to point out that it was not about race, but “adults preying on vulnerable young children”. “It just happens that in this particular area and time, the demographics were that these were Asian men,” he said. “However, in large parts of the country we are seeing on-street grooming, child sexual exploitation happening in each of our towns and it isn’t about a race issue”.11 The police themselves have confirmed that 95 percent of those on the Greater Manchester sex offenders register are white.

Those who claim that statistics prove that “street grooming” is predominantly committed by Pakistani men have difficulty in explaining how they have come to this conclusion as “street grooming” is not a specific criminal offence. It is a term that serves to racialise the crime of sexual exploitation in the same way as the term “mugging” became used to denote a crime committed by mainly young black men.

What about the women?

Amid the obsession about the race and religion of the male perpetrators less attention has been spent on their victims. The real question of Rochdale is how could the system have let down these young women. They were vulnerable, in or around the care system, and their abuse took place over a number of years. Race was not the issue that made getting justice difficult for these women. It was deep-seated prejudice that deemed their lives less worthy as young women from poor working class backgrounds who had already had troubled lives.

The police comment said it all: they described the young women as coming from “chaotic” or “council house backgrounds”. Being a council house tenant is obviously seen as being a problem in itself. In other words they were not from stable middle class families.

Even when one young woman alerted the police to the abuse she was suffering as far back as 2008 the case did not get to court. At 15 she was arrested for causing a nuisance outside a kebab shop and during questioning explained that she had been having sex with a number of men based there in return for gifts of food, phone cards and vodka. She even gave the police an item of her underwear that had traces of DNA evidence of a 59 year old man who was eventually one of the nine convicted.

After almost a year’s investigation the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) did not take the case to court because they decided the young woman would be an “unreliable witness” and would not be believed by a jury. These assumptions about the credibility of the young woman condemned her to yet more abuse until the case was taken up again.12

This is the common experience of children and young people who report cases of sexual abuse. The CPS calculates that of the 17,000 reported cases of sexual offences involving children under 16, just under a quarter went on trial this year. Even adult women reporting rape find the legal system often judges them rather than helps them. In February of this year a report by inspectorates of police and crown prosecutors found evidence that rape cases were “no-crimed”, that is, recorded as if no crime had taken place, more often than other crimes.

According to figures from different police forces around the country in 2010/11 the volume of rape offences “no-crimed” was 2,131, nearly 12 percent of the total number of recorded rape crimes. Offences of rape are “no-crimed” four times more often than, for example, the offence of causing grievous bodily harm with intent.13 This massages statistics that can help fulfil targets for conviction rates while burying clues that could lead to serial rapists being tracked down.

The Metropolitan Police’s specialist sex crime unit Sapphire underwent an overhaul in 2010 after two serial rapists were allowed to continue to commit crimes even after women’s reports of rape. The women were simply not believed. In June 2012 the unit is once again under investigation and two officers are accused of perverting the course of justice. It has emerged that officers were closing cases and informing women that no charges were going to be brought in their case even though this had not been decided.14

All this shows that while a woman’s experience of rape or abuse is judged by the preconceptions of a society in which women’s oppression is entrenched they will not get justice.


The horror of such cases as the Rochdale abuse is that the life experience of these young women had been so difficult that they could be “groomed” into believing that serial abuse and rape were something they had to live with. The whole purpose of grooming is to lead a vulnerable young person into believing they are in a loving relationship. Some of the women in this case refused to give evidence to the police against men they continued to perceive as their “boyfriends”. In some cases it took many hours of interviews and counselling for them to come to terms with the reality of the situation they were in. Such was the paucity of love and respect in their life that the experience of being groomed was perceived as being positive.

Helen Brayley, one of the researchers at UCL, wrote an advisory note on grooming for police saying, “Many of the victims in our data set were either too scared or too extensively groomed to go to the police. They either believed they were in a relationship with one of the offenders and therefore did not want to get them into trouble, or they somehow felt complicit in their abuse”.15

Bea Kay is a GMB union steward in children’s social care in Sheffield, training those who work with young people on issues of grooming and sexual exploitation. She told Socialist Worker, “The support for young people today is pitiful. Vulnerable young people often feel worthless. An older man or group of men who pay attention to them and give them ‘gifts’, however trivial, can make them feel valued”.16 This means that overt physical violence is not necessarily a component of these abusive relationships. And certainly at the beginning the abuser concentrates on building up the victims to feel important, desirable and valued and to separate her or him from any networks of family or friendship that might offer an alternative.

Women of all ages in our society are encouraged to see themselves as sex objects, to see being attractive as a measure of their value. Whether it’s in the numerous women’s magazines with top tips for makeup, cosmetic surgery or clothes it is assumed we are all aspiring to be sexually attractive. With the rise of raunch culture over the last decade or so we are witnessing an increasing tolerance of women’s sexuality being used as a commodity in ever more crude ways.

Sex has become a valuable currency in our society—and for some women it may be their only currency. Sexual exploitation is one of the most extreme and distorted expressions of women’s oppression and the alienation of human relationships. Of course, young men can also become victims, although they are the minority.

Abuse and the family

The reality is that the form of sexual abuse exposed in Rochdale is not the most common, although it receives a disproportionate amount of media coverage. The charity Barnardo’s found that “child sexual exploitation is much more likely to happen in private than in public, and this year’s survey showed that street-based grooming and exploitation remains rare”.17

Despite all the media frenzy children and young people are more at risk of abuse, physical and sexual, within the family unit rather than on the street—most adult abusers are known to the victim. “The majority of perpetrators sexually assault children known to them, with about 80 percent of offences taking place in the home of either the offender or the victim”.18

The roots of women’s oppression lie in the institution of the family, which Frederick Engels identified as becoming established with the rise of class society and private property. The role the family plays in people’s lives and in wider society has gone through many profound changes. Yet it still plays an important function in modern capitalism. It is still the place where majority of the next generation are brought up. Although marriage rates have been declining, and in 2010 nearly half of all babies were born outside marriage or civil partnerships (46.8 percent) compared with 39.5 percent in 2000, the number of births registered with only one parent has been declining.19

Politicians, both Labour and Tory, extol the virtues of the traditional family. The Tories use it overtly to impose the idea that any problems people suffer are their individual responsibility and not rooted in the structured inequality of society. This ideological offensive is designed to make people feel it is their responsibility to carry an extra burden when cuts mean there are fewer affordable residential homes for the elderly, or less respite care for those looking after a relative or child with disabilities. This is the strategy behind Tory communities minister Eric Pickles’s latest assault on “troubled families”.20

Now, a troubled family according to the Tories is one that fulfils five out of seven criteria: “having a low income, no one in the family who is working, poor housing, parents who have no qualifications, where the mother has a mental health problem, one parent has a longstanding illness or disability, and where the family is unable to afford basics, including food and clothes”.21 Pickles is not identifying people with any of these very real material problems for support; instead he is going for policies that show “a little less understanding”.

The role of the family and how children are brought up goes right to the heart of the debate over child sex abuse and sexual exploitation. The young women who were preyed on by the men in Rochdale were on the streets and vulnerable because they had no effective network of support from a family or from the state. Social services had had contact with all the young women in the case. At least one was sent to a care home in Rochdale to escape problems experienced at home.

What happened to those young women cannot be separated from the contradictions in the nature of the family in society, contradictions that mean that families can act as a bulwark against the harshness of life under capitalism and when they break down can leave people more vulnerable. But at the same time they can be the place where all the rotten experience of alienation and inequality is distilled and distorts relationships in the most brutal fashion.

Solutions under capitalism

If the family is a frightening and dangerous place for some, what is offered by the system as an alternative can be equally problematic. Institutions for children without a family, orphanages, children’s homes, poor houses, whatever the good intentions of many of those who worked in them, have historically been seen as the option of last resort.

Some, like the Christian Brothers’ “industrial” schools in Ireland, have become notorious for the brutality meted out to their young charges. Such institutions should be a refuge from suffering; instead they can be places where already damaged children and young people are vulnerable to abuse. In some cases they have enabled networks of abusers to coalesce to mutually cover up and perpetuate the crimes. The scale of child abuse that is still being revealed by victims, now adult, in the Catholic church is a good example of this. Many of those who carried out the abuse did so in the sure and certain knowledge that they would be protected because even if their victims spoke out the church would never allow itself to be exposed to the scandal.22

Today such institutions are no longer seen as the best way to look after children in the care of the state. But social workers are constantly under the spotlight, particularly those dealing with child protection cases. They are denounced for taking children from families without enough evidence, but when something goes wrong then they are criticised for not removing a child sooner. This is against a background of ever shrinking budgets and cutbacks which means increasing workloads on fewer staff.

Many of the young people in the up to 47 private care homes in Rochdale are not from the area and so are not the responsibility of local social services. Young people are sometimes sent there from hundreds of miles away. Their local social services may have moved them to a new area to help them break from a cycle of abuse in their family or in their hometown. Sometimes their local council will have chosen to move them there due to the cheaper cost of care in the area. The high number of private homes in Rochdale is partly due to cheap housing. But if a young person has been taken into care because of abuse, moving them into a new town may not help if nothing else is done to support the individual. Instead they can fall into a new cycle of abuse if they are left exposed.

Rochdale has its own problems; a town of just over 200,000 people, it is the tenth most deprived district in England, measuring factors such as employment, income, health and housing.23 It has a life expectancy below the national average and such is the inequality within the town between some wards there is a difference in life expectancy of ten years.

The main shopping high street is crowded with charity shops, pawnbrokers and cash converters. The burger chain McDonald’s has recently shut down its branch. Alongside the “To Let” notice is a poster thanking people for their custom over 28 years. All around are reminders of the town’s past as an industrial powerhouse: the imposing gothic town hall is now a grade 1 listed building. As one local youth worker told me, “We are now a manufacturing town without any manufacturing.”

Such deprivation can become a breeding ground for deep-seated social problems and the government’s policies will only make the situation worse—the council budget faces cuts of £125 million.

There’s profit in misery

Up to 75 percent of children’s services in Britain are privatised. There are millions to be made from looking after the most vulnerable young people in society. The search for profit can result in low pay for workers and slackening of standards for skills and supervision.

Green Corns was the private company that ran the care home responsible for the care of the 15 year old young woman who was one of the victims of years of sexual abuse. The company was providing “solo care”. Solo care means that a number of staff on round the clock shifts are dedicated to looking after one young person. For this care of a single young person a council can be charged over £250,000 a year. The company had received repeated warnings from Ofsted about care standards and advice that its staff needed training in sexual exploitation issues.

Green Corns was bought up by private equity group 3i for £26 million in 2004 and became part of the Continuum Care and Education Group. Annual operating profits reached £2.7 million. In turn Continuum was bought up by Advanced Childcare Limited (ACL) which itself had been bought by another private equity company, GI Partners, in April last year. Then managing director Alfred Foglio boasted, “Advanced Childcare has pioneered the trend of managing children’s care services on behalf of budget constrained local authorities”.24

ACL is now the largest provider of specialist children’s care and education services in Britain. It reported an annual turnover of £15 million in 2010, up from £11 million a year earlier. Pre-tax profit increased to £2.6 million during that period, up from £700,000 in 2009. Most of this income is from local authority contracts for residential care. The combined company now runs 143 children’s homes with 416 placements, 15 special schools and over 100 fostering placements. The company’s founder, Riz Khan, expressed his high hopes for future profits: “We would be disappointed if we cannot at least double the size of the business in the next three to five years”.25 This is what privatisation of the welfare state means. Profit-driven multinationals owned by venture capitalists are put in charge of providing comfort and succour to young people damaged by the system.


The reaction to the Rochdale case has generated a moral panic—the perception of the danger of Pakistani men and street grooming is totally disproportionate to the reality. This is because it has not happened in a vacuum. Instead it has happened when the level of Islamophobia in British society is intensifying.

The racists’ and the fascists’ attempts to exploit the issue have so far been not been a great success for them. The first demonstration by the EDL in Rochdale after the conviction of the nine men, on 9 June, was billed by their members as going to be the biggest of the year and yet they mustered only around 300, mostly from outside the town. But this doesn’t mean they won’t continue to try to whip up racism and fear around the issue in the months to come. This can break out in unpredictable ways. In Luton in May several hundred local Sikhs demonstrated outside a police station after an alleged sexual assault on a Sikh woman by a Muslim man. Leading EDL member Tommy Robinson and other EDL members joined the demonstration.26

The question of child abuse and sexual exploitation is not straightforward. Sexual exploitation of children and young people is evidence of just how distorted humans and their relationships with each other can become under capitalism. Socialists have to avoid the danger of simplistic explanations: there are multiple factors involved in such cases and when Islamophobia is added it becomes a toxic mix. But it is vital that we challenge the dominant “common sense” about the issue and expose the bigotry that is being whipped up to distract people from the real scandal: how the system fails people, especially the most vulnerable.


1: I would like to thank Bea Kay, Tony Staunton, Andy Brammer, Sam O’Brien and Michael Lavalette for their helpful advice.

2: Carter, 2012.

3: Mahamdallie, 2012.

4: Murphy, 2012.

5: Phillips, 2012.

6: Shepherd, 2012.

7: Allen, 2009.

8: Gaskell, 2012.

9: Socialist Worker, 2011.

10: Vallely, 2012.


12: Martinson, 2012.

13: HMCPSI, 2012, p20.

14: Laville, 2012.

15: Gilbert, 2011.

16: Orr, 2012.

17: Barnardo’s, 2012, p6.

18: Grubin, 1998.

19: Office for National Statistics, 2011, p6.

20: Pickles revealed his true feelings when on a ministerial visit to Plymouth in 2011 he mistakenly referred to “troublesome” rather “troubled” families.

21: Chorley, 2012.

22: Devine, 2010.


24: GI Partners, 2011.

25: GI Partners, 2011.

26: Hough, 2012.


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Chorley, Matt, 2012, “Problem families told—’Stop blaming others’”, Independent on Sunday (10 June),

Devine, Kevin, 2010, “Turmoil in the Catholic Church”, Socialist Review (May),

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