December 1, 2021   6 mins

Earlier this year, a grooming gang investigation in Hull was closed, having arrested 34 men but only managed one successful prosecution due to a lack of evidence. But last week, the gang was in the news again, after a girl reported being “raped by 150 men” from her early teens onward. It’s triggered a renewed wave of fury and calls to “declare war” on this seemingly intractable scourge.

Whenever these gangs reappear in public view, responses tend to fall into two categories. The first laments the youth and vulnerability of the victims and wonders which public-sector measures could be implemented to stop such things happening again.

The second type points out that the safeguarding lot are keen to talk about anything but the ethnic disparity between the victims (usually young, white, and working-class) and the rapists (usually of South Asian heritage, often though not exclusively Muslim). The implication is usually that if only we stopped bowing to political correctness, and allowing mass immigration into the country, nothing like this would ever happen.

One side blames poverty, inadequate sex education and institutional safeguarding failures; the other, immigration and political correctness. But there’s another aspect that neither side wishes to acknowledge.

That is, a subset of adult men takes an intense sexual interest in very young girls. This isn’t specific to one culture or ethnicity: today’s report from the Ghislaine Maxwell trial describes the grooming and abuse of a 14-year-old in a setting with different sociocultural traits and far more money, but which otherwise follows much the same pattern as that suffered by the girls in Hull and other UK towns. And we’ve embraced a culture that normalises extreme and ‘kinky’ forms of sexual self-expression — including for adolescents — while our medico-legal and cultural frameworks blur the official age of consent.

Taken together, this results in a culture where even lovingly parented and closely supervised girls routinely encounter opportunistic pervs. Meanwhile, girls who are neglected, unloved or otherwise vulnerable are left with few defences against their attention. Why do neither the anti-immigration side nor the safeguarding hand-wringers want to confront this? Because sexual freedom is of net benefit to everyone who’s already empowered — including most of the angry editorial-writers on both sides.

This worldview holds that all forms of sexual activity are legitimate, and our freedoms on this front should be constrained only by consent. Perhaps the central contributor to this worldview is the cultural theorist (and paedophile) Michel Foucault, who made the case in History of Sexuality that there are no sexual crimes as such. Rather, there are only acts that we choose to construct as harmful.

Foucault took this up to the point of suggesting that children can in some circumstances participate in sexual activity without being harmed. We find traces of this argument in, for example, the Seventies campaign to cut the age of consent to 14 or in some circumstances 10. Further traces can be found in the Gillick v Wisbech 1986 legal case that blurred the legal age of consent by establishing doctors’ right to prescribe contraceptives to girls under 16 without their parents’ knowledge, where the girl was deemed mature enough.

Even as Foucault blurred questions of childhood sexuality, and Gillick opened the door to doctors condoning (safe) underage sex, pop culture was full of the voices of men pushing at legal restrictions on sexualising under-16s. It was 1981 when Ted Nugent released the song ‘Jailbait’, which includes the line “I don’t care if you’re just thirteen”. There are plenty more such works.

As an adolescent in the 1990s, I recall being beeped by van drivers from some time before 16. In 2002 a 15-year-old Charlotte Church took legal action against a website which was counting down the days until she turned 16 and could legally have sex.

And a quick straw poll of my Twitter followers asking for recollections of when they began to be hit on by adult men returned hundreds of replies, giving an average age of 10-12.

Would even more men be willing to admit desiring very young girls if it weren’t frowned upon? One study showed that men took longer to admit finding a female image attractive if he’d been told she was 14 or 15. This suggests that, unsurprisingly, men are more hesitant to give expression to desires they know are socially unacceptable. And the flip side of this is that, implicitly, we should make sure men are vigorously encouraged to go on repressing these darker desires.

But that’s not what either sex is encouraged to do today. Rather, both sexes grow up to an insistent drumbeat of ‘sex-positive’ feminism, which asserts (with Foucault) that all sexual expression is valid provided it’s consensual. And the bandwidth of that expression is considerably wider than it used to be, because children are exposed to porn around the age of 11 or even younger.

Studies show porn use normalises violent ‘sexual scripts’ for boys, while for girls pornography use is associated with participating in group sex, either voluntarily or coerced, and also agreeing to unwanted sex acts. (Presumably these register as ‘consensual’ and are therefore valid and empowering.)

Growing up amid such imagery, we find young women today expressing a desire for intimacy bound up with violence, such as in this TikTok video where a girl longs for “the type to give you forehead kisses but also the type to choke you”.

Meanwhile, on social media, teenagers claim casual sex is a game, emotional intimacy is cringe and drug and alcohol abuse is something to celebrate. It’s now easier to see why the Hull grooming gang case may have been difficult to prove.

Consider ‘Anna’, one of the victims, who was 16 when the abuse started. The fact that she was over 16 meant investigators reportedly had to show that she did not, in fact, consent to being threatened, bruised, choked and violently raped.

How are police supposed to tell the difference between consensual and abusive choking and rape, when we can’t agree sexual acts such as choking are bad or even reach consensus on the proper age at which someone’s deemed capable of consenting to them?

Scandal after scandal breaks, and we go on pretending this culture is fine and all we need is better ‘consent’ education or more effective policing. But it should be clear by now that ‘consent’ is no protection from predators.

And neither are the police. They can only punish clear and provable violations of commonly-held public norms, which have already taken place. We have so thoroughly stripped sex of norms that it often only becomes possible to demarcate rape in cases where a girl is so grotesquely underage or unwilling that no one could seriously argue she ‘consented’.

No one wants to confront this. Instead, every time the scandal bubbles up again we bicker a bit about racism and safeguarding, then go back to sexual liberation as usual. Because in practice, protecting young girls from the seemingly ineradicable minority of hebephilic predators doesn’t just look like handing out contraception or telling girls not to talk to strangers.

Along with tougher sentencing for abusers, preventive measures might mean restrictions on pubescent girls’ social lives, so they’re less exposed to opportunistic predators. Such an approach might also seek to get skimpy and figure-hugging clothing off the shop rails — especially in outlets aimed at adolescents.  It might call not just for ‘education’ on how to make sense of pornography, but serious efforts to suppress it — not just for children but everyone.

It might include not just ‘education’ in how and where to ‘consent’, or avoid pregnancy while leading a promiscuous life, but widespread social deprecation of sexual promiscuity. It might even mean re-evaluating the idea that it’s possible have both a stigma-free sexual culture and also public norms that keep predators away from young girls.

And even though all of these measures together might add up to greater protection from sexual abuse, some will claim they’re indistinguishable from the ‘patriarchal’ constraints on erotic freedom that sex-positivity has been working so hard, for so long, to do away with. Others will say I’m victim-blaming, and really what we need to do is teach rapists not to rape. But given that making rape illegal hasn’t stopped rapists raping, it’s hard to see what a few classes would achieve

As long as we keep resisting any constraint on our erotic freedom, we’re effectively asking young girls to be the change we want to see in the world. The cost of our ongoing failure to expunge the dark underbelly of male sexuality and attain liberated, empowered universal erotic utopia is counted on their youthful bodies.

The grooming gangs are a unique evil. The men who commit these crimes should be punished to the utmost. But the racialised atrocities conducted within those gangs are on us too: a grotesque caricature of a sexual culture in which we all collude.

Liberal adults demanded the right to sexual self-expression — including even loveless, violent, commercial, kinky, no-holds-barred or violent acts. Now we have it. And so do frightened, lonely, unloved, impoverished female children in depressed cities up and down the country.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.