I MET a friend last week for a coffee and a chat. She is actively involved in preventing child sexual grooming, more specifically, that involving organised gangs. Like many, I have been horrified by recent news of offenders targeting and grooming young girls. So I asked her what on earth is going wrong with our society. Of course, the fact I am a mum myself with a 14-year-old daughter means I worry about this, perhaps more than any other danger she faces in life.
When she was younger we had all the stranger danger talks, and we lived in a country where this type of targeted sex crime wasn’t a problem. I’m not naive, and I’m not saying it didn’t exist but to be fair it was a completely different culture, where teenager girls don’t have anywhere near as much freedom as they do here. But she was still told about the possible consequences of going off with people she didn’t know, and to this day she has a healthy distrust of strangers.
When I was younger, yes, it was indeed a very long time ago, my grandmother would sternly lecture me about men who wanted to drag me off to be a slave somewhere foreign and dangerous. The problem was, as a fairly rebellious teenager, I found the whole idea of being whisked away to a new, exotic life faintly exciting. It certainly didn’t frighten me. I imagined romantic endings, a handsome African prince would spot me and fall head over heels in love with me, and we would live happily ever after in a perfect palace with gorgeous little kids running round. And perhaps that is part of the problem.
Young girls have no experience of life, love, sexual relationships and, sadly, often no sense of their own self-worth. They dream of finding true love, or what they imagine it to be, probably after watching too many unrealistic Hollywood rom-com movies. So, these vile men can play on their emotions, making them believe that they are in a “normal” relationship. And these criminal gangs exploit that. They tell the girl she is special, showering her with gifts, building her up to believe every filthy lie they tell her. It’s so hard for young girls. They want to be grown-up, they try to act like an adult, but they are still only a little insecure kid inside.
I remember my first crush. I would have been about 11 or 12. It was a much older friend of my aunt’s and I was convinced he was the one for me. I fantasised about him telling me he would wait for me to grow up, I hung around whenever he came round, giggling and blushing like the awkward, socially inept pre-teen that I was. Thankfully he was, and still is, a perfect gentleman, but what if he hadn’t been? I dread to think because I am pretty sure I would have done almost anything to get him to notice me. That is how badly I wanted him to fall in love with me, to recognise the woman I was, in my own head at least, becoming. So my heart goes out to the teenage girls who end up in a harmful, destructive relationship with these gangs of abusers.
Sadly, by the time they realise that they are not in a healthy, loving relationship they can often see no way out, because the sword of Damocles is constantly hanging over their heads. They are told that if they try to put a stop to it then all sorts of horrors will befall them or their families. The threat of explicit photos or videos being shown to their friends is often enough to keep them compliant. And so the cycle of abuse continues. It’s a very sick world in which we live.