Child sexual abuse is horrendously common. Recent estimates suggest that more than one in seven girls and one in 20 boys, or half a million children, are sexually abused in the UK each year. Such abuse happens across all segments of society, in a wide variety of contexts – though most commonly within the home.

Focus on this issue has led to significant increases in police recording of child sexual offences, reaching more than 100,000 in 2021/22 in England and Wales. That also reflects efforts from police to take sexual abuse more seriously and better support victims – although issues still do persist. Professionals are also now better at recognising the risks around sexual abuse of older children outside the home.

Despite these positive changes, in the past decade there have been new and particularly damaging developments that are hampering efforts to identify and support abuse victims and survivors effectively.

One such development is the very narrow and selective narrative that has been deliberately constructed around “grooming gangs”, framed as a specific threat posed to white girls by men of Pakistani-heritage Muslim men. This narrative echoes familiar tropes of the international far-right, which play off Islamophobic and xenophobic prejudice. Like many enduring stereotypes, this discourse is based on a core truth – real offenders and victims, and genuine failings in responses – wrapped up in distortions, exaggeration, misinformation and disinformation.

Suella Braverman’s recent claims about “grooming gangs” go well beyond mere dog whistles and into overt racism. She asserts that perpetrators are “almost all British-Pakistani” and reduces victims to “overwhelmingly white girls from disadvantaged or troubled backgrounds”. While she presents these assertions as “facts”, they directly contradict her own department’s findings. A 2020 Home Office report concluded that such “group-based CSE (child sexual exploitation) offenders are most commonly white”, while victims come from many backgrounds, and include boys. To the government’s own disappointment, it found no reliable, generalisable evidence of ethnic disproportionality among such offenders.

The Home Office report did spotlight certain previous publications that they describe (rather misleadingly) as having “indicated an over-representation of Asian and Black offenders in group-based CSE [child sexual exploitation]”. Importantly, they also acknowledged various crucial limitations in those reports, such as small sample sizes and extensive missing data. None used representative samples, and none were generalisable. Independent inquiries from specific areas are also important, but equally not generalisable. Braverman’s claims are not justified.

Both Braverman and Rishi Sunak focus heavily on accusations of “political correctness”, implying that it is getting in the way of effective responses to child sexual abuse. That is a similarly tired, selective and ill-informed frame. Blaming political correctness gives people a convenient excuse for very real inaction. It is also a massive distraction from actual widespread and well-documented shortcomings in responses to child sexual exploitation and abuse at large.

Even in those specific places where misplaced fears around racial sensitivities did reportedly play a role, it was far more limited than these two’s sweeping statements imply. In both Rotherham and Telford, such sensitivities were identified as just one of many contributing factors – alongside, for example, under-resourcing and victim-blaming. Given everything we know about institutional racism in policing, it seems wildly implausible that ethnic minority offenders were routinely let off the hook but their white counterparts were not.

The Conservatives are once again exceptionalising “grooming gangs”, promoting misinformation, and ignoring vital nuance and complexity around abuse. Reacting to their statements, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’s chief executive warned against creating “new blindspots that prevent victims from being identified”. The National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead on child sexual abuse emphasised that “child abusers come from all parts of our society”.

This narrative around protecting (white) girls from Pakistani-heritage men is actively dangerous. It erases and overlooks sexual abuse against boys and ethnic minority children. It deflects agencies’ attention from offenders who don’t meet the stereotypes, failing to learn from previous such mistakes. It further mainstreams far-right talking points, stigmatising whole communities as sexual predators. It empowers Islamophobic action, which can have deadly consequences.

And beyond the inflammatory rhetoric, the government’s proposed package of measures is limited. There is a promise to consult on mandatory reporting – a complex issue that would require proper resourcing and a nuanced, inclusive understanding of risks. The other measures are overwhelmingly law enforcement-focused and reactive. They focus on a new “Grooming Gangs Taskforce”, collecting more data on suspects, and implementing tough sentences. It is well established that making sentences more severe actually does little to deter crime.

This soundbite-heavy package has nothing focused on preventing harms in the first place. It contains no commitment to addressing much broader data gaps. Beyond “bolstering support” for the NSPCC helpline, there is a striking absence of funding for vital victim support services.

Another major, and less discussed, problem that undermines efforts to tackle all child sexual abuse is the sustained and “brutal” (to quote the British Medical Association) cuts to public services, including children’s services, social care, healthcare, specialist charities and grassroots projects, and criminal justice agencies. Sexual violence services report long waiting lists for counselling and support. Victims of child sexual abuse routinely face long delays in the criminal justice system, which can be “extremely distressing”.

The shameless political posturing needs to stop. The government should fund services properly, and finally invest in a regular national prevalence survey on child sexual abuse. That is vital to gather better information about risk and protective factors, the scale of child sexual abuse, different contexts of abuse, victims’ support needs, and more. Such insights are desperately needed to inform more effective strategy, enable much more focused prevention and disruption, and better support all victims and survivors.

Dr Ella Cockbain is an associate professor in security and crime science at University College London, and research group lead on human trafficking, smuggling and exploitation

In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, and adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.