A real threat or a racist stereotype?

April 9, 2023

Some British politicians, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, have claimed that the grooming gangs are a widespread phenomenon

A real threat or a racist stereotype?


n recent years, there has been a lot of media attention and public debate on the issue of British Pakistani grooming gangs, who allegedly target and sexually exploit vulnerable young girls across the United Kingdom. Some politicians and commentators, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, have claimed that this is a widespread phenomenon; that the organised crime is driven by cultural and religious factors; and that it poses a serious threat to British society and its values. How accurate are these claims? What are the facts behind the sensational headlines?

First of all, it is important to define the “grooming gangs.“ According to the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse (CSA Centre), the term is not clearly defined or consistently used. It can refer to various types of child sexual abuse involving multiple perpetrators. Furthermore, child sexual abuse is not a problem unique or exclusive to any ethnic or religious group. As the CSA Centre states, “child sexual abuse occurs across all communities and cultures.“ Moreover, research has shown that most child sexual abuse is committed by someone known to the victim, such as a family member, friend or acquaintance, rather than by strangers or organised groups.

Stereotypes and prejudices fuel the idea that British Pakistani grooming gangs are a threat. As the CSA Centre argues, “there is no evidence that child sexual abuse is condoned or encouraged by any religion or culture.“ Furthermore, there is no evidence that British Pakistani men are more likely to commit child sexual abuse than men from other backgrounds. In fact, according to a report by Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank, “the most commonly occurring characteristic found across all types of group-based CSE offenders was their sex (male) rather than their ethnicity.“ Blaming an entire community or faith for the actions of a few individuals is unfair and unjustified.

Despite these clarifications from the concerned authorities and experts, a series of high-profile cases of child sexual abuse by groups of men of British Pakistani and British Asian origin have sparked a heated debate in the UK. Some politicians and media outlets have claimed that these so-called grooming gangs are a specific problem within the British Pakistani community, and that political correctness and fear of racism have prevented authorities from tackling it effectively.

A close look at the evidence reveals that these claims are based on myths, stereotypes and misinformation. One myth is that child sexual abuse by grooming gangs is a widespread phenomenon in the UK. In fact, it is a very rare form of abuse, accounting for less than 1 percent of all child sexual offences recorded by the police in England and Wales in 2020-21.

Another myth is that grooming gangs are predominantly composed of British Pakistani men. There is no reliable evidence to support this claim. The Home Office commissioned a study of the available data in 2020 and found that “research has found that group-based child sexual exploitation offenders are most commonly white.” The study also noted that “the academic literature highlights significant limitations to what can be said about links between ethnicity and this form of offending.”

Court statistics show that among prosecutions where the ethnic profile of the defendants was recorded, this was broadly similar to the wider population in England and Wales

A third myth is that grooming gangs composed of British Asians target white girls because of their ethnicity. This is a gross oversimplification of the complex dynamics of sexual exploitation. The victims of grooming gangs come from diverse backgrounds and circumstances and their vulnerability is often linked to factors like poverty, social isolation, mental health issues or previous abuse.

The CSA Centre published a report on child sexual abuse in 2020-21. The report provides an overview of the cases of child sexual abuse recorded by child protection, criminal justice and health agencies in England and Wales. It also highlights the gap between the prevalence of child sexual abuse estimated by surveys and the number of cases identified by professionals.

According to this report, court statistics show that among prosecutions where the ethnic profile of the defendants was recorded, this was broadly similar to the wider population in England and Wales. In other words, there was no evidence of over- or under-representation of any ethnic group among those prosecuted for child sexual abuse offences.

The report also states that “the suggestion that the ethnic background of the perpetrators plays an important part in abuse by gangs is hard to support.” This means that there is no clear link between the ethnicity of the offenders and their motivation or method of abuse. The ethnicity of offenders may vary depending on various factors, such as the location, context and opportunity of abuse, and may not reflect any inherent cultural or religious factors. This challenges the stereotype that British Pakistani men target white girls because of their ethnicity or because of a clash of values.

The data shows that child sexual abuse is a complex and multifaceted problem that cannot be reduced to simplistic explanations based on race or culture. It also shows that focusing on one ethnic group as the main source of the problem may divert attention from other forms of child sexual abuse that affect children from all backgrounds and circumstances. It may also fuel racial discrimination and hostility against British Pakistanis and other ethnic minorities, who may themselves be victims or survivors of child sexual abuse.

The UK government has recently announced a new Grooming Gangs Taskforce to tackle the menace of child sexual abuse by groups. While this is a welcome initiative, it should not be based on false assumptions or biased narratives about the nature and extent of the problem. It should be informed by robust evidence and best practices from across sectors and disciplines. It should also recognise that child sexual abuse is not limited to any ethnic group or community, but affects children from all walks of life.

The idea that British Pakistani grooming gangs are a threat in the UK is not supported by facts or evidence. It is based on misinformation, sensationalism and prejudice. Instead of scapegoating a minority group or stoking fear and hatred, the authorities should focus on supporting and protecting all victims and survivors.

The writer is a freelance journalist and a master’s student at IBA Karachi

A real threat or a racist stereotype?