There’s something absolutely pitiful about the case of the girls groomed in Oxford by a group of men. The men seem to have targeted their victims with a chilling deliberation, sniffing around for girls who were already skipping school and beginning to slide off the rails, where no one would notice if things went even more badly awry. It didn’t take much to hook them in. A present or two, a few words of affection, and these poor sad girls were seduced, threatened or drugged into prostitution. It just shows how desperate they were for praise, and love.
It would be too easy to blame their families. I’m sure their parents did the best they could. Teenage girls, as we all know, are incredibly hard to reach. And the description from one of the mothers involved really struck a chord. She said her daughter came home angry, and shut herself in her room. Well, if you have a teenage daughter, I’m sure you’ve heard that slam. Would you seriously know whether it was because you’d said the wrong thing, again, or because the man she loved had pimped her out to friends? Thank God, for the vast majority of us, it’s just the curse of the annoying parent striking again, and not something far more sinister.
I think the weakness these men have exploited is a frighteningly general one. It’s our old frenemy, low self esteem. The curse of many girls, and women, it can be a life sentence. It’s not just families to blame, though families can be dysfunctional enough, God knows. Everything conspires to tell teenage girls they are not good enough – airbrushed stars, magazines declaring everyone is either too fat or too thin, music videos, even their friends suddenly turning into swans, when they may feel like the dumpiest of ducklings by comparison. We women compare ourselves constantly with everyone around us. It’s a fact that we spend more time looking at images of women than men do. And, if we’re looking at impossibly slim models or actors who’ve been Botoxed to bits, the competition is unwinable, and unfair. Small wonder these girls drop like ripe plums into the laps of the first men who tell them they are beautiful or sexy or whatever.
One of the saddest aspects of the whole business is the way that so little has changed. Fagin was exploiting the young and hopeless a hundred years ago in Oliver Twist. Yes, that was fiction, but fiction based on fact. In the terrible slums of London’s Seven Dials, there were many men who went on the ‘kinchin lay’, running troupes of young pick-pockets (and worse) who had nowhere else to go. No doubt there were flourishing dens of child exploitation all over the country. That was in the dark old days before social workers, care homes, at risk registers, the welfare state, compulsory education and the rest. How sad that it’s still happening today.