'There's no such thing as a child prostitute ' says Maxine Peake's character Sara Rowbotham gently to teenage Holly's parents during episode one of the BBC drama Three Girls. Based on extensive research, interviews and published accounts, the three-episode series tells the true stories of three teenage girls who were groomed, abused and exploited by men in Rotherham and the surrounding area.
The episode captures the subtle development of control by men who worked in take-away shops and as taxi drivers. We get a glimpse into the girls' lives; their exuberance, their silliness, and their vulnerability. The brutality and indifference of the men who took advantage of their vulnerability, groomed and abused them, and the men who paid to rape them.
The episode also documents the callousness of almost all the adults in the girls' lives, their failure to safeguard them or take action against the abusive men. Sexual health worker Sara Rowbotham is defiant and courageous, pushing police officers, social workers and other professionals to examine their own prejudices and incompetence. We are yet to see how the subsequent episodes will document the eventual convictions of the men who groomed, rape and abused girls. Or how the case led to nationwide shock at the decades of organised abuse in Rotherham, colluded with by police, social care, health services and others.
Much has been made of the race and religion of the offenders in the Rotherham case, mainly of Pakistani origin, with some news outlets and politicians using the case to bolster racist and Islamophobic agendas. Indeed, in recent weeks anti-Islamic activist Tommy Robinson has utilised the rape of a woman in Sunderland to bolster his activism.
Both Three Girls and the various inquiries into men's exploitation of girls in Rotherham show that it was the status of the girls which was the driving factor in ignoring the men's crimes. White girls and girls of Pakistani origin were abused in Rotherham, most were working class and had significant vulnerabilities. The abuse they were subjected to was re-packaged as 'bad life choices'. It's only in recent years that professionals have stopped using the term 'child prostitute'.
It may be tempting to watch Three Girls and see organised abuse and organisational incompetence as limited to Rotherham, but that is absolutely not the case. There will be girls being groomed and abused within each of our local areas. Imagining it only happens in 'those sorts of places' is the same mentality which led to 'those sorts of places' being ignored in Rotherham.
Where does the Church fit into responding to men's choices to sexual exploit girls? What would have happened if a girl who is being sexually exploited walked into our church? Would they feel they belonged? Or would they feel out of place? Do our church youth groups make space for young people who have been coerced or forced into sexual activity, or do we naively assume that all church young people are going to be making empowered sexual choices?
Christian culture is very often middle class, with all the privileges that brings. It can be deeply alienating for those from poorer communities. Couple that with the shame and trauma of being subjected to abuse, exploitation or addiction and the shame and alienation becomes insurmountable.
Creating space in our church for vulnerable young people can be challenging and can mess up our carefully planned programmes. While we continue to believe sexual exploitation and other forms of abuse are only perpetrated by people in communities far from us, we will remain unable to be a light in the midst of such evil.
Those who fought for years to expose abusive men and corrupt statutory services were almost exclusively women. And it is not inconceivable that their concerns were written off as 'overly emotional' or because they were outspoken and female. Do our faith communities encourage women and men to be outspoken about injustice? Would those in our congregations speak out if they saw girls or women failed by a system set up to ensure their safety? Or do our Christian communities prevent critical thinking, leaving people unable to recognise injustice or feel able to respond?
Jesus said that we are the light of the world, and if we want that light to bring freedom to the most broken in our communities, we must overcome our prejudices and privileges, becoming courageous in challenging injustice and passionate about fighting for those that others have written off as worthless.
Natalie Collins is a Gender Justice Specialist. She is the Director of the DAY Programme and works to enable individuals and organisations to prevent and respond to male violence against women. She is on Twitter: @God_loves_women