The creation of a charity, from the very beginning.
In case I haven’t made it clear, I am currently working on a dissertation. It’s on the role of relationship-based social work practice in helping sexually exploited young people. The reading aspect is fascinating. It really is. And the writing aspect… well, that would be fun if, you know, books and television and the internet and the act of staring at a blank wall had not been invented. I am a procrastinator extraordinaire.
It has become clear to me that our current political and professional understanding of sexual exploitation is, to put it frankly, a bit of a mess. If it weren’t for the tireless work of charitable organizations such as the National Working Group, Barnardo’s, ECPAT and CEOP, to name a few, I imagine we would still be calling it ‘child prostitution’ and assuming it happened to one in a million girls. Or, our knowledge would stem from recent media interest in the subject and we would all be certain (much like we are all certain that benefit fraud is the downfall of this country) that sexual exploitation involves gangs of asian men raping young white girls; girls whose parents are terribly irresponsible for letting them out of the house past 6pm. Luckily, I don’t think this fallacy has seeped in to the public consciousness just yet. But we should not rest easy. Whilst Tim Loughton and Sue Berelowitz try and get the story straight over the next 18 months, there is a particular complexity that I would like to ponder with you.
When I was seventeen, I fell in love. Hopelessly, stupidly, head over heels in love. With a man whom I had spoken to once. I used to work in a Chinese Takeaway- and when I say work, I mean sit at a till for five hours and get people’s orders wrong. (My boss told me, when I left after two years to go to University, that I was the most useless employee he had ever had and he’d only kept me on as I made him laugh. I still haven’t decided if that’s a good or a bad thing.) So, one evening, I was “working”, and in walked a tall, handsome, twenty something, irish-looking, dream of a man. He asked for a chicken chow mein. I got the order wrong. We laughed. It was like something out of a Jane Austen novel. And so the infatuation began.
From then on, I came up with cunning and imaginative ways to find out all the information I could about this man- his name, his job, his shoe size- and ultimately marry him. One time, I searched through a takeaway bin for forty minutes to find the order sheet which had his mobile number on. That’s all the dignity I had managed to amass in my seventeen years of existence. If I had put as much effort in to my A-levels as I did in stalking this man, who knows where I’d be now. I could have been Queen of Everything.
Luckily for me, this man, who was ten years my senior, was level-headed enough to consider me too young to be a potential girlfriend. It turns out my subtle flirting had actually not been subtle. Who’da thunk it?! However, if he had decided that I could be his girlfriend, I am pretty sure I would have done anything for that man. I’m pretty sure I still would. I’ve been in love since, but as a teenage mass of hormones/emotion he will always remain in my memory as perfection personified. And I’m not the only teenage girl who has temporarily ignored any elements of self-respect or logic in pursuit of a man. I have a similar story for every one of my female friends. We all went to good schools. We all have degrees. It’s just how most teenage girls are.
Which got me thinking. I have been lucky enough to only ever be in relationships with lovely, caring males. I have never fallen in love with someone who has wanted to hurt me or use me. As an adult, I can say that if I was in an abusive or exploitative relationship now, I would be able to defend myself and to walk away. I can say that, but I can never really know as I have not experienced it. But when I think back to my teenage years, I do not know what would have been if I had met the wrong person. I had bags of self-esteem, was a notoriously fierce feminist and thought I knew what a ‘bad’ relationship looked like. But if a man, a man like ChineseTakeawayIrishDream Man (as my friend’s refer to him) had spent years building what I thought was a loving and caring relationship with me, I imagine there is a way that I too could have become another sexually exploited young person. If he began subtly and convinced me to do a few small things that I felt were ‘wrong’ in order to help him or to get him out of trouble, such as picking up an unmarked package; and if he kept me believing that he did love me, then things could very easily spiral. I’d like to think that I would have had enough support to escape the abuse, but then I think, would I have even recognised it as abuse at all?
The term ‘sexual exploitation’ implies a powerless victim; an ‘exploitee’ who has been abused and manipulated by an ‘exploiter’. The reality, however, can be very different. My experience in working with sexually exploited young people has demonstrated that, often, the young person who is on the ‘exploitation register’ is not powerless, but rather makes a choice to have sex with dangerous (and numerous) men. Academics Chase and Statham argue that the choice these young people make is a constrained one, but I do not yet know how we begin to break those constraints. Male exploiters who pose as ‘the boyfriend’ are experts at what they do. They spend years building up a relationship with a young person because they know how powerful that bond can be. How do we help young people to make an ‘unconstrained choice’ without imposing our own values and ideals?
If a teenage girl (or boy), who may be a lot younger than seventeen, is in love with a man who is sexually exploiting her, we as social workers have an almighty task. We can work to empower that young person, provide self-esteem classes, encourage education and training, sort housing and liaise with police to deal with the exploiter. But what do we do if that young person chooses to keep going back to her exploiter because she loves him? Any social worker who is willing to take on teenage love, is a braver (or possibly dumber) person than I am.
If anyone knows where to start, I would love to hear from you.