4th April 2020
Something of interest from new book/book research…
Teen Sexual Exploitation:
In 2017, Daisy was experiencing that seemingly endless post-GCSE summer, relaxed and happy because exams were now a distant memory, slightly anxious about imminent results though her predicted grades were excellent, and also filled with that bored ennui that comes with being young, skint and unable to find or afford the kind of adventures and expensive stuff you yearn for at that age.
As she explains, “My family definitely weren’t poor – Mum’s a GP and a Dad’s a history teacher – but there are four kids and my younger brother is quite severely disabled, which racks up a lot of expense, so there wasn’t loads of pocket money – and I’d asked everywhere that summer about jobs, with no luck. Part-time jobs are getting really hard to come by especially when you’re under eighteen. So, though I had everything I needed, I couldn’t get buy any of the stuff I wanted.”
Daisy was at the Westfield shopping centre in London – a wildly popular teen hangout spot – when she was first approached by Anders.
“It’s kind stupid to say it all began in a Mac makeup shop, but it did. It was a Saturday and we were all hanging out in Westfield, taking pictures and stories for Insta and Snapchat, and dreaming about making it big enough on either platform to be able to afford all the makeup in Mac. It doesn’t sound much like grand ambitions – but it’s what you dream about aged sixteen.”
When Anders offered to buy Daisy some Mac makeup “coming to a total of around £75, which seemed like loads”, alarm-bells didn’t start ringing because Anders was young, cute, well-dressed and spoken.
Anders claimed to be a student at the LSE, and to an impressionable, bored sixteen year old, seemed to have it all: a car, a nice flat in London, and enough cash to drop on dinners and Mac makeup.
Daisy assumed Anders came from a wealthy family – not inconceivable for a foreign student studying in London – and she threw herself into a relationship with Anders that she was secretive about to first her parents and later, her friends.
“The first time we went to a party at his, I thought it was a fun – loads of champagne, weed and some other drugs which I didn’t take, and no parents upstairs – but my friends hated it, and never wanted to go back. There were quite a lot of much older men there who were a bit skeezy, and also a lot of girls there who were properly, properly wasted. Looking back, it was a really dodgy scene where the whole point was older guys getting much younger girls as out of it as possible – and later I realised, much worse.”
The makeup/party encounter was just the beginning of a nightmarish two years for Daisy, ending in her (the moment she turned eighteen), webcamming in a dank basement with “at least a dozen other girls.” By her description, the basement was a horrifying Black Mirror-ish replica of an office – where each girls was given a partitioned work cubicle. But rather than a desk, pens, and a nice photograph of the spouse and kids, there was a mattress, sex toys, and a camera where anyone in the world could tune into the intimate sex acts of a girl who hadn’t yet done her A-Level exams.
The speed and extent to which Daisy fell head-first into the murky sex-industry is shocking, but by no means unique. Charlie (now 20) was also in the last years of her A-Levels when she got groomed for sex-work. She like millions of other teenagers ran the kind of Instagram “she wouldn’t have wanted her parents to see.” The pictures she shows me are no more sexy than the millions of snaps posted everyday by celebrities and influencers – but also the type that can lead the unsuspecting into trouble.
Like Anders, the man who approached Charlie was young and good-looking, as was confirmed when they spoke online. As Charlie explains “I was suspicious Kurt was some fat, sweaty fifty-year old, but then we Facetimed, so I knew he was who he said he was.” Except he wasn’t. Kurt and Charlie spoke online for many weeks and she did “a fair amount of fooling around – posing nude, some live sex stuff.” As things progressed, Kurt suggested he and Charlie “take their relationship live” as it would be “fun and they’d both make money.”
Charlie baulked at the suggestion, thinking their relationship was a genuine one and tried to break contact. The problem was – as is the case in so many scenarios like these – Kurt had lots of blackmail material and was prepared to use it. He threatened to spread the snaps online (a phenomenon known as revenge porn), and also show Charlie’s photos and videos to her schoolmates, parents and teachers (who he had tracked online.)
Unlike lots of young people who get ensnared and can’t get out, Charlie told her parents who immediately called the police. It transpired Kurt was part of a vast operation, catfishing mostly young women, but some young men too, by befriending them, gathering blackmail material and then coercing them into online sex work.
Speaking to professionals on the front-line of the sex industry – the police and social-workers – it becomes clear that the industry is a kind Hydra with many constantly evolving heads. Our usual assumption about sex-workers is they are the drug-addicted types shivering under bridges, the trafficked ones who are kept in boring, suburban houses that are actually sex-parlours, or the £2000-a-night ones who swan around 5* hotels with Richard Gere-lookalikes.
What is less anticipated – and something that should be addressed much more robustly – is how targeted ‘ordinary’ young people are in seemingly ‘ordinary’ places: in shopping centres, gyms, coffee shops, online and at the school gates. And, particularly in the wake of high-profile scandals like Rotherham where much older men groomed, raped and trafficked (mostly) underage girls, the tactics of the sex-industry are evolving and getting better at being both incognito and appearing (at least at first) to be just a bit of naughty fun and a way to make a lot of cash. A policewoman who has worked for years in vice, told me these new tactics make it almost impossible to catch let alone stop, particularly when they remain in the hazy lines of the law. As she points out “if a young woman or bloke is talked into doing something consenting, particularly when it’s for money, that’s a really dangerous first step. Maybe they like the money, quite often there’s blackmail involved, almost always there’s fear involved, but it becomes harder to step back, and the criminals – the ones really profiting from the industry know that very well.”
This is congruent with Rita’s (now 19) experience aged sixteen when she was in Year 11. She describes how she and her friends were bombarded with approaches from slightly older men at the school gates, at the bus stop or getting food in the local takeaways – all while the girls were in their school uniforms. By her account: “it was kind of a game at first. They’d offer us stuff – rides home in their car, jewellery, weed, new phones, sometimes money – nothing that major. Sometimes we’d say no, sometimes we’d accept stuff. It took a while, but things started to get really scary. This boy Rajesh* (21) would bombard me with texts – thousands a day sometimes, when I was at school in lessons or at home. He’d wait outside school in his car to pick me up and then pretty soon he’d wait outside my house in the evening or the middle of the night. He said I owed him and I had to pay off my debts. The ‘way’ he had in mind was sex with other men, and because I was scared, I agreed.”
Rita describes how two of her friends got entrapped into similar situations with friends of Rajesh* and it was the girls eventually revealing their predicament to each other that saved them. They told a teacher what was happening, who went to the police. Incredibly, it took over six months for either the police or the courts to take real action that ‘protected’ the girls. Rita got an injunction out against Rajesh, but nothing more serious happened to him, as Rita and her friends were too afraid to go down the prosecution road. Up to a year after happened Rita would still see Rajesh* around town talking to other school girls.
Schools are well aware of how much a magnet they can be to those who want to prey on and exploit young, naïve teenagers who will be attracted the offers of an adventure into unknown worlds where money and goodies are on offer. There is a prolific sense of disillusion amongst Gen Z’s who increasingly feel the future looks bleak and they are excluded from the opportunities and promise enjoyed by previous generations of young people. Well-paying jobs with prospects, house ownership, savings, and a secure future increasingly seem like relics of a bygone era. When an entire generation feels excluded from the legitimate economy and job-market, inevitably they will be attracted to the illegitimate. As significant number of (mostly) young men get entangled in gangs, county-lines set-ups and organised crime, there is growing concern that the sex-industry is exerting a similar pull on young women.
1 in 20 university students are now estimated to be in some sort of sex work (Sugar-Daddy genre sites, Paypig, camming, stripping or escorting) in order to manage the financial burden of education. Many schools employ on-site police officers, and a big part of their job is to protect students from exploitation from the outside world which one headteacher described as a “deluge, which they simply don’t have the resources to really properly manage.” Even young professionals who are in employment – nurses, teachers, social workers – are turning to sex work to supplement their wages in a world more and more of us struggling to survive in.
This bodes very badly for school-age Gen Z-ers who live in a world soaked in capitalist excess, expensive brands and an ideology that real success and ‘making it’ is transmitted through wealth and fame. For the millions of youngsters who don’t make it in the new worlds of fame and success – as influencers, gamers, YouTubers or entrepreneurs – there is a growing and broad attraction to what is perceived as the ‘easy’ money of an industry that on the surface that looks shiny and glamorous. For a generation that has grown up with celebrity sex tapes, porn, famous people that yacht, and websites that sell sex but ostensibly take the dark/seedy side out of the industry – selling sex for money for younger generations often doesn’t seem “that bad.”
If you ask any class of ‘normal’ teenagers about the possibility of selling sex for lots of cash, lots will admit to being curious about the idea – or even that they’d entertain the idea. But it’s where this curiousity and misconception about the reality of selling sex intersects with the actual reality of selling sex, that things get dangerous. Vast numbers of young people get involved in something they quickly lose control of, and whether it ends up in camming for strangers on the internet, selling sex for a ‘boyfriend’ who buys you presents, meeting wealthy punters on Sugar Daddy-style websites, or responding to someone who contacts you via Instagram and offers to fly you to Dubai for “some fun” – there is rarely a happy endings for the thousands of young people who find themselves in these exact scenarios.
Having spoken to Children in Need and the NSPCC, it is clear both organisations dedicate significant time and resources to the issue of child/teen sexual exploitation and with good reason. With 76,204 recorded offences including rape, grooming and sexual assault against children in 2019-19 – an average of 1 every 7 minutes – and increase of 63% in the last four years. This sharp rise might account for the fact that cases get reported more than they did previously, but the startling numbers also give a good indication of the magnitude of the problem. Whilst charities are developing strategies to support and prevent grooming and exploitation, the complex web that is the problem means thousands fall through the cracks, particularly post-16. Daisy, Charlie and Rita were all over 16 and technically ‘consenting adults’ when they were targeted, so they were – like so many others – easier to target, and harder to help.
Speaking off-record, a senior police officer described the problem of modern sexual exploitation as such: “I don’t even know where to begin with estimating how many young people are currently in some sort of trouble, selling sex. We don’t even know what to call it, all the time. It’s being done on Instagram, on their phones, in schools, after school, when they go out, on those websites that actually have billboards now. Friends are exploiting friends. Lads pimp out their girlfriends. And it’s impossible to sometimes even call a crime, let alone prosecute. I’m just really, really glad my kids are grown-up now.”