I wrote recently about my concerns over the way the media handle the issue of girls, gangs and sexual violence. In a nutshell, it seems to me this coverage is generally needlessly titillating, exploitative and salacious, painfully simplistic about the social dynamics of gang violence and it often actively, if inadvertently, dances to the melodies of racist agendas.
On Sunday the Observer ran a news piece which could have been an object lesson in the above. Within 48 hours it had been picked up and republished, almost word for word, by sleazy tabloids like the Star and right wing rags like the Daily Mail. Among the people sharing and eagerly discussing the original on Sunday were the official Twitter account of the British National Party and countless other racists and fascists.
The article made a series of extravagant claims. It alleged that:
London gangs are drawing up and disseminating lists of teenage girls whom they consider to be legitimate rape targets, as sexual violence is increasingly used to spread fear and antagonise rival groups.
The so-called sket lists (sket is street slang for “sluts”) have, according to youth workers, prompted attacks so brazen that girls have been dragged from school buses and sexually assaulted. Police and charities say they have recorded an increase in the use of sexual violence by gangs, including incidents of revenge rape, where the sisters and girlfriends of rival gang members are targeted.
Other claims in the piece included this quote from Det Supt Tim Champion of the Met’s Operation Trident:
“The first thing we had to do is stop people killing each other. The focus now clearly is on women. It’s as prevalent as carrying a knife or a gun – raping a girl in a gang.”
It goes on to add:
Figures from the Safer London Foundation reveal that more than 500 young women were victims of gang-related sexual violence in the past year, a figure Hubberstey describes as just the “tip of the iceberg”.
Scotland Yard’s latest intelligence identifies 3,495 gang members in 224 gangs in London, although just 40 were found to be female.
I’m sure we’ll all agree these are shocking claims. They are also for the most part quantifiable and verifiable claims. Call me cynical if you like, but I thought I would try to verify them.
Let’s begin at the top.
1. “Police and charities say they have recorded an increase in the use of sexual violence by gangs”
I asked the Metropolitan police what increase they have recorded in the use of sexual violence by gangs. They replied:
“We have no specific figures relating to the sexual abuse of girls by gangs.”
That’s that then.
So what about the charities?
2. Figures from the Safer London Foundation reveal that more than 500 young women were victims of gang-related sexual violence in the past year, a figure Hubberstey describes as just the “tip of the iceberg”.
I asked the Safer London Foundation what methodology they had used to calculate the figure of more than 500 girls?
“The 500 figure is actually the number of young women we’ve supported in the areas we work in London in last year.”
I asked to clarify whether these were specifically victims of sexual violence by gangs?
“The young women we support have experienced sexual violence and exploitation (which covers a range of forms of abuse including but not only assault and rape)”
So while this shows SLF is doing good work with vulnerable and exploited young people (something I do not remotely question, incidentally) the figure as presented in the Observer and repeated elsewhere is wrong on several counts. These 500 girls were not necessarily all victims of sexual violence and any crimes committed against them did not necessarily happen in the past year. We are still none the wiser as to the true extent and trends of sexual violence by gangs.
As to the most dramatic claim in the article.
3. London gangsare drawing up and disseminating lists of teenage girls whom they consider to be legitimate rapetargets, as sexual violence is increasingly used to spread fear and antagonise rival groups.
These lists would, quite obviously, constitute significant evidence of serious criminal activity, including potentially rape and sexual assault, or at the very least criminal conspirancy. One would expect the gang specialists in the Met’s Operation Trident to act swiftly in response, most notably in warning or offering protection to any women whose names were appearing on, effectively, hit lists for rapists. One would expect any youth or community worker who encounters such a list to act responsibly in passing on such information to the police as a matter of urgency. While Blackberry BBM is notoriously difficult for the police to intercept and monitor in real time, gang members are being arrested for one reason or another on a daily basis and their phones are routinely seized and inspected for evidence.
So bearing all that in mind, how many ‘sket lists’ have the police in London encountered, this year or ever?
“We have received no direct evidence or reports of so-called ‘sket-lists.’”
This does not of course mean that such lists do not exist, however I think it does warrant a sceptical side-eye. The claims in this piece were attributed to unspecified charities not police (I would presume Safer London Foundation were the source).
As it happens I’m pretty sure that sket lists, in one form or another, do exist. I first heard them mentioned three or four years ago in the context of reams of research into early sexualisation and ‘pornification’ (I’ve racked my memory trying to track down the source this week but drawn a blank, apologies.)
In that research, sket-lists were used as an example of teenage misogyny and bullying. They were described basically as a digital version of an old-school toilet wall – lists of local girls who were rumoured to be promiscuous or ‘sluts.’ Teenagers would pass them around and add the name of any girl who they felt deserved it.
This, of course, is horrible, but entirely believable. It’s the kind of things kids have always done, albeit with added technology.
It is also entirely credible that a young woman whose name appears on such a list is more likely to be targeted for sexual assault, abuse or rape. That would fit perfectly with the mindset of the sexually abusive personality. So I can quite believe that young people involved with SLF or other agencies have told youth workers something along the lines of: “Yeah, the gangs target girls whose names have appeared on sket lists.”
I’m speculating, of course, but this strikes me as entirely credible. Saying “gangs target girls who have a reputation for being a bit of a slut” is – while grim and depressing – vastly less sensationalist than suggesting that gangs are handing around lists of names of targets specifically so they can be singled out for rape and assault, which was the clear implication of the Observer’s report.
I have one final doubt about the Observer’s report. It relates to this:
Hubberstey said gang members were taking advantage of low conviction rates for rape, viewing sexual violence as a less-risky means to inflict pain on rivals or spread fear than carrying a weapon
I can offer no hard evidence that can rebut this claim, so feel free to ignore me, but I have to say, from my knowledge of criminology and the dynamics of gangs this really doesn’t ring true to me.
Crimes of violence and abuse rarely have cold calculations of costs and benefits behind them. They happen out of anger, rage, hatred, fear, temper and sadistic cruelty. Gang crimes, in particular, are driven by momentum. It is messy and irrational. Someone is robbed, so someone is stabbed, so someone else is shot, and in the ensuing chaos gangs grow as people seek protection. Within all that people are sexually abused, exploited and raped. All my instincts tell me that what dramatic falls in youth crime generally, falls in anti-social behaviour, drug use and problem drinking, and most importantly precipitous falls in gun and knife crimes, gangs should be getting smaller and less active, and their associated problems and impacts, including sexual crimes, should be similarly in decline.
The Metropolitan Police tell me that despite having (literally) no evidence of the extent and trends in gang-related sexual violence:
“We do believe it is an issue which remains significantly under-reported which is why we are mapping the extent of the problem and where it is prevalent, so that we can work effectively with our partners to identify suitable ways of intervening.”
This is to be welcomed on every score. I hope that when the mapping is complete, they are forthcoming not only with the bad news, but with the good. In the meantime, I do wish the media would ease off on unsubstantiated, dangerous and damaging scaremongering.