Sket-list scaremongering and scepticism


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.

Comments

  1. freja says

    I thought that article sounded a little out there. The UK is more like the US than other north-west European countries, but droves of rape-gangs seems too far even for that. Thanks for fact-checking. But I’m not quite sure about your assertions that crimes of violence don’t have cost-benefit calculations behind them. Maybe for non-sexual crimes, but the vast majority of male-on-female rape is premeditated and the attackers usually try to use methods that wont result in convictions.

  2. Gerard O says

    Everything in the Daily Mail is thoroughly researched and fact-checked by a team of experts…in an alternate universe.

  3. says

    Did you speak to the journalist(s) who wrote the original piece? It might be worth checking out where exactly some of the information used came from. “Charities” don’t make claims, specific charities make specific claims – so unless they actually made some of the story up they must have been drawing on sources of some kind, even if they are sketchy ones.

    I tend to think that stories like this are usually well intentioned and hope to increase resources going towards victim support, etc. but I do worry that the sensationalism involved and the attempts to find ‘facts’ to fit the story they are intending to write anyone are dangerous, because if they have an impact they may mean that resources are directed to the wrong places, social workers, police, etc are given poor advise on the problems they are meant to be looking for and the public in general are lead to believe that rapists = black gang members rather than, say, your husband.

  4. says

    “So while this shows SLF is doing good work with vulnerable and exploited young people (something I do not remotely question, incidentally)…”

    Well, maybe you should. If I catch someone in a lie, I tend to assume they are lying about other things too…

  5. nightglare says

    “Everything in the Daily Mail is thoroughly researched and fact-checked by a team of experts…in an alternate universe.”

    We should expect better of the Observer, though, which is the main source of the story.

  6. eugie says

    Hi, I love critical thought and investigative journalism, Ally, but here is why I find your piece a little lacking:

    1) ‘Police has no evidence’ Sexual violence is ridiculously underreported, especially by disadvantaged groups who don’t have high trust in police. This bit has to be taken into account when judging lack of evidence as disproving something

    2) ‘Charity figures are off’. I am of course judging but what you present, but charity did say they supported women who ‘have experienced sexual violence and exploitation’ in the last year. Which is data from last year, and data for women who were subject to sexual abuse of some form. They might not have gone into much detail about gang violence but there could be reasons for that (resources, fear of bad PR, or you’re relatviely unimprotant enough to give all info too). Charities witness and get told by their beneficiaries (who themselves might not have been victims of specifically gang sexual violence) a lot of stuff that makes them build a pciture of somethign what is happening – this (more qualitative picture) can or can not be passed down entirely by giving stats on 500 women. Now you’re doubting the pciture just because the charity did not tell YOU everything.

    3) Your ‘credible speculation’ that gangs draw up lists based on ‘sluttiness’ is not credible at all as you’re drawing parallels between what teenagers do and what gangs do. It might be, might be so a little, or not at all

    4) ‘There’s no evidence of lists’ – if police turned their attention to this issue relatively recently, they would not have searched for this evidence in blackberries. If they can only arrest and search due to suspecting a crime, carrying weapons/drugs would allow for this but those crimes are decreasing with opportunities to frisk because of them. And anyway I doubt the police can check your phone on an unrelated account to why you’re being arrested, meanwhile, as I said, sexual violence is too poorly reported.

    5) BIGGEST ISSUE:

  7. eugie says

    Hi, I love critical thought and investigative journalism, Ally, but here is why I find your piece a little lacking:

    1) ‘Police has no evidence’ Sexual violence is ridiculously underreported, especially by disadvantaged groups who don’t have high trust in police. This bit has to be taken into account when judging lack of evidence as disproving something

    2) ‘Charity figures are off’. I am of course judging but what you present, but charity did say they supported women who ‘have experienced sexual violence and exploitation’ in the last year. Which is data from the last year, and data for women who were subject to sexual abuse of some form. They might not have gone into much detail about gang violence but there could be reasons for that (resources, fear of bad PR, or you’re relatively unimportant enough to give all info too). Charities witness and get told by their beneficiaries (who themselves might not have been victims of specifically gang sexual violence) a lot of stuff that makes them build a picture of something that is happening – this (more qualitative picture) can or cannot be passed down entirely by giving stats on 500 women. Now you’re doubting the picture just because the charity did not tell YOU everything.

    3) Your ‘credible speculation’ that gangs draw up lists based on ‘sluttiness’ is not credible at all as you’re drawing parallels between what teenagers do and what gangs do. It might be, might be so a little, or not at all

    4) ‘There’s no evidence of lists’ – if police turned their attention to this issue relatively recently, they would not have searched for this evidence in blackberries. If they can only arrest and search due to suspecting a crime, carrying weapons/drugs would allow for this but those crimes are decreasing and opportunities to frisk because of them too. And anyway I doubt the police can check your phone on an unrelated account to why you’re being arrested, meanwhile, as I said, sexual violence is too poorly reported.

    5) ‘Crimes happen of emotions’. These are gang crimes, a more organised form of crime, what they do have more preparation and purpose than your average person. Saying crimes happen because of emotions is like saying burglaries rob your house without advance preparation.

    6) BIGGEST ISSUE: I find your musings on how targeting women believed to be ‘sluts’ for sexual violence as less sensational worrying. You might say society thinks that way, but when you’re writing an article on scaremongering where you want to give more context, saying this comes out as ‘calm down, women are targeted for their (perceived) sexual history, not all women’. Despite their sexual history or even because of that, it’s still targeting women for sexual violence and in no way should be less ‘sensational’ or more calming.

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