Confusing love and sex: how the care system creates a context for grooming and child prostitution

By ‘Alice’

As a young teenager my social worker would take me to McDonalds and barely bother speaking to me. Sat across the table, she’d not ask, tentatively even, about my dishevelled appearance, or my obvious disinterest in anything related to family matters, or my despondency about school.

When you think you have no future, things like exams seem absurdly irrelevant. When you’re struggling to survive day-to-day, long-term goals appear trivial and as immaterial to your existence as the project to colonise Mars.

I always wondered what my social worker wrote in her reports, because it can’t have been based on conversation. The fact she couldn’t initiate basic small talk meant we were a million miles away from me being able to confide in her about the men who would try to groom me and my friends.

I was later referred into a children’s home by an American man posing as a child psychologist, who was later banned by a UK court for erroneously calling himself Dr. So-and-So when he was in fact unqualified. Upon contacting him as an adult, he tried to get me involved in a pyramid scheme! So, a con artist through and through.

On arriving at the children’s home, it was a shock to experience the contrasting scarcity.

On the streets of Leeds, where I’d take refuge from violent abuse at home, my problems had been food and shelter. As well as, of course, navigating men who would try to fuck me or my friends in return for those scarce commodities of food and shelter. These usually came in the form of men inviting me or other girls back to their homes to drink alcohol. We all knew what it meant and the ‘deal’ being offered: material sustenance (dinner + roof) in exchange for sexual access.

The children’s home in contrast provided a bed and had an abundance of food, but had its own different set of violences, as I’ve previously written about.

These harsh environments lead children to take refuge in a multitude of things. My vocation was solvent abuse. Spraying aerosols into your mouth through a towel results in a foggy headed high that stops all thinking for an hour or so (this is incredibly dangerous and inadvisable!) I have never enjoyed alcohol more than at age 14/15 when taking escape in it.

Those forms of numbing yourself to avoid fully feeling your harsh surroundings becomes a process that can be readily called upon. There wasn’t really a limit. My friend Linda tried heroin at 15; I overdosed on some unknown drug at 15 ending up in hospital; Jade was given endless cocaine by men at 13 intending to pimp her out; another friend, also called Jade, by 14 was huffing glue through a plastic bag. This sounds incredibly grim looking back, and it absolutely was, but it was normal and banal to us.

Children who are already seeking drugs to numb their internal states of fear and misery do so because they are being forced to endure a life no child should never have to contend with. It’s that context of navigating a world of intolerable mistreatment that makes unloved kids easy prey for adult men to sexually abuse and sell to other men.

As adolescents, we had all grown used to high pain thresholds. By the age of 16, I’d been stabbed, twice (by one of the Jades listed above). I self-harmed from the onset of puberty (at 10, for me), as almost every other girl in my children’s home did. This is before we get to the sexual, or physical, or emotional abuse that landed us on the social work At Risk register in the first place.

Our pain thresholds were high, we were experts in endurance, and at risk assessment. Sleeping beside a potentially dangerous stranger is better than a night on the streets alone. Agreeing to statutory rape in return for money is better than being violently raped for free.

Measuring experiences in terms of endurance becomes the norm. Safety and reward are judged as trade-offs against one another. How much more awful is having uncomfortable sex with a man twice your age going to be than what you as an abused child have already experienced? It probably isn’t going to be much worse and that’s a fair estimate. Especially when sex is conflated with love, that elusive thing missing in your life. 

When there is no adult in the world that cares for you, it’s very simple for any type of person to step into that void. A moment of fleeting caring attention feels like a morsel of food to a starving person. A predatory man doesn’t need to show much care for a neglected child to be hooked, desperate not to lose that care, however inconsistent or paltry it might be. 

Because we live in a society that erroneously ties love to sex, when there are many unloving forms of sex, girls everywhere are led to believe that if a man wants to have sex with them it represents a form of admiration and love.

For children in the care system, who are starved of love, the barrier to sexually predatory men is so much lower because unloved girls look for love everywhere. All it need be is someone being nice to you and that feeling feels amazing – because it has been so long since anyone showed genuine interest or concern.

“When there is no adult in the world that cares for you, it’s very simple for any type of person to step into that void.”

Even inappropriate sexual attention can feel deceptively good because it’s a form of attention. Someone thinks you’re special enough to want to be close to you. Someone thinks you’re so special all their friends want to meet you and be close to you, too. Those friends want to be physically close to you and buy you gifts.

For abused children, further abuse by other adults outside the home brings with it a feeling of familiarity (and as we all know, familiarity is one of the best feelings in the world). We were preconditioned to find abuse to be run-of-mill or at least far less alien than others might. Because we likely already had an adult in our lives who abused us and simultaneously told us they loved us, we do not sense them as the opposites that they are. Therefore, grooming for sex by an adult becomes much easier.

Because being unloved is miserable, unloved children desperately try to prove their lovableness. This sets up a willing submissiveness and compliance, a wish to endure whatever painful experiences in order for another supposedly loving bond not to break.

Saying “no” to someone who claims to love you feels almost impossible. It still feels almost impossible to me as an adult two decades on. Doing so risks the hopeful belief that you might be loveable and worthwhile. Losing that is feared because it is felt to confirm culpability; that the first abandonment and abuse by family members was actually to do with your own worthlessness.

Abused children face an impossible situation: accept the abuse experienced was not their fault and render their most beloved objects (usually parents, but might be another relative) perpetrators acting of their own accord and therefore lose those original caregivers as lovable. Or, share blame and implicate yourself as a child in the abuse and neglect, and find yourself unlovable. The choice is between not loving or being unloved.

That awful matrix of guilt and self-reproach produces a deeply held wish for loving connections that sooth self-hatred (all abused children experience themselves as objects of hate because they were recipients of hateful abuse). That combination of shame, worries about complicity, and longing for the love that is missing, is why predators find it so easy to spot vulnerable children by their willingness to respond to them and comply.

“That combination of shame, worries about complicity, and longing for the love that is missing, is why predators find it so easy to spot vulnerable children by their willingness to respond to them and comply.”

One friend was coerced from around age 15 into having sex with her 20-something boyfriend’s friends for £50 a time (which they paid to the boyfriend, of course). She felt, at first, esteem and prestige that she was worth that sum of money. That she was worth anything at all.

As she matured, she began to realise these men had demeaned and degraded her by buying her. It devastated her self-esteem to have been ‘passed around’, bought and sold, and caused huge emotional turmoil that she had ever been fooled into feeling that a monetary value made her worth more and not much less.

Only when older do sexually abused children realise if that adult had genuinely cared for them, that care would’ve taken another form, one that included respect and boundaries, as all real love and genuine care is based on.

So long as the care system’s social workers and staff in children’s homes continue to not care for children (some do care, but it is certainly not the norm) there will be predators willing to exploit that deficit. It is no surprise that the many ‘grooming gang’ scandals, such as the Rochdale scandal interrupted by hero whistleblower Sara Rowbotham – a social worker victimised and sacked for actually doing her job properly in highlighting these men’s abuses – often involves the targeting of vulnerable girls orbiting the care system.

These girls exchanged sex in return for pizzas, enduring rape, being pimped out to numerous men, and it was and is taking place across the country unabated. The men of course plied them with alcohol and drugs, but the girls returned to them often for attention, seeking love after the men posed as their ‘boyfriends’. It would take so little to fill the gap in those girls’ lives.

The fact that the state cannot provide what odious abusive men do is an indictment of the state itself. Some consistent care and concern, basic financial support, rebuilding abused children’s self-esteem, as well as psychological help to not blame themselves for being unloved, would mean adult predators would not find vulnerable children in the care system to target. ‘Looked After’ children would be protected, supported, and helped to understand their enormously painful situation and progress in as best a normal manner, like any other adolescent might.

So many of the girls I grew up with in the home went on to prostitution, almost always beginning during their teen years, typically via an older boyfriend. I went off to college and worked in the McDonalds my social worker ignored me in, to support myself getting into university, but that is statistically very rare. It is incredibly hard to class climb, all on your own, diverting far away from the path in which you started.

A huge proportion of girls who grow up looked after by the state end up in prison and/or prostitution. Many ended up in both partly due to the drug habits they started in childhood (entering the vicious cycle of needing drugs to get through the experience of prostitution, needing to sell themselves for money to keep up the funds to buy drugs).

It is the failing care system itself that prepares the ground for the sexual predation of adult men. If children were properly looked after, the trajectory of prison or being sold for sex would not be such a likely outcome of being taken into the care of the state. Until then the presence of child neglect combined with that child’s aptitude for enduring painful experiences will be ripe for exploitation by sexual predators.

Further reading

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