Some of this is my story. Some of this is others stories as told to me. You don't need to know which is which.
The Coffey report was published yesterday, an investigation into child sexual exploitation on the back of the Rochdale investigations. It says that child sexual exploitation is the new social norm in areas of Greater Manchester.
I wasn't surprised.
Somewhere in the last year we were returning from yet another appointment at yet another hospital in Burnley. I was feeling a little unwell but one thing stuck in my mind. The time was somewhere between 3 & 4pm in the afternoon, during the week, possibly a Wednesday. Young girls were walking down the streets on their way home from school. And as I watched, a car pulled over and a middle aged man shouted something I couldn't hear at two girls. They stopped, checked I assume to see if they knew the man, then sped up and disappeared off down the road as the man in the car drove off laughing.
I knew what that was. There's a reason for that.
Somerset, as it was when I was growing up, was very different then to how it is now. Older farmers, who'd never married were often encountered walking into towns and villages in the early evening, heading to the pub after the milking had been done. It was one such chap who accosted me while I was cycling down the main road out of Ilminster to Chard. I was going to water the flower box which was under the 'Welcome to Ilminster' sign as my mum had volunteered to do this each evening, but hadn't been able to do it that evening for some reason. An older farmer said something to me as I passed so I stopped. I can't remember what else he said, all I remember his him trying to kiss me, and freaking out completely, leaping back on my mums 3 speed sit up and back and hammering away from along the main road as fast as my spindly legs could carry me.
It wasn't the first time, and nor would it be the last that an adult made me feel completely at a loss, completely vulnerable and completely sick to my stomach. I am not alone in experiences like this either. I've told this story to 5 other women. Two of them had similar stories of becoming separated from parents and being backed into corners.
I stopped because my mother taught me it was polite to, to not be rude, to respect my elders. She taught me never to get into strangers cars, but she never said what to do when someone who I was supposed to respect did something completely inappropriate.
I never told me mother. She doesn't read this blog. I suppose I should...but why didn't I at the time?
I thought it was my fault. I thought I'd misread the situation somehow, that somehow I'd given some kind of signal that said that that was okay. I assumed I was at fault, because he was the adult.
So to say that I understand why young girls get into the tangles they do is an understatement. And for far more unpleasant and horrid reasons than this. I understand the confusion. The self blame. I can understand how taking risks becomes attractive because at least you're in control and you know the rules. I can understand how that moves into self harm, to the 'I deserve this, I'm worth nothing' mentality. Repeated exposure to adults who are not following rules is horrendous no matter how your brain works. That this often happens when the victim themselves are in the throes of hormone disruption, their first period, arguments with their parents, isolation from support networks only creates a perfect storm.
Add to this the internet. Add to this the formation of gangs who can communicate across County and Borough boundaries and I suppose it's no wonder the perpetrators feel that they're invincible.
Imagine how those girls feel when they finally sum up the courage to tell another 'responsible adult' what's happening them and they're at best ignored. Imagine how confusing it would be for a young woman who's never been told that the police are supposed to be there to protect everyone, that they're supposed to be there to deal with these crimes as well as the more well known and accepted ones like burglary and car theft. She tells someone, the police get involved and she's scared because as soon as the police are involved, she feels even more like she's done something wrong, because maybe her only dealings with the police ever have been when she's done something wrong.
Imagine how being disbelieved feels. But even more, imagine how what you wear, the same as every other girl you know is the reason for that disbelief. Imagine if your father is abusing you, you are completely confused about why that is happening or what to do about it, the CPS go to your father to gather evidence, he calls you a slag and the CPS believe him. No, I don't know if the father quoted as saying that in the Coffey report was abusing his daughter. But I wouldn't be surprised. No, not surprised at all.
You see...and how can I say this gently...sexual abuse is far more prevalent thing than you want to acknowledge. It's not just grooming gangs. It's not just complete strangers. Stranger abuse is the thing we are talking about right now and that is fantastic, but we need to not forget that abuse happens in all classes, in some families and in all areas of the country. Don't become complacent that your town is safe. Don't believe that your town is too nice for that sort of thing to ever happen there. Instead, please, talk to your daughter. Talk to her and ask her if she knows what to do if someone touches her inappropriately. Check she understands the definition of inappropriate. Reassure her, really reassure her that if she ever has any problems like this she will be believed and it will be tackled and something will be done. Hear her. Back her.
Sadly though, I'm going to guess that if you're reading this, you already have. So spare a thought for the girls who for whatever reason, don't have a you. No one to warn them, no one to guide them, no one to believe them. If you can, if you have the time, find a local charity to you, a charity that looks after children, that warns children, that teaches children about the difference between inappropriate and appropriate. Donate some money, or even better some time.
An awful lot of young woman with no one say thank you. Thank you.