The newly released photos of Jeffrey Epstein cradling a young sleeping girl on his lap inside his private plane, as well as the horrifying murder of two FBI agents who were serving a warrant on an alleged child pornography suspect in Florida, have reminded all of us of the truly vile sex crimes perpetrated against vulnerable children.
If we are to be honest about child sexual exploitation, we must be honest about the prevalence of these crimes. They are not simply committed by deranged lone wolves, or as is likely in the case of Jeffrey Epstein, a small circle of enablers. They can also be organized and be tolerated under the guise of being culturally permissible, in part attributable to a willingness to look the other way, not only in the United States but in Great Britain and Western Europe as well.
I am speaking especially of the grooming gangs that have been operating in Europe, particularly in Great Britain. In December, British Home Secretary Priti Patel released a report on child sexual exploitation, and it emphasized that groups are frequently behind these crimes. There are disagreements about the ethnicities of the offenders, in part because British authorities too often collected data about gender and age, but not ethnicity.
But some of the most high-profile prosecutions and failures to intervene involve predominantly Pakistani-oriented groups. In one of the more infamous cases, police in South Yorkshire ignored the abuse of some 1,400 children by mainly British-Pakistani (as well as some Kurdish and Kosovar) men over a period of 16 years, from 1997 to 2013. Many of the perpetrators were taxi drivers; many of the girls who were victims were living in government “care homes.” These girls were subjected to gang rape and other forms of torture, and were trafficked to other towns. But the authorities, including the police, worried about triggering a backlash or being branded racist, turned a blind eye and allowed the abuse to continue, unchecked. The girls, already labeled as “unfortunate,” were deemed expendable. In attempting to understand some of the reasons for this exploitation, Patel’s report concluded, that “Financial gain and a desire for sexual gratification are common motives,” while adding this key finding: “misogyny and disregard for women and girls may further enable the abuse.”
Some on the left accused Patel of trying to point a finger at Pakistani and other South Asian males as perpetrators, arguing that there is no evidence of a disproportionate number of these gangs as being from Muslim backgrounds. However, Patel was very clear in stating, “Victims and survivors of group-based child sexual exploitation have told me how they were let down by the state in the name of political correctness.” In Halifax, West Yorkshire, estimates are that as many as 100 men of British-Pakistani origin were connected to child exploitation between 2006 and 2011.
As Graham Hill, a criminologist at the University of Leeds has pointed out, best estimates are that there are 73 grooming gangs operating in the United Kingdom, and the “vast majority” of their victims are “underage white girls,” many living in vulnerable circumstances. Victims’ advocates have stated that at least 19,000 children were sexually groomed in England in 2019. The grooming process is insidious. Teenagers, particularly from impoverished families, are frequently lured via monetary or other gifts, or enticed with alcohol or drugs. Sometimes the perpetrators feign romantic interests and initially present themselves as potential boyfriends. Whatever method, the process is often layered and time-consuming. Young people are flattered and tempted, with no warning that they are targets. Then, addicted or dependent on money or separated from their families, or a combination of all three, they can be pressured into supporting illegal activity or are “pimped out” as prostitutes to earn money for their abusers. Many of these girls are also trafficked abroad, ending up in “red light” districts in Amsterdam and elsewhere.
And this is where the West’s focus matters: Why are we so nervous about offending the sensibilities of the perpetrators? Why are we not more focused on the victims? Here, culture and cultural practices do matter. Too often, apologists in the West have dismissed practices that are prevalent in non-Western nations, from child marriage to honor killings to female genital mutilation, as somehow culturally protected.
By abandoning Western values of equality and the presumption of innocence of victims, the apologists have found ways to excuse these practices as “traditions” when many are restrictive and demeaning at best and nothing less than glaring human rights abuses at their worst. When these practices are given a veneer of respectability, it then also becomes “judgmental” to question other avenues of more explicit exploitation, such as rape, prostitution, and sex trafficking.
This cultural relativism has another insidious impact. It drives a wedge between Western and non-Western women, saying that they are held to two different standards. Moreover, by excusing this behavior in any group of men, it subtly moves toward normalizing it in all men, particularly men in any kind of position of power. Jeffrey Epstein is a case in point; but so is John Weaver, until quite recently one of the heads of the Lincoln Project. He was able to prey on young men and teenage boys for years in part because of his political access. Accusations against him were dismissed as competitors’ sour grapes, and his victims felt powerless. Both Weaver and Epstein were insulated and protected.
That is the same model that exists in British grooming gangs, where men from the same regions or ethnicities, even loosely bound by family ties, operate in a loyalty framework. They don’t have the wealth or power of Epstein or Weaver, but they often have access to money and drugs and steady employment—and use all of it to ensnare their more desperate and economically vulnerable victims. In many ways, the behavior of these grooming gangs’ mirrors organized crime’s tradition of “omerta,” but for sexual exploitation.
As Secretary Patel’s report noted, “The group dynamic can have a role in creating an environment in which offenders believe they can act with impunity, in exacerbating disregard for victims, and in drawing others into offending behaviour.” The group dynamic may also be part of the reason why law enforcement and prosecutors have made the choice to look the other way.
An Egyptian immigrant to Germany summed up two central issues for me: Many non-Western men (and some Western ones) through entertainment and the internet see a version of Western women where they conclude all of them are “sluts.” Moreover, since it is often unacceptable or frowned upon in their home cultures to see women walking alone, they conclude that Western men do not place the same value on Western women as they do. These misconceptions make it all the more important for all of us in the West to clearly reaffirm our shared values of equality and human rights, regardless of economic status, country of origin, gender, or circumstances. A true #MeToo movement, focused on vulnerable women and girls, would seek to deny them both.
Now is the time to stand up and say that all sexual exploitation and violence, against anyone who is vulnerable, is unacceptable, that we affirm universal human rights and universal values, and we will not make cultural excuses. As the British Home Office noted, “This can happen anywhere.” Perhaps. But due to timidity and fear of offense, the West is not doing enough to make sure that it no longer happens here.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, founder of the AHA Foundation, and host of The Ayaan Hirsi Ali Podcast. Her new book Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights is available now.