So... how do you know when you're actually in love? How do you know when you've met someone who's just right for you and who's worth taking that risk on? Is it when they shower you with gifts, or impress you with their lifestyle and money? How do you know when it's the right time to have sex with them or to marry them or to introduce them to your parents? Is it after they pressure you to lose your virginity to them; when they persuade you to go away for the weekend to a posh hotel which ends up being a cheap motel and force you to do things you didn't want to? How do you know if they really respect you? Is it when they charge their friends to have sex with you for the night – or even for a half hour each at a 'party?'
Horrific, shocking and sad; but unfortunately true for many more 'normal' girls than we perhaps would like to admit or realise. We'll all have different answers to these sorts of questions. I remember debating for hours and hours with my friends when I was a teenager about how you would be able to tell if you'd met 'the one' - and whether that had anything to do with whether you could feel comfortable going to the toilet in front of that person! These were heated and opinionated debates in my teenage world and actually we've come to see the great value of conversations like these in the work we do with girls as part of Golddigger Trust. The value of these conversations is mainly in exposing attitudes and expectations in relationships Exploring and sharing these stories with our young people is proving vital - as we saw when working with; Alesha* who came to us in a relationship with a boy she was 'totally in love with' called Josh.* (Names have been changed). Let me share her story with you...
Alesha met Josh in the Peace Gardens – a popular, family friendly place in the centre of Sheffield. They'd seen each other there a few times; he came over to talk to her and they just kind of ended up together. Alesha had been a little bit lonely and didn't feel that anyone really understood her but Josh told her she was beautiful and he made her feel like she was the most important girl in the world. Alesha was 13 and Josh was 17. She loved it that he was a bit more mature, always seemed to have money on him and he had a car.
He took her to nice places and he bought her a phone, new clothes and seemed to look after her. Understandably she fell for him and he soon became the most significant person in her world. He started taking her to parties and she would drink quite a bit. Josh would reassure her that she would be fine because he was there to look after her. She lost her virginity to him because he said he'd never felt this way about anyone else before and he wanted her “to be closer to him than any other girl had been”. She wasn't sure if she was ready but she didn't want him to laugh at her – or to leave her for someone who would - so she did it – and it hurt.
She started having sex more and more. Sometimes it was with some of Josh's friends too. She didn't really get it but lots of Josh's friends were quite a lot older – in their 20s and 30s. Josh was always around when it happened but sometimes she did get shut in a room with a man she didn't recognise and she would have to have sex with him. Sometimes she would be in such a state that she wouldn't even remember what had happened but she would wake up outside in a garden on her own with her underwear missing. Sometimes she would be shut in a car and not be allowed to get out until she had performed sexual acts on the man or the men in the car. This is Alesha's 'love story'.
Sadly we come across many stories like this. Golddigger Trust take referrals from the Sexual Exploitation Service and these are girls who have been identified by social services and the police as most at risk of sexual exploitation. So these are extreme cases, surely?
Unfortunately not. We also come across many similar situations in our work in schools which have not yet been identified as dangerous and also so many situations where young girls are sexually active in relationships who tell us that they don't actually like sex but see it as necessary in order to keep their boyfriend. These girls have an understanding that the purpose of sex is to keep a boy happy. Exploitation, grooming and sexual trafficking is big business and is far more discrete and yet widespread than many of us realise. It’s not simply the case that girls who wear short skirts and hang around late at night in the red light districts are in danger from older men. Recent trends in grooming are seeing children as young as 10 being targeted, not girls who look older than they are... children who actually look like children because they are more vulnerable and easy to abuse.
Popular and 'safe' areas are being targeted and there's also an increase in the targeting of boys too. We're seeing boys targeted as victims of exploitation; and also boys being groomed to groom girls. Families and friends are less likely to worry about a relationship a girl is in with someone her own age... so this technique of grooming younger boys to become 'boyfriends' is increasingly more successful. This industry is manipulative and extremely deceptive; and it preys on the vulnerable who are longing for affection, attention and encouragement. I'm sure we all know a few young people who are seeking those things.
In Golddigger Trust we use our time with these girls to talk about relationships. We know there is loads to be done around awareness – young people, parents, schools, the general public need to be aware this sort of crime is happening and it is vital that people keep their eyes open to watch out for this to do what they can to catch it before it happens, but for those already trapped it is probably too late just to tell them about the dangers. Most of them don't even realise they are being exploited because their self-esteem is so low or because they don't know any different. Telling many of these girls that their 'boyfriend' is a sexual offender is not going to be well received; and will push her away from the support she desperately needs. There is, of course, no quick or easy answer. In fact we are only just starting to discover the full extent of the problem but realise we must... and quickly. What we CAN do is get talking about it – and not only that but walk lovingly with girls long enough that they realise what we are encouraging them to believe can actually be true – to inspire them to raise their sights and raise their aspirations regarding what a healthy relationship, maybe even true love, can and should look like.
Mandy Toombs is a director of the Golddigger Trust.