Joining the Dots: Sexual Violence, Gangs and Sexting

13th Jul 2015

When I read a BBC article about Violence against Women recently I was alarmed about the increase in prosecutions in 2014/2015.  It said that A Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) report in June 2015 showed more than 107,000 prosecutions in the year to April. An increase of 16,000 (18%) on the previous year. The figures are for crimes “primarily” against women, but male victims are also included.”

The statistics include cases of rape, domestic violence and “honour” crime.  In the report, prosecutors said a common theme was the use of the internet to contact potential victims and post indecent images and messages. In one case, a man used social media chat rooms to groom vulnerable women and girls, before he later raped them.

Violence against women and girls

Many partnerships continue to take responsibility for this area of work in response to domestic and sexual violence offences against Woman and Girls (VAWG).  This is supported by a unified and comprehensive approach to tackling violence against women and girls through a systemic plan, known as a VAWG Plan.

During 2014/2015 a London Borough Safer Partnership team and the Metropolitan Police reviewed issues affecting gang-associated women and girls following concerns reported in the press.  This review report details the dangerous and troubling situations some women and girls encountered because of their association with gangs.

During the course of the review it was reported that violence against women and girls was regularly used as a means of conflict and/or retaliation between groups of boys and men. The secretive nature of this type of violence and the damage it can cause in the lives of women and girls were also reported on and key concerns about the concealed nature of violence and abuse.

The need for collaboration

As partnerships develop violence against women and girls strategies it highlights the need for additional information and intelligence in a number of areas such as connectivity to child sexual exploitation matters and gang-related activity. Most concerning is that the issue of violence against women may also be affecting the lives and life chances of young women and girls.

Partnerships in general are working relentlessly to have targeted multi-agency approaches to disrupting youth violence and protecting women from domestic violence. Partner’s organisations also share information about the most difficult cases and put in place processes to disrupt the influence of violence and abuse in the lives of affected women and girls. A range of different approaches are being deployed across London to raise awareness of gang violence and to prevent young people from becoming victims. The Safer London Foundation is at the forefront of this work.

Gangs and violence

Despite the inherent difficulties in defining gangs, all the available information about gang membership demonstrates that gangs are almost all made up of boys and men. Nonetheless, in September 2014 it was reported that there had been an increase in the numbers of women associated with gangs as perpetrators. Police officers stated that the changing activities of gangs indicated a more prominent role for female members.  It was reported that:

“… mirrors a trend across the capital where drug dealing, mostly outside London, is supplanting conflicts over territory and vulnerable females have a high value as couriers.‘ (Report to Safer Stronger Communities Select Committee, 10 September 2014)

It was reported that recent operations indicated that gang members were increasingly using girls and young women to safe house drugs and weapons. It was also reported that gangs involved in so called ‘County Lines‘ and drug dealing were using young women and girls who may previously not have had any contact with the local authority or the police. It was recognised that this made it difficult to predict the numbers of girls and women involved in gang-related activity.

The Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) recommends that community safety partnerships should adopt the ACPO definition of gang-associated women and girls to assist with the identification and assessment of women and girls at risk. The definition is as follows: “…a woman or girl who is a family member of or in an intimate relationship with a gang nominal‘. (MOPAC 2013, p6)

Child Sexual Exploitation

In September 2014 the Safer London Foundation reported its increasing concerns about sexual exploitation, victimisation and abuse in schools.  Safer London Foundation works across London to tackle issues of sexual exploitation, violence and abuse. EMPOWER is a programme delivered by the Safer London Foundation to support women and girls affected by gang violence. The foundation has officers embedded within multi-agency teams in local areas, including Community Safety, Children‘s Social Care and Youth Offending Teams. There is close liaison with the Child Abuse Investigation Team, Sapphire Unit, Missing Persons Units, Borough Gangs teams & Trident Command.

Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) continues to be a national priority, driven and informed by the work of the Children’s Commissioner.  CSE remains a key priority of the Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) and managed through strategic groups.  CSE is an increasingly social concern that is accelerated by the use of modern technology.  It is a multi-facetted and has been highlighted following serious case reviews, rare prosecutions, Ofsted thematic inspections and most recently the publication of the Rotherham Inquiry and the Jay report recommendations.

‘Operation Make Safe’ was launched March 2015, targeting all commercial businesses and licensed premises with the aim to raise awareness and support businesses with ensuring they spot the warning signs and take appropriate action.    This initiative and training will be further rolled out to other organisations and professionals such as schools and educational establishments, GPs and pharmacists, residential children’s homes and foster carers.


The Sexualization Report 2013 describes sexting as “ the term given by journalists, academics and policy makers to describe the exchange of sexual messages or images using mobile phones and the internet, but it is not a term that young people themselves use.”

It refers to a range of activities typically motivated by sexual pleasure, flirting and fun, such as posting photos of body parts, broadcasting sexual messages, and asking and being asked for revealing photos. It has given rise to widespread public and policy concern, often focused on legislation.

In 2013 following a survey by the NSPCC/Child Line it was reported that six out of ten teenagers say they have been asked for sexual images or videos.  The results indicated “that sexting is increasingly a feature of adolescent relationships”.

Under British law it is illegal and a serious criminal offence to take, hold or share “indecent” photos of anyone aged under 18 years.  According to figures from the National Crime Agency’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) command, 62% of children aged 12-15 owned a mobile phone in 2012, with the figure expected to rise.

Experts say growing smartphone ownership, together with evolving technology, has helped created a “perfect storm”.  Even many of the cheapest mobiles now have cameras with which teenagers can easily take pictures of themselves and distribute them cheaply. It is almost becoming the norm that a young person in a relationship should share an explicit image of themselves.

With most phones now connected to the internet, “sexts” can instantly be posted on social networking sites and then is easily accessible to anyone.

CEOP is dedicated to eradicating the sexual abuse of children. It says it is concerned about images falling into the wrong hands.

Research on young people and social networking has shown that young people are deeply attached to digital communication technologies and find digital flirtation and sexual communication pleasurable, exciting and fun.

By Marisa De Jager
Director of MD Social Care Consultants