Joan Smith: Prostitution is not 'a lifestyle choice' for a 14-year-old

The problem isn't young girls running wild, drinking too much and getting pregnant. It isn't "wilful" 14-year-olds having relationships with older men. And it isn't about race, although cultural misogyny and class come into it. The problem is child prostitution, and the failure of so many agencies to recognise and act on it.

In Rochdale, nine men aged between 24 and 59 were able to run a child sexual exploitation ring between 2008 and 2010. A review by Rochdale's Safeguarding Children Board admits there were "many missed opportunities" to protect children, which is something of an understatement in a review which highlights staggering misjudgements. It hardly seems credible, yet case files show staff concluding that vulnerable children were "engaging in consensual sexual activity" and "making their own choices".

Making their own choices? What planet do these people inhabit? A sentence referring to a 15-year-old victim simply beggars belief: "Social work practitioners and managers wholly over-estimated the extent to which Suzie could legally or psychologically consent to the sexual violence being perpetrated against her." Children cannot consent to sexual abuse or being made to work as prostitutes. How could anyone believe otherwise?

The law is clear. It's a criminal offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 for an adult to pay for sexual services with someone under the age of 18, and payment is defined as discharge of an obligation or provision of services as well as exchange of money. If the child is under the age of 16, the adult can be sent to prison for 14 years; the maximum sentence if she's under 13 is life imprisonment.

It's well known that perpetrators target vulnerable girls in the knowledge that they won't be believed. Suzie told different agencies what was being done to her on at least four occasions, and provided a detailed account to detectives, but the Crown Prosecution Service decided she would make an "unreliable witness". When the Rochdale gang was finally tried earlier this year, it emerged that girls as young as 13 had been raped, beaten and forced to have sex with strangers. The men were convicted of offences including rape, trafficking and conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with children.

Dozens of such cases have come to light. At the heart of them, it now appears, is the ludicrous notion that children are making lifestyle "choices" to be sexually abused or work as prostitutes.