'They like us naive': How teenage girls are groomed for a life of prostitution by UK gangs

Thirteen-year-old Emma was a happy child from a loving family when a gang of boys she met at a shopping centre introduced her to a charismatic older man. He plied her with gifts and drinks... then raped her and forced her into prostitution. Now aged 20 and in hiding from the gang, Emma talks candidly about how she was groomed – and how she is trying to help the growing number of others being picked out for a similar fate
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Emma Jackson has a way of referring to her younger self that makes her teen years sound as though they were decades ago. "My mum is my best friend," she reflects at one point as we are talking. "Now I'm older I'm really happy with that, but when I was 13, I saw things differently. I was much younger and I didn't want my mum at all. I just wanted my friends."

The past sounds so far away that I have to keep reminding myself that Emma is still only 20. The transition from childhood to being an adult can be quick and is rarely smooth and painless, but Emma's exaggerated sense of the gap between "before" and "after" has been caused by something much more traumatic than regular teenage rebellion. For those friends she sought out so assiduously at 13 in the local shopping centre near her home in Yorkshire turned out not to be friends at all, but a well-organised gang of criminals, using teenage boys as bait to enable them to groom young, naïve girls like Emma for a life of prostitution. '

From the distant vantage point of adulthood, she can now discern a disturbing pattern in how they treated her, but at the time it all felt spontaneous – and, at first, exciting. She was initially befriended by courteous, good- looking lads a few years older than she was. Through them, she was introduced to their older friends, and finally, slowly and imperceptibly as she tells it, into the arms of what seemed a glamorous suitor called Tarik.

For a while Tarik was all rides in his smart car, gifts and drinks, cigarettes and drugs, which he encouraged her to try because, he reassured her, she was old enough, whatever her parents said. Then, overnight, he changed. Tarik was the gang's ringleader and one night dragged Emma into a seedy yard where he raped her. Once he had asserted his "full control" over her by this violation, she was so confused by what had happened and terrified by his threats that she let him sell her on for sex with his middle-aged male clients.

"I never thought of myself as a prostitute," she reflects, her down-to-earth voice strangely disengaged as she describes her own suffering, "because, in my child's view of the world, prostitutes walked the streets, wore short skirts and high heels and I wasn't doing any of that. It is only now that I can see that, much as I wanted to believe Tarik had feelings for me, he didn't have any at all, except to make money out of me."

Emma's case is not isolated – which is why she has agreed to relive the pain. There is an accumulation of evidence pointing to a growing problem with the sexual exploitation for criminal purposes of teenagers, both girls and boys. Barnardo's has recently produced a report, "Whose Child Now?", which warns that children as young as 10 are being "brainwashed" and then sexually exploited by gangs in much the same fashion as Emma. It estimates, on the basis of work done by the charity in London, that 1,000 children in the capital alone are at risk of sexual exploitation in this way.

Hard figures for the UK as a whole are difficult to come by. One reason is that what happened to Emma is often conflated with the activities of gangs that traffic young sex workers into Britain for the sex industry, or with the use of the internet by paedophiles for grooming gullible teenagers. Both these latter groups have been targeted by police and authorities in recent times, but the grooming of UK-born and based teenagers has received less attention.

Another complicating factor is that the assumption is made – including in the Barnardo's report – that the youngsters at risk from this criminal activity come from dysfunctional homes, or the estimated 80,000 under-16s who run away each year. Emma is anxious above all to dispel this impression. Her voice turns almost strident. "Yes, there probably are a lot of girls who get involved because they come from broken homes, or are in care, but when you look at the whole situation, as I have, there are plenty who don't. The gangs know that if they take a girl from a nice family, she will probably be more naïve, not as streetwise as kids who have been in care. And because you are naïve, you are more trusting, easier to impress. They like that. It makes you easier to control. They'll have anybody – doctors' children, lawyers' children – anybody."

Emma had, she says, a very happy childhood. "I think of Dad as he was then, chunky, always dependable. If I was ever ill as a little kid, it was always Dad I wanted. Mum was always kind and loving, she protected us and encouraged us. The house was always comfortable, there was food on the table, we had nice clothes."

By this stage of an interview, it would be usual to describe the person speaking and where we are talking, but Emma cannot be identified in this way. She is still in hiding from the gang that abused her. Her parents have given up their business – they used to run a local shop – and moved to a new area. Emma Jackson is a pseudonym.

Is she still frightened that the gang is looking for her? "In a way, yes..." and then she pauses. "And in a way, no," she continues. "It is children they scare, not grown women, and I am a grown woman now. So, yes, I could stand up to them if they turned up on my door, but that's not really what it is about. I don't want to be known for the rest of my life as the girl who was abused. It's not shame. I know now it wasn't my fault – though for a long time I thought it was. It is just that I don't want to be labelled a victim. I'm determined not to become a victim."

It was soon after her 13th birthday that Emma went one Saturday with her school friend Joanne and some other classmates to a big shopping centre in the nearest town. "None of us girls had what you'd call a boyfriend," she explains, recapturing the innocence of the expedition, "though there was lots of talk at school about who fancied who, all that sort of thing."

Joanne, though, it seems, may have already been targeted by the gang and had been groomed to introduce Emma to Niv and Jay, two boys she'd already met there. "I realised this was the first time I'd actually spoken directly to an Asian lad. What I was aware of, straight away, was how nice they looked. That made a real impact."

A pattern developed. The girls would go into town by bus to meet Niv and Jay on Saturdays, then on some weekday evenings too. Emma's parents worked until late at their shop, and once her older brother had left to go to college, she had more freedom to stay out – as she had been unguardedly telling her new friends. "Looking back," she reflects, "my family set-up was perfect to make me more vulnerable. Don't think for a minute I'm blaming Mum and Dad for working so hard. It is just that it was easy for me to tell lies, to pull the wool over their eyes. No wonder the bad guys wanted to know all about my family."

Only at this stage, she didn't know they were bad. She thought they were genuinely interested in her. The fact that they told her so little about themselves in return rang no alarm bells, and so Niv and Jay started introducing her to older Asian friends of theirs. "They're very clever. They get the younger ones to talk to you first. They know you've been taught if you come from a decent home not to talk to strangers, especially older men, but you will talk to boys just a bit older than yourself."

And finally, along came Tarik. "I liked his confidence – it was a quiet confidence, which is more impressive than shouting about it. And yes, I must say that seeing that other people admired him built him up in my eyes even more. There was a sort of power there."

Others among Emma's friends felt that power, but were savvy enough to recognise it as malign. She didn't, and fell out with one who warned her off him. "I suppose I felt different. Other girls in my class were hanging out with boys of 14, but I was getting to drive in smart cars with men. I felt my life was more exciting, better. That's how they got inside my mind."

Tarik began reeling her in – asking her to run special errands for him, praising her in front of the group, even encouraging her to rebel against her parents' expectation that she would work occasionally in the evenings in their shop. "They teach you to lie and deceive," she recalls. "It becomes normal." And then, when he had driven a wedge between her and home, he suddenly turned on her.

Emma's account of the build-up to the rape is both heart-wrenching and convincing in every detail. She makes me understand, as she talks, how she was manipulated into that position. Where I struggle, though, as I tell her, is in understanding how, days after the rape, she went back to meet Tarik again. Surely, she should have learnt – in the most appalling way – that he was not a man she could trust. Perhaps she couldn't quite bring herself to tell her parents ' what had happened, but shouldn't some instinct have stopped her putting herself in danger again, or prompted her to seek help from other responsible adults in her life, especially when Tarik began selling her to other men?

"They isolate you," she explains, "so I felt isolated from everyone around me. I believed that there was no one I could tell. They had convinced me that the gang were the only people I had. I remember at that time wanting someone to notice that I'd changed. My grades at school had gone from As to Ds and Es. I wanted someone to ask me what was happening, if there was a problem, and then I would have told them everything, but until someone asked me, I felt I couldn't say. That is how far they controlled me."

And then there were the threats. "They said that if I ever told anybody about what was happening they would firebomb my house, or rape my mother and make me watch. Tarik made me feel like a worm, or the shit on his shoe. That's what I am, I thought, shit on his shoe."

So it went on for several months. "I wanted it to stop, of course I did," says Emma, "but the way I look at it now is that it can take an adult who is in an abusive relationship several years to find the courage to escape, and I was only 13 and being mentally, physically and sexually abused. How was I going to have the courage to walk away?"

In the end, her mother found out. Neighbours began to report Asian men driving around the private housing development where she lived, looking menacing. Then one day Emma left her mobile phone on the kitchen table. It rang and her mother picked it up. The man's voice on the other end disturbed her, so she checked her daughter's messages. Knowing something was wrong – but not the full horror of it – her parents sat Emma down and asked what was going on, and out it all came. "I'll never forget the look on my dad's face. It was like he'd been hit with a thunderbolt, his world crashing down. Then my big, burly dad was kneeling beside me, holding me, saying my name over and over, his voice breaking, choked with tears."

The police were called, statements taken, medical investigations carried out – Emma counts herself fortunate not to have become pregnant or caught a sexually transmitted disease, since the men never used condoms. Tarik was arrested but denied everything. Emma was a teenage girl with a crush on him, making up tales to punish him for not being interested in her, he told police.

A prosecution was planned but then Joanne retracted the statement she had made supporting Emma. She had been there when her friend was first raped. There were plenty of threats being issued by the gang, so Emma simply accepts that Joanne was too scared. Which left it with her word against Tarik's. The case never made it to court.

"I don't regret that," she says now. "At the time I was in danger. I believe it was the right thing for me and my family. And I have found closure in other ways – by helping save other girls from being in that position."

Emma's family relocated to Greece for a while, but found the strain of trying to build a new life there, after all that had happened, too much. Eventually they returned to another part of England. Her parents work, she says, but strictly nine to five and not in their own business. They want to be around for her, and, she admits, she continues to lean on them. "They are very protective, but I like that. I like them sorting things out for me, even if I am being a bit childish. So they're the ones, for example, who have helped me do all the forms for going to college."

Emma has resumed her education and is planning a career in the law. Forensics, in particular, interests her. Few of her fellow students will bring with them such a detailed knowledge of the workings – and shortcomings – of the law as she will. To which end, she also works with the Leeds-based campaigning group Crop – the Coalition for the Removal of Pimping – which was set up by the families of those affected by sexual exploitation of youngsters. Emma gives talks to parents facing the same horror that hers once did, and she is pushing for more police resources to be directed to tackling gangs like the one that groomed her.

In a pilot scheme in Blackburn in Lancashire, a joint venture by police and charities working in this field led, over a three-month period, to 60 charges of child abduction, rape and sexual activity with minors. It also produced a film to be shown to secondary-school children. "I think there needs to be much more of that – warning them when they are 13 and so naïve and trusting about what can happen. And there needs to be more prosecutions. Tarik believed he was bigger than the law."

While the gangs involved in grooming youngsters come from all sorts of backgrounds, Emma believes, on the basis of her own experience, that there was something in the culture of second- and third-generation men from the Indian sub-continent that drew them into such activities. "White girls are classed as lower," she says. "These men class women as lower anyway, but white women are lower still. And in their tradition, girls become women at 12, so perhaps they didn't think they were doing wrong with me."

As part of her campaigning, Emma is now publishing a memoir – The End of My World. It must have been painful to go back over everything that happened to her. "Well, I've been doing that already, with counsellors and psychiatrists, and when I am speaking for Crop, but I wrote the book because I felt I was at the stage where I needed to move on, and it has helped me do that."

And what of Tarik? She thinks for a long time before answering. "I can't say I hate him. If anything I pity him. I feel like he'll never prosper in life. He'll always be an evil person."

'The End of My World', by Emma Jackson, is published on Thursday by Ebury Press, priced £6.99. For further information about Crop, visit cropuk.org.uk