Two days ago, the ringleaders of an Asian gang from Derby who groomed girls as young as 12 for sex were jailed at Nottingham Crown Court. The indefinite sentences passed on Abid Saddique, 27, and 28-year-old Mohammed Liaqat, were the final act in a case that exposed horrific sexual offences against 27 girls, most of them aged between 12 and 16. The judge described Saddique as an evil predator with a voracious sexual appetite, and told him he would spend at least 11 years in prison.
The sentencing of the two men came at the end of a week in which the grooming of very young girls by Asian men in northern towns and cities has become an explosive political issue. Earlier in the week, The Times analysed 17 prosecutions since 1997, and reported that 53 of the 56 convicted men were Asian, 50 were Muslim, and most came from a British Pakistani background. Internal trafficking – gangs targeting vulnerable girls and passing them round other men for sex – has been highlighted before, including an interview in The Independent on Sunday in August with the mother of a white girl who was groomed by an Asian gang.
But the events of the last week have created a political storm. After the Derby case, a former home secretary, Jack Straw, suggested that Asian men were targeting white girls because they perceived them as more easily available than girls from their own background. Straw's Blackburn constituency is one of a dozen northern towns in which men have been convicted of sexual offences against very young girls. In 2007, two Asian men were convicted in a case involving two 14-year-olds; they gave them alcohol and drugs, had sex with them and then passed them on to brothers, uncles and older males. In 2009, two more Asian men were convicted of offences against children, including the rape of a 12-year-old girl. But it's worth noting that in November 2008, two other men from Blackburn were convicted of sexual offences against 14-year-old girls; both are white and members of the BNP.
The accusations that have flown in the last few days include furious claims of racism on one side, and allegations of a conspiracy of silence on the other; there have been claims that Asian and Muslim men are being unfairly stigmatised, along with triumphalism about Asian "perverts" on extremist websites. The truth is more prosaic, in that these horrific crimes against children are not racially-motivated in the obvious sense; bluntly, they are about a business opportunity. Gangs are making money out of a demand for very young girls, and Straw is right to suggest that the victims who are most easily available tend to be white.
In November, another dreadful case was heard at Sheffield Crown Court, where five Asian men from Rotherham were convicted of rape and several counts of sexual activity with a child. Mohsin Khan, a 21-year-old mortgage adviser, initially treated a 13-year-old "like a princess", but the men's behaviour soon changed. Umar Razaq, 24, pulled the hair of one of the victims and abused her as a "white bitch" when she resisted his attempts to strip her. All three victims were under social services supervision at the time.
It's an undeniable fact that many of the defendants in these cases are from a Pakistani background. But there's no evidence that men from one ethnic origin are more likely to abuse girls than any other. External trafficking to the UK often involves gangs from Eastern Europe, but that isn't to say there's something in the genetic make-up of Russian or Ukrainian men that makes them more likely to turn young women into sex slaves. Former Soviet states have high levels of unemployment, alcoholism and domestic violence, conditions in which sexual abuse and trafficking flourish.
In that sense, patterns of offending reveal the importance not of race but of culture. It has become much more acceptable in the UK to visit "massage parlours" or buy sex on the street, encouraging an unpleasant trade that was fleetingly exposed to public view during the trials of the serial killers Stephen Griffiths and Steve Wright. Another pattern is emerging from the trials of Asian men convicted of grooming teenage girls for sex – to be precise, running prostitution rings where the victims are children who do not realise what's happening until too late.
Most of the defendants have roots in rural areas of Pakistan, where family structure remains tribal and patriarchal. In such cultures, extra-marital sex is forbidden and girls and women become a potent focus of fear and desire, a circumstance that pimps in this country have skilfully exploited.
None of last week's reports of the sexual abuse of mostly white teenage girls mentioned a related phenomenon – so-called "honour" killings within Asian families. Yet one trial after another has exposed brutal murders of Asian women (and, occasionally, Asian men) in this country; two years ago, the IoS reported that every year up to 17,000 women in Britain were being subjected to "honour"- related violence.
Some community leaders have condemned sexual exploitation of girls by Asian men, but it's evident that they too have failed to understand the essentially commercial nature of the transactions. That's not surprising, given that many imams come from a rural background where such crimes are almost unknown, while their own view of male-female relations tends to be hopelessly out of date.
What these trials have exposed is a particularly nasty development in the commercial sex industry. Dozens of foreign sex-traffickers are serving sentences in British prisons for crimes against women from Eastern Europe, South-east Asia and Africa, and the spotlight on their crimes has diverted attention from internal traffickers. Now their activities have been exposed and the common factor is a misogyny that dehumanises women and very young girls.
Despite the protestations yesterday of Keith Vaz, chair of the home affairs select committee, cultural factors are hugely significant in such cases. Gender inequality facilitates abuse and that's what we need to focus on, not the irrelevant matter of race.