Street grooming is a hot “child sex abuse” topic in Britain right now. Many months of celebrity scandal in the wake of the Jimmy Savile allegations have seen numerous big names going under or else left in a legal limbo of unresolved court cases – a time of stomach-churning suspense for those caught up in the net, but not exciting enough to sate the public’s voracious appetite for fresh sources of disgust and outrage.

So there has been a ready market for “grooming” stories. Grooming  is itself a relatively recent concept, dating from a 1985 report in the Chicago Tribune, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and “street grooming” is newer still, so perhaps I should say at once that is nothing to do with combing one’s hair in public or picking up litter – although pick-ups of a different kind do feature strongly.

At one time, not so long ago, grooming was a word in search of a meaning, an essentially empty propaganda concept. It was just a way of talking about a pleasant thing – spending time with a child you like and finding they enjoy your company too, with a growing bond of mutual affection and trust – and making it sound nasty, reducing it to a cynically exploitative exercise. Nevertheless, empty or not, it was enshrined in British law by the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, which introduced “meeting a child following sexual grooming” as a criminal offence, to combat the perceived new threat of “virtual” adult-child friendships made online.

But, as the name implies, street grooming is face-to-face rather than virtual. And news coverage of recent high-profile trials has revealed nothing virtuous about it either, nor does it seem merely empty propaganda. Cases centred on the post-industrial northern towns of Rochdale and Rotherham, and more recently a place with a much more cultured image, the historic university city of Oxford, have disclosed an unsavoury scenario in which mainly underaged teenaged girls have been taken up by an initially pleasant “boyfriend” only to be violently bullied at a later stage into having sex with many men, and sometimes trafficked as prostitutes to distant parts of the country.

Heretic TOC has read (so you don’t have to!) the House of Commons home affairs committee’s report this month on Child sexual exploitation and the response to localized grooming. It’s grim stuff. A number of men were given long sentences for a range of sexual offences including trafficking and there are grounds for believing the judges’ tough approach was right: some of the girls were given a very hard time, including a lifestyle of controlled sexual coercion amounting to serial rape. A key question for us heretics arising out of this is what we should think about girls who might initially give sexual consent to a “nice” boyfriend who then find themselves drawn gradually out of their depth into coerced submission to acts of prostitution – acts which they may mistakenly believe they consented to because they did not actively refuse.

At one level it is easy: acts done under duress, with the possibility of violence as the price of refusal, are non-consensual. A crime has been committed and the criminal can have no complaint if a long prison sentence is handed down. But a trickier question arises out of this: how can we avoid such exploitation? Easy answers aplenty are to be found in the parliamentary home affairs committee’s recommendations: more vigilant policing, more surveillance, more “proactive” intervention by teachers and social workers, etc., etc. What all this amounts to is a massive intensification of social control that cracks down not only on “the bad guys” but also on young people’s sexuality and their life choices more generally.

Scores of such reports have played to this agenda in recent years, generating ever more restrictive laws and official policies. Essentially, it is the Social Purity movement of Victorian England all over again. It is worth remembering that a child prostitution scandal of those times gave decisive political clout to those who wanted to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16 for all girls, even though only a tiny percentage of them would be at risk of falling under the control of a violent pimp, or of being involved in any form of commercial sex. It was a sledgehammer policy to crack a nut.

So are the more draconian measures proposed against so-called street grooming, more formally described as localized grooming. This “grooming” can lead to a multitude of things, many of which are about children’s self-expression and sexuality as well as those of adults: anyone who strikes up an acquaintance with a youngster in a public place could be considered a groomer if he ends up in a sexual encounter with the minor, even though there was no sexual intent at first, and even if the relationship only became sexual after months of friendship and at the urging of the younger party. Also, the image of the reluctant child who is bribed or cajoled into sex by an adult does not fit at all well with the evidence presented to the home affairs committee as typical of the girls. While there was undoubtedly exploitation by some of the men given long sentences in the recent trials, the youngsters they encountered – mostly young women rather than children – were far from being sexually naïve, and out of the scores of minors investigated in connection with the police operations behind the trials, we hear little of the ones who resented official interference with their personal lives: their stories inconveniently fail to fit the authorized narrative of victimhood and accordingly are ignored.

Hints of that resentment do come across indirectly though. The home affairs committee’s report takes teachers and social workers to task for doing too little to prevent young people from escaping adult supervision. The suppressed part of this message is that there are teenagers who, for whatever reason, are unhappy with their lives and feel a need to escape. Very often they are girls from residential “care homes” whose “care” they clearly don’t much care for, or from dysfunctional and abusive families they are likewise eager to flee. They are girls, in other words, who are making active choices that they would prefer to be out on the town, in the company of an older boyfriend, than chafing under the oppressive yoke of a disagreeable home life. Yes, the boyfriend may turn out to be less than benign, but to present the girls as merely passive puppets on a string, controlled by a devious and scheming adult, is simply dishonest propaganda. We can be certain of this from some of the evidence the committee discusses: some of the front-line workers dealing daily with these girls candidly admit they were “making their own choices” and even sexually “asking for it”.

There is, as has been admitted above, a problem. Girls out on the street at night are much more likely to get into heavy drug addiction, dangerous drinking, and dependency on violently abusive men. It may be quite a tough nut of a problem, but that does not mean a sledgehammer of repressive policies is needed to crack it.

For one thing, the worst excesses of the recent cases have been very culturally specific in their origin, which owe a great deal to the iniquities of religion. Yes, religion. British readers will probably know what I mean, but Heretic TOC is read worldwide, so I should explain. And I should explain carefully, as otherwise I will be misunderstood as promoting religious and racial bigotry, which is absolutely not the intention. The point I will be making is that when the regulation of sexual conduct is expressed through religious beliefs it often tends to be absolutist and harsh – God’s word calls for obedience, without ifs or buts, and judgments against the disobedient can be tough. There are cultural factors too: in the mainstream of British society the modern interpretation of all the great religions tends to be much more subtle and less “fundamentalist” than of old – but there are some significant cultural exceptions, especially those associated with recent immigration.

As many British readers will know, the recent trials were strongly characterized by Muslim men of Pakistani origin whose victims (properly so called in view of the real abuses endured) were mainly white non-Muslim girls. The men appeared to believe the girls were immoral: their willingness to have sex outside marriage was in their eyes such an offence against religion that treating them badly was justified. It was a hypocritical double-standard, of course: the men were also having sex outside marriage; but in their cultural background it was always the women who were most honour-bound to be “pure”.

When I say the problem is culture-specific, I mean really specific. Ann Cryer, a former Member of Parliament for Keighley (another northern town), raised concerns about localised grooming in her constituency as long ago as 2003. She insisted that most of the offenders came from the Mirpur district of Kashmir. The home affairs committee report says she still stands by that, adding that Kris Hopkins, the current MP for the same constituency, has backed Cryer’s understanding of the facts. Because the problem is so culturally specific, it is highly likely that the process of immigrant assimilation to the host culture will see it disappear within a generation, not least because the wider Muslim community is deeply embarrassed by it and keen to promote countervailing education.

As for the more difficult problem of kids more generally being allowed to “run wild” and fall into “bad company”, I can understand and sympathize with the view of good parents who would be horrified by the thought of their own children being out all hours, at the mercy of street-corner drug dealers and pimps: children, they would argue, often need protecting from themselves. They are not wise. Their choices are not always good ones.

It is a strong argument, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of it is that the children of loving, reliable parents in general appreciate them. They will even accept parental firmness. They might protest, giving mum and dad a hard time as they strain towards independence in adolescence, but deep down they will sense that their seniors know a thing or two and are worth listening to.

What parents should bear in mind, though, is that not all kids are so lucky. There will be those whose home lives, whether under state supervision or in dysfunctional families, are so bleak that breaking free and taking their chances in the wider world actually becomes a rational choice. This problem – how to improve those lives – is indeed a tough nut to crack, although at this point we may find the metaphor has outlived its usefulness. To the hammer, it is said, every problem looks like a nail – something to be hit on the head, hard. And if you are a powerful state in possession of a surveillance and law-enforcement sledgehammer, it is all too easy for every problem to look like a candidate for heavy-handed crack-downs.

Perhaps we should think, instead, of gently solving, or dissolving, the problem rather than cracking it. One such gentler solution would be to think positively: how can we enrich the lives of “wild” kids other than by strategies of control? There have been hints of an alternative approach with boys: mentorship schemes, for instance, drawing in well-meaning adult volunteers. Where such schemes fail is their timidity: the bold approach would be to see minor-attracted people of the better kind as a currently underused resource, not as a threat.