It is very hard to read the Times’s lead story today about the alleged sexual exploitation of a young autistic woman with the consent of her carers, a court and the local council. Perhaps I have an excess of sensibility, but it made me feel ill. The case, if accurately reported, strikes me as being in the Rochdale/Rotherham league of sexual abuse, except that instead of the female victim concerned being a young girl, she is autistic, 23, with severe learning difficulties and an IQ of 52.
The story is as follows:
'A young autistic woman was allowed to have sex with numerous men because her carers were said to believe that high-risk encounters with strangers might help her to “learn from her mistakes"… [She was] repeatedly exploited during a court-approved two-month trial period this summer in which random men were permitted to visit her Manchester care home between 10am and 4pm each day. She was also taken to shisha bars and had sex in public on numerous occasions, including in a taxi and at the back of a bowling alley, because the care company paid to look after her would not physically intervene. In August carers reported that the woman was ‘offering her telephone number to any number of Asian males’ with whom she came into contact. She ‘doesn’t always recognise them when they arrive at the door and they sometimes don’t recognise her.’'
The young woman’s care has been guided by the Court of Protection since she was 18: that’s the court that has responsibility for safeguarding vulnerable adults. And a judge ruled in 2015 that she was able to consent to sex but – a bit of a contradiction, this, I’d say – lacked the capacity to make decisions on her contact with men. She was chaperoned at her home by a carer; outside by two care workers. Crucially, under a court-approved care plan, the council employed a specialist company, Engage Support, to provide her with round the clock support. It was a psychologist employed by the company who apparently declared that it was in her best interests to have unsupervised contact with men.
The abuse came to an end when a psychiatrist reported to the court that this woman, unnamed for legal reasons, was being put at risk by this behaviour sanctioned by her carers. Now it’s clear from the report that the woman is a very troubled individual indeed, with a history of running away from home since she was four. From the age of nine she was believed to be 'subjected to sexual activity with men, particularly Asian men'. And yes, it is that adjective 'Asian' that brings to mind the Rotheram and Rochdale abuse scandals, the defining element of which was the unwillingness of anyone in authority – police, councils, care services – to take on the rape and brutalisation of young and vulnerable girls because they didn’t want to seem Islamophobic or racist. Incidentally, it’s not clear what ethnicity the girl herself is. The other element that recalls those scandals is that the victim was a child when the sexual abuse began.
I may be a bit naïve here, but my take on consent is that it involves people mature enough to understand the implications of what they do (which is why I take a very dim view of men having sex with drunk girls). The notion that this woman can give informed consent to sex (yet lacks capacity to make decisions on contact with men) is at odds with everything we are told about this case. She now seeks sex with men, and sex in public… so on the face of it, she’s not just consenting to sex, but very much up for it. But she has been exploited by men since before puberty, since she was nine, it would seem. How else do we expect her to behave, when the currency in which she has lived her life from childhood has been sex with men? And how can a child give consent to sex? Or someone with severe learning difficulties? Vulnerability piled on vulnerability.
This case deserves very close scrutiny because it looks by any sane reading like long term serious institutional neglect from childhood at best. At worst it looks like council approved pimping, complicated by the possibility that this was not dealt with as a criminal offence because so many of the takers here appear to have been Muslim. But if you have sex with someone unable to give consent, or with a child, that’s rape, no?
There’s only one question we should ask those concerned in this case, and that is, if you had a young daughter, a sister, a family friend, who was damaged, autistic, unstable, educationally sub-normal - in short, a young, very troubled girl - how prepared would you be to see her pimped for free? It wouldn’t happen, though, to their daughter, would it? We look after our own better than that.