Every day in Leeds, at least one girl is sexually exploited.
It’s a shocking statement, but support worker Taylor Austin Little has seen the effects first hand.
She is currently helping 12 Leeds girls – the maximum she can take at any one time – who have either already been exploited or are deemed at serious risk of becoming a victim.
The girls are typically 13 to 14 years old. Some of them will have run away from home or care; others will be hanging around with older men or teenagers, probably accepting gifts of cigarettes and alcohol.
All of them are likely to be suffering from low self-esteem and are flattered to have the attention of an older man.
Some may have a lucky escape. But for others, it is already too late.
Around half of the girls Taylor is working with have already been the target of an alarming increase in so-called ‘party grooming’ – where young girls are bribed and coerced with money, drugs or alcohol, to go to a ‘party’.
When they get there they often find they are the only female ‘guest’ and are forced to have sex with multiple men.
Taylor, who works for the Leeds charity Genesis, said: “Historically grooming has been much older men targeting young girls. That’s not really what we’re seeing now. It’s often young men in their late teens or early twenties who are exploiting these girls.
“Most girls wouldn’t bother at all with men in their 30s or 40s, but when a good looking younger man is interested in them, they’re flattered.
“Sometimes these young men are the perpetrators but sometimes they filter out and the girls are left with the older men. They are like foot soldiers.
“Part of our work is to get the message out to girls that just because someone is young or fit or good looking doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t pose a danger. Danger comes in all shapes and sizes.”
There have been reports nationally of a rise in specifically Asian men targeting young white British girls.
Many of the incidents girls report to Taylor have taken place in Harehills in Leeds, which has a high Asian population.
But Taylor is keen to stress that abusers in Leeds come from all backgrounds.
She said: “It does happen [that Asian men target white British girls] but the perpetrators come from all backgrounds.
“We do have a problem in particular parts of Leeds. In Harehills, for example, when girls walk down the street they are stopped by people saying ‘come for a ride in the car’ or offering them a drink or a spliff.
“Some vulnerable girls will say ‘OK’. Sometimes exploitation will take place there and then but it doesn’t always happen like that as girls are more likely to report a rape in those circumstances.”
Many men were prepared to wait weeks or even months, using increasingly devious and underhand methods, to get what they wanted, she said. “We worked with one girl who was hanging around with older males and was being given the drug M-Cat,” said Taylor. “She couldn’t see that they were doing that for any other reason than that they liked her.
“This went on for a long time until one night they said to her ‘you owe us £300 for all the drugs you’ve had and you’re going to have sex with these men to pay off your debt’.
“She didn’t want to report it because she thought people would blame her. But she is the victim, she is a child.
“These girls should not be being labelled and just seen as being promiscuous.”
Taylor’s Genesis project works with girls who have been referred to the charity, mainly by social services but also by schools.
She wants more work to be done in schools – both with the girls who are potentially at risk and with boys who could themselves go on to target them.
Taylor said: “There does need to be some work with these young men.
“There is still a culture that they think it is acceptable for four or five 18- or 19-year-olds to have sex with a 13- or 14-year-old girl.
“We need to be able to get to them to prevent these girls becoming victims in the first place.
“We also need to work with young girls on their self-esteem which is what leaves them vulnerable in the first place.”