This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Across London, police have been tracking a rise in a new form of sexual exploitation of children. At so-called uck parties, young people often find themselves plied with drugs and alcohol, and coerced into performing sex acts. The word uck is a colloquial term for oral sex, but authorities say sexual coercion at these parties isn't limited to oral rape, and that the abuse is often peer-on-peer.
Despite knowing that uck is a reference to oral sex, Detective Inspective Laura Hillier from the Metropolitan Police's Sexual Exploitation Team says that many attend these parties because they've been invited by other young people: "Parents and professionals need to be open-minded about this type of sexual exploitation," she explains, "because no, it's not always older men, and it's definitely not always gang-related."
Stephanie Todd, an NSPCC case worker from Croydon, elaborates: "I've worked on several cases where siblings are taken along and have ended up being raped or coerced. They may be brought for protection, or because their sibling thinks they're going to have a nice time, not knowing they'll be hurt."
Multiple charities spoke to VICE about the rise of online shaming pages – often called "bait out pages" – that can deepen the embarrassment and torment of the victim. A report by the charity Safer London includes a case where a young person unknowingly attended an uck party, and was intimidated into performing oral sex on a line-up of men. She started being called a sket at school, after footage from the parties was unknowingly taken and circulated.
Footage referencing uck parties is also uploaded to various platforms. On YouTube, you can find videos of young men walking around their local area, asking other young people to "bait out" – expose – young women who have engaged in similar style line-ups. YouTube responded to queries from VICE about these videos by removing them, and reminding users to report content that doesn't meet their community guidelines.
Carmel Glassbrook, who works for the Safer Internet Centre, says she initially started looking into these shaming pages in 2015, following a distressed call to the centre's helpline: "I realised that if you typed most school names or locations across the country, you would find one of these pages," she says.
Rhiannon Sawyer, who manages the Greater London area for the Children's Society, says that video content and images can also be used to further coerce children: "They may be told that images or videos of themselves will be shared if they don't bring other young people in [to be groomed]," she explains.
Predators organising these parties will often target a legitimate party, unbeknownst to the organisers, telling young people to meet them dressed in a certain way so they can recognise them. The organisers of the uck party will then pick up the children and take them to another location, where the sexual exploitation will take place.
The grooming doesn't only happen at parties; young people might be picked up at unlicensed music events, such as raves – and while "uck party" might be a relatively new phrase, people have been sexually exploited at music events long before now.
Having grown up in care homes across Blackpool, Ryan Jarvis, 26, was first sexually abused around the age of 11. Later, Jarvis started running away from his care home and going clubbing as a means of escape. He found himself passed out on the floor of a nightclub for the first time aged 13: "There was this guy who managed a number of bars in Blackpool, and he would tell people on the door to let me in, even though I was underage,”" he says.
The manager would give Jarvis amphetamines and alcohol, and force him to perform sexual acts. Then, at age 14, outside a club in Manchester, Jarvis was approached by a group of young men and asked if he wanted to go back with them: "I was led to believe I was going back to their home, but I wasn't," he says. "[I got there and realised] I was going to this old guy's house who'd been at the club that night. I was made to perform sex acts on multiple men. They did whatever they wanted. They said, 'We've given you drink and drugs, you've got to do what we say.' I was [scared], because there were just so many of them."
Zoe – who asked that we didn't include her surname – from survivor-led sexual abuse charity REIGN says classifying abuse into different models can lull professionals into a false sense of security, making child sexual exploitation seem less nuanced than it is: "The problem of sexual abuse is deeply woven into society," she says. "You can't pick it out like a bad apple in a bunch, it's much more like a disease spread throughout. The [perpetrators] aren't monsters; they're men, women, sometimes young people themselves."
Zoe even warns against the use of "child sexual exploitation" as a phrase. The term, which charities like The Children’s Society fought for as a replacement to the phrase "child prostitution", fails to recognise that teenagers are still children. "To say a child is exploited insinuates they played some role – otherwise why not just call it abuse?" says Zoe.
Zoe adds that many aspects of uck parties seem similar to the kind of exploitation that has been going on for decades, if not centuries.
Anya Morris* was abused at parties that she was invited to by friends from the age of 14, back in the early-2000s. Having been raped by a boy in her local area when she was younger, Morris says she didn't recognise that anything was wrong with the way she was being treated: "I had told the police and nothing came of it," she says. "So I began to see that sort of behaviour as expected."
Anya met a female friend when she was in year 10, who would take her to parties with older men who would shower them with gifts: "At first they didn't expect anything, but then the pressure piled on. I was made to have sex with multiple men," she says. "There would be three or four minimum, sometimes as many as six or seven. It went on for about six years. Even though there were a lot of them, they all seemed to know each other."
Rhiannon Sawyer says: "New names come up for the same crime. Five years ago they called them 'line-ups'."
But two decades later, the technology around these parties has evolved. Detective Inspector Hillier says that invites are often sent out through Snapchat, explicitly targeting girls under the age of 15. Because Snapchat posts disappear after a certain amount of time, it's hard for the police to find information about the parties, or to store evidence. "We'd encourage young people and parents to check privacy settings on these platforms," says Hillier. A Snapchat representative pointed out that the platform does not allow material to be sent between people on Snapchat unless they have both accepted a friend request from one another.
Excitement is built up around the parties, too: "It can go on for weeks, with organisers sending out the date one week and promising to send the location the next," says Hillier.
In October of 2017, the Met closed down a suspected uck party at a kebab shop in Bethnal Green. The Halloween party, set to run from 9PM to 4AM, was featured on events websites and advertised as having a "smart and sexy" fancy dress theme. Police had received intelligence suggesting that women under the age of 16 had been targeted to attend the party. However, when they arrived, no under-18s were found. At a licensing committee meeting months later, a police officer asked: "Why would anyone want to go to a Halloween party in the back of the kebab shop?"
If police had asked the same question when they found Sara Dixon* in takeaway shops with older men when she was a child, she may never have ended up trafficked across the UK.
Now 25, Dixon was first sexually abused by taxi drivers, who took her and some older girls from her care home to school. "I was always dropped off first because I was in primary school," she says. "After a while, I asked to be dropped off at the same time as the other girls. I wish I hadn't – it turned out that they were being made to give the taxi drivers handjobs and blowjobs, and I ended up having to do the same."
Eventually, two taxi drivers began to drive Dixon and her friends to nearby towns, where they would hang out in takeaways, performing sexual favours for food. "For me, it wasn't fully fledged rape yet – I was only 10 or 11 by this point," says Dixon. "But the older girls, they’d disappear off into rooms with the owners, and in retrospect, I realise they were probably being raped."
If Dixon or her friends said no to the men, they were intimidated: "If one of the girls was 'difficult' by not putting out, our abusers would drive fast through red lights in the car to scare us. We were on the seafront, and they'd say they were going to drive the car off the cliff," says Dixon.
Despite the abuse going on for a number of years, authorities failed to intervene. Police would find Dixon and her friends and drive them back to their care home, but instead of wondering what a small child was doing spending all night in takeaway restaurants with older men, Dixon says: "The police just thought we were troublemakers."
Dixon warns that we should stay focused on the victims of sexual exploitation rather than the trends around them: "When I hung out in the back of takeaways, it wasn't called an uck party," she says. "The people I know who have been sexually abused don't explain their lives through a model. They just call it abuse. It can happen in so many different ways."
In Dixon's case, the abuse rapidly escalated. Aged 14, she met an older man who she thought was her friend. He groomed her for nine months, clandestinely getting her hooked on heroin that he told her was "Afghan weed".
"Soon enough, I was gang-raped and trafficked across the country – kept in a dark room for I don't know how long, for different men to come in and rape me," says Dixon.
She finally escaped when the man who exploited her was jailed. Dixon managed to quit drugs when she realised she no longer needed to take what her abuser was giving to her if she wasn't being controlled by him.
To call it a happy ending would be missing the point: "I want my story to help others. But no one helped me," she says. "I had to come out of that situation alone. I was failed by the adults in my life who turned a blind eye, who saw me as an adult when I was really a child."
While there are similarities and differences between today’s uck parties and the stories of Jarvis, Morris and Dixon, these are striking examples of how children were viewed as adults when they needed protection. The language around uck parties may similarly paint their victims as adults making a choice rather than vulnerable young people.
"We have the responsibility as professionals to name these events properly. Calling it an uck party almost glamorises it," says Sawyer. "It's dangerous. No one would go to it if we called it what it actually is – an oral rape party."
The Children's Society is working on training professionals in varied industries to keep children safe from abuse: "We want to ensure that everyone from park rangers to McDonald's staff can spot the signs," says Sawyer. "In parks, it might mean seeing a used condom on a discarded mattress as a warning sign and knowing how to escalate it to the police immediately. In restaurants, it might mean spotting a younger girl regularly coming in with groups of older men, or a gang of boys, and understanding that these are risk factors."
In short, she says: "We want to make sexual exploitation everyone's problem."
It's an intensive operation, but the benefits are put into clear focus as sexual grooming methods become more sophisticated.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
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