In recent months, viewers have watched 16-year-old Bethany Platt be slowly manipulated by “loving fiancé” Nathan, isolated from her family and coerced into sex with his “mates” – as Nathan, 20 years her senior, secretly collects payment. It’s been one of the most devastating pieces of television I’ve seen in years and last week accelerated in a series of post-watershed shows in which Nathan – who we’ve come to know is the ringleader of a network of abused girls – held a “party” for 10 punters at his flat. “Which girls do you want? What about Susie?” he debates at one point. “No, Neil’s shifted her to Liverpool. Her mum’s set up some local campaign: ‘Where’s our little girl?’” In a particularly harrowing scene, we see Bethany – her arm burnt with a cigarette by Nathan only an hour earlier – staring out from a bedroom as three men walk in and shut the door.
It’s not difficult to see why some viewers would find this hard to watch – I did – but worrying about this storyline making viewers uncomfortable surely misses the point. Teenage girls being groomed and used by men should make us uncomfortable; it should make us – as one viewer complained – “feel sick”. That the majority of the storyline has played out as early as 7.30pm means much of the abuse happens off screen – but it’s actually been all the more powerful for it. In one of the episodes last week (aired slightly later at 9pm), rather than the rape itself we saw a noticeably underage girl – perhaps as young as 14 – putting her clothes back on with a man next to her. It’s always implicit, but producers rightly never leave doubt – what we are watching is sex trafficking and child rape.
Child grooming, though increasingly on the agenda, is still a crime that needs pulling out in the open
There’s longstanding snobbery towards the work of soaps – largely based in a mix of class and gender prejudice – not least because their target audience is predominantly working-class women. But, over the years, some of the most iconic and important depictions of domestic violence, rape and male violence have been in shows like EastEnders, Brookside and Coronation Street – all broadcast into the nation’s living room every evening with their dinner. While dramas like Three Girls are fantastic, it is soaps that still reach the biggest audiences and, vitally, viewers of all ages. We know that these storylines are some of the most powerful ways to raise awareness of an issue – and child grooming, though increasingly on the agenda, is still a crime that needs pulling out in the open. That’s the context in which we have to see the Ofcom complaints – Coronation Street is a mainstream programme aimed at families, which means that, far from making it an unsuitable vehicle to discuss child grooming, it’s exactly the sort of programme that should be featuring it.
One of the starkest parts of Corrie’s child-grooming story is that it depicts how this crime takes hold. Nathan could be our own neighbour – he owns a beauty salon, he’s good-looking, seemingly kind – and, with grooming, Bethany never feels he’s done anything wrong. Last night, viewers saw Bethany refuse to believe her family's concerns while, at the end of last Friday’s episode – after Bethany emerged from the bedroom with mascara down her face to see Nathan being arrested – she screamed for the police to let him go. As the final credits rolled, she put her engagement ring back on, her cigarette burn visible on her forearm and gently smiled.
Mainstream culture should shine a light on such horrors, not shield viewers from it – if only it helps stop one young girl watching from becoming another real-life Bethany.