‘When I was 16, a boy at a party led me to a shady corner of the garden.” “We were all sleeping in tents at my mate’s party.” “I had a boyfriend, at first everything was perfect.”
How many parents will have read the plaintive first lines of the stories on Everyone’s Invited – a new website allowing schoolgirls to tell anonymously their stories of sexual violence – not just with horror but with a sinking feeling of recognition? If it didn’t happen to you, growing up what feels like a lifetime ago, then it probably happened to someone you knew.
Locked bedroom doors, at drunken house parties: the girl emerging tearful, the boy feigning nonchalance; rumour and counter-rumour spreading. Summer evenings that spiralled into darkness. Stories whispered around sixth-form common rooms, about girls pressured into something, although nobody knew quite what; things we never dreamed could be described as criminal offences when we were growing up.
Grimly, the only surprising thing about reading the 2021 version of these long-forgotten stories is that so many girls still post tentatively about “sexual assault(?)”, or describe being so drunk that they didn’t know someone had actually had sex with them until the news was all over school, yet still feeling uncomfortable describing that as rape. These were boys they knew and trusted, after all: their friends and classmates, sometimes their boyfriends. Boys who are almost certainly someone’s beloved son.
Since the site asks girls to name the alleged perpetrator’s school rather than the perpetrator himself, the pressure has initially been on schools to respond to this teenage #MeToo moment. Education secretary Gavin Williamson has asked Ofsted to review safeguarding practices, although if that was enough to solve the problem there would be precious little left to solve. Ofsted has been routinely inspecting schools’ safeguarding practices for years, yet a recent Girlguiding survey found six in 10 girls and women reported suffering sexual violence or sexual harassment in the past year at secondary school or college, ranging from having their skirts pulled up or unsolicited sexual images being sent to their phones, to unwanted sexual touching.
And while some schools are clearly not the safe places they should be, the worst of it often happens in places over which headteachers have no power, but for which they’re now increasingly expected to assume responsibility: at house parties and sleepovers, or on WhatsApp groups where boys betray their girlfriends’ trust by sharing explicit pictures that were meant to be private. (No, girls shouldn’t send nudes; but neither should boys pester for them, jeer that they’ll never get a boyfriend if they don’t, or send them round the class like trophies.)
Schools obviously have obligations to keep their pupils safe, to teach consent and respect, and deal with any fallout coming through their doors. But dumping all responsibility for a society-wide problem on headteachers is frankly a cop-out. As is assuming that just because the initial posts on Everyone’s Invited involved private schools, the problem is somehow confined to a handful of entitled posh boys; as its founder Soma Sara points out, doing so “risks making these cases seem like they’re rare or anomalies, or that these patterns of abuse can only happen in certain places” when the statistics show they happen everywhere and all the time.
Ultimately, it’s parents who raise boys, and in a porn-saturated culture that makes a mockery of efforts to instil heathy attitudes to sex, frankly we need more help than we’re getting.
We know we need to talk to our sons, but we struggle to find the words. If it was awkward enough having the “stranger danger” conversation when they were tiny, the mental gymnastics involved in seeing your own child simultaneously as vulnerable – as teenage boys invariably still are, beneath the bravado – and potentially a threat if he doesn’t learn to respect girls’ boundaries, is in a different league. No wonder some parents grow defensive, arguing that their sons shouldn’t be demonised for the behaviour of a few.
Yet there are ways of grasping the nettle without making boys feel ashamed of being boys, and one is to raise them not to be bystanders or reluctant enablers of things they instinctively already know to be wrong.
For every boy sending some poor girl’s nudes to half the school, there will be dozens more receiving them. For every predator at a crowded party there are other teenagers milling around, either oblivious or unsure what to do when they see a girl being led upstairs in no fit state to know what’s happening.
And poignantly, scattered among the thousands of girls posting on Everyone’s Invited are boys writing anonymously about how they don’t want to be part of toxic rituals any more – bets on who can sleep with the “ugliest” girl, say – but don’t know how to object without becoming social pariahs.
So fathers in particular should talk to their sons, not just about consent, but about the times they’ve stepped in and looked out for the women in their lives; about peer pressure and doing the right thing. Mothers can find age-appropriate ways of talking about the times a male friend stood up for them.
Just as some men were shocked by what women revealed after Sarah Everard’s murder, so will some boys have been forced over the past week to see teenage girls in a different light. It’s up to parents, not just schools, to take that moment and use it.