By Sarah Dunn
Content warning: sexual violence
In what is being referred to as education’s #metoo moment, recent weeks have seen an outpouring of sexual abuse stories posted online, mostly detailing a variety of examples of sexual misconduct in the British school system. For most people though, these “shocking and abhorrent” allegations will come as no surprise, as anybody who went to school in the UK will remember the often toxic environment that many young women emerge from sexually traumatised. The online platform “everyone's invited,” curated by Soma Sarah (who also identifies as a survivor), now contains 13,004 recently published testimonies from girls as young as nine. These testimonies are disturbing descriptions of “rape culture,” some of which occurred inside schools, at house parties or student’s homes. They include cases of sexual harassment, misogynistic jokes and abuse, groping, revenge child pornography and rape.
Many of these survivors claim they reported the abuse to the schools and received little to no support, and some were even pressured to stay silent. This kind of behaviour, which is familiar to most of us, constitutes a “rape culture” environment in which sexual violence is trivialised or seen as normal teen behaviour, causing it to become a gateway for “more extreme criminal acts” that often continue into adulthood.
The stories published on the website are difficult to read and demonstrate how often the trauma of sexual abuse is followed by the equally traumatic experience of being shamed/disbelieved by peers or school staff who failed to safeguard their students properly. The accusations in the testimonies are unconfirmed and do not include the victims’ names, although the brilliance of the platform is that it allowed the victims to identify the schools that had let them down. Some schools, in particular, were named many times, making it impossible for defensive teachers to brush off the crisis by claiming that these events take place elsewhere. “Everyone’s invited” has forced some very prestigious private schools into the limelight, forcing them to confront these issues within the public eye. A new survey from Plan International UK claims that 58% of girls aged 14 to 21 have been publicly sexually harassed in an education setting; it’s overwhelmingly clear then that the environment of British Schools, especially ones in which there is an elitist culture, is the kind in which unchallenged misogyny allows sexual violence to perpetuate in a manner which can be described as endemic. Unescapable, and dangerous for both boys and girls.
Britain's public schools have many flaws, mostly stemming from the consequences of financial privilege and power. Although incomplete, there has been research suggesting that violence against women is more common in cultures of male supremacy and patriarchal ideology. Incidentally, these are the very principles on which the British school system was built, and male-only public schools remain shaped by false impressions of female academic inferiority to this day.
When Eton and Harrow first opened their classroom doors, girls were not perceived as mentally capable of studying alongside boys, and these sexist attitudes still linger in the upper echelons of society. Another study found that socioeconomic backgrounds affect the prevalence of sexual abuse in families, with affluence often leading to more cases of girls being abused, and a less frequent tendency to report cases of assault and rape to the police. I think it is safe to assume that the male children that attend these schools often feel protected by their parents' money and influence, fearing less for the consequences of their actions.
Dulwich College, a four-hundred-year-old boarding school for boys that charges £44,000 per academic year, has received an open letter from a former pupil. It contains 250 testimonies from girls who attended neighbouring schools, all of whom fell victim to the schools serious and longstanding rape culture. The headteacher of the school has reported some students to the police, but as many of the testimonies date back to the nineties and early 2000s, there is little the school can do to amend for the damage done by its pupils, most of whom probably carried the misogyny they learned in Dulwich through to elite universities and workplaces, trusting that they will always be protected by their money and private-school education.
Dulwich is not the only elite school that has been forced to acknowledge cases of abuse being swept under the rug; Westminster, Latymer school, Eton and others have made headlines over the last few weeks. Some prominent right-wing speakers have been eager to remove blame from the schools and perpetuate the idea that this culture is the result of poor parenting. Although misogynistic attitudes do sometimes originate at home, it is the school’s responsibility to challenge patriarchal culture in the classroom and to educate boys about appropriate behaviour. It seems like what they have been doing instead, is pressuring victims to keep silent about the abuse, and protecting their male students.
Somma Sara has been eager to assert that although certain prominent schools have been thrust into the limelight, the website demonstrates clearly that this is a pervasive problem that occurs in every kind of school, in every constituency and sector of society across the country. Throughout March, the number of testimonies from victims who had attended state schools rose, showing a 33% increase. There was also a 44% increase in stories from British Universities, where the same cultures of inappropriate comments and touching affect roughly two-thirds of students. The focus on private schools should not distract us from the bigger issues at play here; the death of Sarah Everard and the national discussion it has triggered about violence against women highlights the national culture of victim-blaming and policy failures. Of course, this is also a racial problem. The Office of National Statistics has revealed this month that girls aged between 16 and 19 are the most common victims of sexual assault and that Black children or those of other racial minorities faced more violence than white women. Sexual violence in all forms is the assertion of power over another individual, so it makes sense that the victims are usually the most vulnerable in society, and the least protected by the school system and by misogynistic and racist police.
As the ability of the police to prosecute many of the perpetrators of this violence is limited, how can we begin to form some semblance of accountability on this issue? In many cases, years have passed, and the victims do not wish to press charges. Parents and politicians are blaming online pornography, which often contains dehumanising and degrading content in which women are abused, effectively normalising these behaviours for the millions of teenagers that are exposed to it.
So, who is to blame - schools, parents, or pornography? All three are failing British children in some way, and it’s difficult to ascertain to what extent pornography is responsible. Porn remains a scapegoat for authority figures that have failed to properly educate children about the dangerous lessons that the internet is teaching them. Technology is providing some unprecedented new issues for schools, however; a 2020 survey of over 300 school children discovered that 32% had received inappropriate and unwanted pictures over the internet (known as “cyber flashing” and breaking child pornography laws if the sender is under 18), this phenomenon has reportedly increased during the lockdown. As with many of the events described online, where young girls are assaulted at house parties, for example, it is difficult for safeguarding staff to monitor or punish this behaviour, especially as it often goes unreported.
New challenges like this need to be addressed as part of sex education classes at school, which are often insufficient in tackling the big issues of misogyny, consent and LGBTQ+ sex and relationships, focusing instead on safe sex practices for heterosexual couples. For sex-ed teachers, the resources available are often outdated videos from the 1990s and 2000s, and teenagers struggle to take them seriously. The curriculum needs a complete overhaul in this area with a new focus on progressive discussion, during which teachers can identify problematic ideas in students and communicate with parents to make sure young boys work through misogynistic views, preventing abuse from occurring in the first place.
In response to these cultural discussions, school staff are working with the Home Office and the Department of Education, as well as Ofsted, the Independent Schools Inspectorate and the Police to launch a Whitehall inquiry. The Metropolitan Police has also launched its investigation and helpline, to make it easier for incidents to be reported. The management of ‘Everyone’s Invited’ are working with police and government representatives, and some of the schools named online will be subject to random inspections to assess the depth of the problem. This is quite an extensive bureaucratic response, and it demonstrates the power of online organising and what individuals can do at the grassroots level to help survivors speak out and demand justice.
It also demonstrates where official bodies have seriously failed. The fact that it took one simple website to expose the prevalence of abuse in schools is embarrassing - the police and government claim to be shocked and appalled by this “abhorrent” behaviour, which begs the question: how did they not already know about this? How have children been systematically sexually traumatised in our education system right under the noses of the authorities? Why is no governing body collecting and storing information about this until now?
The shadow minister for domestic violence, and champion of voiceless women across Britain, Jess Phillips MP, also questioned why the government were so shocked when this issue had been brought to their attention five years ago, by a conservative report published assessing the situation in schools. She accused ministers of having very obviously “dropped the ball,” since predictably nothing has changed since 2016 and the data in the report was largely unacted upon.
The failures of government on this issue are only matched by the justice system. The police are currently encouraging anybody that has been the victim of a crime to press charges, but this is another avenue that tends to prove fairly useless for young women. Just 15% of those who experience sexual violence go to the police. Often, having to relive your story can be traumatising, and it exposes victims to the humiliation of being disbelieved or shamed by peers. As I know from my own experiences, to go through that process, to simply be told that the perpetrator denies any wrongdoing and there is not enough evidence for a charge, is heart-breaking. It is what happens in 94.3% of cases. If the victim is very young, they also often rely on the support of parents when dealing with the police, which is not always available, and many victims choose not to tell their families about their experiences. If the perpetrator is held accountable by the justice system it does not always repair the victim's emotional damage either, especially as rape charges are often met with lenient punishments.
The only way to remove this burden of collective sexual trauma from the shoulders of women and girls across Britain is to reduce the number of assaults happening in the first place, by working together to remove the culture of rape from our education system. This cannot be done with inquiries or further investigation. It can only be done with education and commitment to protecting young people, something schools are supposed to specialise in.