Rebecca* thought there had been a mistake at first, when the school called to say someone had accused her son of sexual harassment. Peter*, 16, had never been in trouble before, never had a girlfriend and had been brought up to respect the opposite sex. His mother knew he’d liked a girl from school and she’d been texting him how she felt for months. He had thought the feelings were mutual so was surprised and upset when she rejected his advances (holding her hand and kissing her on the cheek) outside school.
He apologised for the misunderstanding and assumed that would be the end of it. Then a teacher rang to say the girl was pressing charges for assault. “We were absolutely dumbfounded,” says Rebecca, who lives in south London. “Peter had been too scared to tell us at first, but after two sleepless nights and developing severe anxiety and panic attacks out of the blue, we knew something was wrong. When we got the call it suddenly all made sense.”
Rebecca says she is “worried about how this will affect Peter’s future relationships”. “He’s now terrified of going near another girl again. He’s just a child who read the signals wrong, but it feels like he doesn’t have a leg to stand on because he’s a boy.”
Rebecca and her family’s experience is not unusual. In March, a website called Everyone’s Invited exposed the shockingly widespread rape culture across UK schools. Since then, in the wake of Sarah Everard’s death, young women across the capital have been speaking out about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. There are more than 16,000 testimonials on the website and they make for grim reading. Girls as young as 11 say they’ve been molested in front of cheering pupils, coerced into having sex at parties and forced to send nude photos to older boys.
Everyone’s Invited, founded by 22-year old Soma Sara, has galvanised a movement. Many victims have felt empowered to report and name their attackers for the first time. Dulwich College in south-east London and Latymer Upper in Hammersmith — two institutions named on Everyone’s Invited — have now started reporting their own pupils to police and local authorities, and some people are going straight to the police.
Meanwhile, Sandra Paul, one of London’s top criminal lawyers with firm Kingsley Napley, says her cases of this nature have risen by 50 per cent since March, with dozens of anxious and frightened parents hiring her in a bid to clear their sons’ names. The testimonials on the site are all anonymous. “Anonymity is very important to Everyone’s Invited, most importantly for survivors so they have a safe place to share anonymously, but also so that the individuals mentioned in the testimonies cannot be identified,” explains founder Sara.
But even anonymous allegations can lead to finger pointing and so-called “trials by social media” can make innocent boys feel attacked. Questions left in the wake of these accusations are complex. Is the “name and shame” approach the right one? Can we expect children to know how to approach relationships without teaching them first? And how do schools achieve a balance of letting students make mistakes while keeping all children safe? “I wouldn’t want to be a teenage boy right now,” says Paul. She is firm about the importance of female safety and stamping out abusive behaviour in schools. “This [addressing of rape culture] is absolutely the right thing to do,” she says. But she has a problem with the way schools and authorities have reacted and boys are being treated.
“We are condemning children that we should be helping,” she says of the culture of “naming and shaming”. She feels for teenagers today, scared of being labelled as predators and being put off relationships after an already-difficult year with little peer-to-peer interaction.
According to a new report by the Higher Education Policy Institute, just 16 per cent of new university students declared themselves excited at the prospect of having sex. Male students are now less likely to be sexually active than their female friends. Paul says many feel “let down” by a society that fed them a narrative of macho behaviour in which rating women, watching porn and sharing nudes had become a form of social currency. Should they really be criminalised without being taught the correct behaviour first?
For those accused of predatory or criminal behaviour, Paul has seen the damaging results first-hand. Children can be the subject of “pile-ons” by adults online and teenagers forced to drop out of school with nowhere to go.
Boys as young as 12 are being interrogated by police. “All of a sudden they’re in the middle of either an adversarial internal school investigation or a police investigation,” says Paul. “There are many adults who would struggle to deal with that.” Paul points out that these are children — not just the (mostly female) victims, but the alleged (mostly male) perpetrators, too. Sara’s campaign has been called a schools’ #MeToo movement, but “we’re dealing with children so it’s not the same as #MeToo,” says Helen Pike, headteacher at Magdalen College School in Oxford for boys aged seven to 18. Alun Ebenezer, headteacher at Fulham Boys School agrees. “Being a boy is one of the hardest things to be in London right now,” he says. “Young people have to be allowed to make mistakes — that’s part of being a teenager.” The solution, fellow heads agree, is ensuring our education system catches up — not just when it comes to teenage sex education, but in instilling values such as boundaries and respect from an early age.
We’re dealing with children so it’s not the same as Me Too
Deana Puccio, who runs The RAP Project, which holds workshops about rape and sexual assault at many of the schools named by Everyone’s Invited, says she’s seen an explosion of interest in her workshops on consent, healthy relationships and being an active bystander, and she is encouraged to see many schools providing safe spaces for students to discuss these subjects.
Fulham Boys student Tobi Adewumi, 18 and his classmate, head boy Wilfred Bates, 17, told me how they have benefited from these open discussions. “It’s made me realise how much of my behaviour may have caused a girl to be uncomfortable,” says Adewumi.
Schools have also held workshops for parents. “It’s been difficult for a lot of them,” says Puccio. “Making parents aware of the realities of today’s online world is important, as is acknowledging that adults must take responsibility. Are we teaching respect, consent, empathy?”
Really, it all comes back to what Sara says about reconciliation. “To reconcile is to understand both sides, to listen, and try our best to understand people’s experiences, thoughts, and actions,” she wrote in the weeks that followed her account’s initial outcry. To achieve true reconciliation, that understanding must include everyone.
*names have been changed to protect identities