Do schools really have a problem with sexual violence?

Schools and the problem of ‘rape culture’

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

I hadn’t heard of Everyone’s Invited until a few weeks ago, despite being mother to a 15-year-old girl. I was a little surprised to learn that the forum making the front pages, on which predominantly teenaged schoolgirls share their experiences of every-day sexism, sexual harassment and worse, was actually founded in June last year. The site received no prominence until it went viral following the death of Sarah Everard.

As I write, the testimonies of those Wikipedia is terming ‘survivors of rape culture’ number almost 14,000. That the connection made between a horrifying yet rare occurrence and an ‘endemically’ misogynistic society might be tenuous is an argument that cannot be advanced — as those who have raised the mildest of objections have discovered to their cost.

We appear to be in the grip of a full-blown moral panic, with parents told to shop their sons to the police and Ofsted threatening the schools named with potential closure over perceived safeguarding failures. To open any newspaper is to read that our educational establishments are awash with vile, even criminal male behaviour. Throughout universities, private boarding schools, state secondary schools and even primary schools the message is that no girl is safe.

Does a ‘rape culture’ really pervade our infant school classrooms? Read beyond the splash and a somewhat less shocking picture emerges. Excepting a small number of more serious claims, typically involving older boys outside of a school setting, the reports I read mostly told of little boys pulling — or peering — up little girls’ skirts. We are in danger of conflating very different types of incident — or at least of spinning the latter as the thin end of a wedge.

Such things happened in my primary school and in those of everyone I’ve asked. I remember well one particular boy (let’s call him Peter). Peter would chase us in the playground to tug up our dresses or even crouch under desks and attempt to see our knickers. Eventually someone ‘told on him’ and what happened next is no doubt why the memory sticks with me. After a severe telling-off in front of the entire class, he was sent to the dressing-up corner, told to put on a dress and made to wear it for the rest of the day.

I do not mention it as a proportionate or advisable punishment to mete out — times have changed and that teacher would now face immediate suspension (though boy, was it effective). Peter was a pain, but 35 years ago there would not have been any suggestion he was a ‘sex pest’. That five- and six-year-olds can or should be marked as future sexual deviants for exhibiting behaviours typical of silly, curious boys since the year dot strikes me as pernicious overreach.

Yet leaving to one side those unnecessarily hyperbolic headlines and, at the other end of the scale, allegations which warrant police investigation, we clearly have a problem. It is a complex one, difficult to disentangle and will not be solved by the single simplistic demand: ‘educate your sons.’ I do not buy the line being pushed which insists boys are wholly culpable, cocksure (sorry) predators and girls are ingénue victims in no way complicit in any of it.

My daughter raised an incredulous eyebrow at one parent’s claim that nudes are only sent in the context of long-established relationships, or else as a result of coercion, and guffaws at the pearl-clutching conjecture that her female peers are universally shocked and dismayed by and never welcome the overtly sexual comments they elicit. Such beliefs are either naive or disingenuous. The truth is that ‘sexting’ is widely viewed as no big deal. Those who demur are laughingly labelled frigid; yes, by boys, but also by other girls.

How then should we respond to the furore? I have my doubts that to talk more about sex — as advocated by Soma Sara, the founder of Everyone’s Invited — is the answer. It seems to me that a surfeit of sex might in fact be one of the problems. Our culture is saturated to the point that it sometimes feels we talk of little else: with each other, in popular song lyrics and on television programmes, in school. My goodness, do they talk about sex in school. Sex education has been one of the biggest growth industries of this century. Are our children any safer, happier or better emotionally equipped as a result? The outpouring of accusation, anger and unhappiness would suggest not.

Here’s an idea from left field: how about instead we start talking a little bit more about morality? Respect for oneself and for others. That sort of thing. I realise I sound like my mother, and of course much of this is nothing new. Appropriately enough, Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ was the song that most outraged my parents. We all think the next generation is more licentious than our own — though I confess I shudder to recall some of our alcohol-fuelled teen party experiences. The adults were absent then, too, but thankfully so was mobile technology. My generation was the last to reach adulthood pre the ubiquity of the smartphone — I purchased my first rudimentary Nokia when in sixth form. The worst consequence of our teenage missteps was to endure a few days of pointed whispering.

Now nothing is so easily forgotten: pictures are stored, video filmed, messages screenshotted. A survey last year found that 53 per cent of seven-year-olds had their own device, and that ownership was pretty much universal by the time children reached secondary school. Eleven is the average age at which boys say they first view pornography. Not the type to be found in dodgy magazines and the occasional VHS tape of my youth, but easily accessible hardcore material, much of which revels in the humiliation of women and portrays them as enjoying it.

It is little wonder that early and prolonged exposure to this stuff gives pubescent boys — and girls — a warped impression of what women enjoy and how they should expect to be treated; but it is an impression abetted by our wider culture. From the ‘ladette’ heroines of my own adolescence, to the lyrics of the wildly popular ‘WAP’ (take a look), female empowerment is too often equated with the aping of male behaviour.

The lie that has been sold to our kids is that, freed from retrograde sociocultural mores, women are every bit as sexually voracious as men; perpetually ‘up for it’. It is the message implicit in every pouting, provocatively posed, scantily clad selfie posted. Boys must not have been able to believe their luck… until now.

It turns out our equal opportunities attitude toward casual sex has not served girls well. Who would have thought it? We are governed by often oppositional biologically determined impulses and we cannot wish or legislate away these innate differences. One way to start addressing the mess we have created might be to acknowledge them.

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