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Everyone’s Invited: The UK’s reckoning with rape culture

The ‘Everyone’s Invited’ movement, which hit headlines last month, has led to a national furore. The explosion of stories about sexual exploitation and abuse within schools catalysed the beginning of many uncomfortable conversations about the culpability of authority figures within the education system.

The movement, which claims to be committed to eradicating rape culture, features over 10,000 testimonies of sexual assault within the school setting. Set up by Soma Sara, the account already has over 40,000 followers who have joined the community and has brought to light the toxic masculinity endemic in Britain’s school system. Shareable graphics that teach us “How to handle panic attacks”, “Lessons on Self-Care” and “What to Say to A Friend That’s Suffered Abuse” make the account accessible, providing support for the many testimonies. Whilst the account has been in existence since June 2020, the death of Sarah Everard signalled the beginning of a public reckoning with rape culture in the UK, leading to many more testimonies being published.

The national discourse has been one of outrage. “Not the children!” I hear you say. And yes, it is what many people have called a disgrace. But is it truly surprising that the widespread culture of misogyny and violence against women would have permeated the young? After all, are children not described as sponges to the ideas that carry salience within our society? Collective outrage and cries of scandal are of no worth here, as, in fact, we should have known better.

The sexual harassment activist Eliza Hatch behind Cheer Up Luv writes, “It’s not sex scandal, it’s misogyny pure and simple. Sexual harassment & rape culture in schools is nothing new. I’m glad institutions, news outlets and government are waking up to the fact that *maybe* rape culture is real, and that *maybe* we should start tackling this issue at the root. But I’m also like…where have you been?”.

Whilst Everyone’s Invited provides a much-needed platform for girl’s testimonies, activists have been trying to put toxic masculinity within schools on the agenda for years. Back in 2017 the organisation UK Feminista published a report named ‘It’s Just About Everywhere’ that highlighted the ongoing issue of sexual violence within schools. The report found that 37% of girls attending mixed-sex schools had experienced sexual harassment whilst at school. They write that, “the normalised and often causal use of language that denigrates girls/femaleness creates a conducive context for sexist attitudes and behaviours- including sexual harassment”.

Private London day schools seemed to have taken centre stage in this particular episode of the UK’s reckoning with rape culture. Specific schools, such as St Paul’s and Latymer, have been identified as “hotbeds” for sexual abuse. Whilst the mixture of privilege and so-called ‘scandal’ have all the trappings of a sensationalist headline, the focus on private schools as exceptional breeding grounds seems to miss the wider culture at play, or, indeed, whose stories are given a platform. With only 7% of the population’s students attending these schools, we must not forget about the other 93%.

Commentators from Gavin Williamson to Jess Phillips were quick to decry the culture of sexual abuse that had been cultivated within schools, yet whilst Whitehall has launched an investigation, meaningful safeguarding measures have not yet been introduced. For previous victims, a coalition between government officials, Ofsted and the police are working together to investigate the accusations made in many of the testimonies. Currently the regulation of safeguarding within schools is subsumed within standard Ofsted checks, often receiving little to no attention by the authority in charge. School safeguarding services need to be held to account through a regulatory body if there is to be a nationwide consensus on tackling sexual assault within the education system. Yet for substantial change to occur, these procedures and policies must coincide with a profound cultural shift.

Whilst sexual assault is seen as a police matter, the culture of misogyny that is prolific within schools (and indeed the rest of society) is continually trivialised. Boys will be boys will be boys. A growing number of people pinpoint sexist jokes as microaggressions that contribute to a wider rape culture. This is particularly pertinent when considering that 29% of teachers in mixed-sex secondary schools say they hear sexist language in schools on a daily basis and 54% of female students have witnessed someone using sexist language at school. For girls, the dichotomy of frigid/slut offered to us via so-called playground antics can be a dangerous space to inhabit.

Calls have been made to transform the way sex education is taught in schools, with topics such as consent often skimming past difficult discussions about abuse. The ‘Tea Consent’ video commonly used to educate children on consent describes the concept to be ‘as simple as tea’, a statement criticised by Katherine Angel in her book Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again. Consent is a complex and shifting spectrum, too easily reduced to an incorrect and simplistic ‘yes or no’ scenario by such resources. Whilst discussing sex with young children may make many parents balk, arguments have been made for sex education to be integrated throughout the syllabus from a young age, presenting a dynamic and evolving knowledge set appropriate to the age-group in question. This method would normalise discussions on sex from a young age, breaking down the societal taboos that often render such conversations to be no-go areas.

The road to change has been long and sluggish, with a marked unwillingness of authority figures to transform the current measures in place. Without destabilising the intrusive power of the male gaze within the rest of our society, it is unreasonable for us to ask children to present as the model gender-conscious citizens we wish them to be. Only be checking our own behaviour can we begin to shift the sexist attitudes that have been normal for too long.

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