A website gathered nearly 16,000 anonymous testimonies of sexual abuse, harassment and even rape from predominately young women and girls.
Although the website recounts incidents outside of school, a significant number have named the schools where the abuse occurred bringing to the surface the pervasive “rape culture” at a number of schools in the U.K. Whilst the website shot to attention in 2021, this is not a new issue. Indeed, the website’s founder, Soma Sara, created the website to draw attention to the “endemic rape-culture” within the education system that has lasted for generations.
In response to the thousands of testimonies citing several notable UK educational institutions, Labour has called for an inquiry on the incidents. Further, Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green and Shadow Domestic Violence and Safeguarding Minister Jess Phillips wrote a letter calling the government to develop a national strategy to confront this issue. However, the collective experiences of girls and women on the website elucidated the large scale of sexual harassment and abuse throughout schools, colleges, and universities that the government has known about for years.
In 2016, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee published a report noting that “the government had no ‘coherent plan’ for dealing with the ‘deeply troubling’ levels of sexual harassment and violence taking place between children and teenagers in England”. The “popularity” of the website reveals the grim reality of what too many girls face while in school.
The website not only provided an outlet for women to anonymously speak of their experiences of sexual assault, giving a sense of solidarity that many survivors don’t receive, but also brought widespread attention to the failures of the educational system to protect girls. After the 2016 report, although the government responded the following year with new guidance on how to address incidents of alleged sexual abuse by one student on another, ministers had failed to ensure that the new guidance was actually followed. By 2019, one-third of the teachers had no idea there was new guidance issued in 2017 and only 20 percent had received training on the matter. While guidance does indeed exist, the government needs to do a lot more to ensure that schools are implementing robust and cohesive measures to address this endemic issue.
Some schools have attempted to address the issues with informative videos; these attempts only further underline the problem. One school received further backlash for implying that the length of the girls’ skirts was partially to blame for their sexual harassment. The video was in two parts: one, to address the unacceptable language some boys were using towards a number of girls at the school and two, to address ways for girls to stay safe. The second part sparked the controversy. The school eventually backtracked, issuing an apology for using lengthening girls’ skirts as an example to keep safe. Telling girls “to be sensible” and wear longer skirts to avoid harassment shifts the responsibility onto the girls who experience the harassment. The apology from the headteacher further outlined the problem with linking the two issues: “there is never any excuse for boys to make inappropriate comments to girls, and no one ever deserves abuse on account of what they are wearing or what they do”.
The U.K. school system has a long way to go to protect girls and women. The backlash from the school shows exactly how problematic most language surrounding sexual harassment and abuse is. Often the pressure is put on women to behave or dress in certain ways in order to avoid abuse. In reality, the language needs to be framed around the abusers: more often than not, boys and men. The 2016 report again noted that a certain level of harassment and abuse of girls was “accepted as part of daily life”. As Everyone’s Invited website notes, “rape culture exists when thoughts, behaviours, and attitudes in a society or environment have the effect of normalising and trivialising sexual violence”. The language of it’s just “boys being boys”, while in school, in reality, has damaging consequences for women who encounter the boys who have not faced accountability for their brutality towards women.
Both genders internalise the discourse that perpetuates these expectations. There is no lack of evidence of how normalising behaviours such as misogyny, slut shaming, victim blaming and sexual harassment helps construct an environment conducive for sexual violence and abuse to exist and thrive. In the U.K., one-third of girls at co-ed schools have experienced sexual harassment, while at university an estimated 50,000 incidents of sexual harassment and abuse take place each year.
Everyone’s Invited gave women a platform and a voice when they had for years been silenced. Hopefully the government will take their accounts and pleas for change more seriously this time around. Although this problem goes beyond school gates, changing the rhetoric around sexual harassment and abuse, and holding abusers accountable while in school could potentially have a societal impact for the next generations creating a better society for all. As Jess Phillips MP said, “Every student is entitled to an education free from the threat of sexual violence or harassment”.
At JAN Trust we support this mission to protect not only girls but all people while in school. Regardless of ethnicity, race, or religious background, no girl or woman should fear going to school. The government needs to step up to protect girls and women and to create a better environment for all.