Over the past month, thousands of young people, many of them schoolchildren, have gone online to talk about rape culture – that is, a pervasive culture of sexual violence – in the education system. Everyone’s Invited, a site set up for young people to share their stories, has now collected more than 14,000 testimonies. The accounts are mostly from young women, although some are from young men, and they detail incidents of misogyny, sexual harassment, assault and rape – and reveal the scale of sexual violence in British schools.
The platform’s founder, Soma Sara (pictured above), 22, started the Everyone’s Invited movement last summer after posting on Instagram about her own experiences of sexual violence during her teenage years. The response from her peers was overwhelming – many of them had similar stories about sexualised bullying and sexual assault from their time at school. Sara decided that, for change to happen, this issue needed to be publicised. The Everyone’s Invited Instagram page now has over 40,000 followers.
To understand more about Everyone’s Invited and the issues it raises, Tortoise journalists scraped data from the site – amounting to 3,471 testimonies on 6 April. While the official total of testimonies submitted to the site stands at 14,000, only a portion of these have been published, meaning that our dataset should be seen as a sample.
How does Everyone’s Invited work?
The site invites users to share their personal stories about sexism and sexual violence at school or university using an anonymous submission form. All the testimonies are anonymised, neither victims nor perpetrators are named – although users are asked to provide the name of the school, college or university concerned. According to our analysis, at least 600 different schools have been mentioned by name on the site, many of them leading private schools.
What are the testimonies about?
The accounts on the website are wide-ranging. Some describe cultures of sexism and slut-shaming within schools. Others detail serious offences: sexual harrasment, image-based abuse, revenge porn, sexual assault, drink spiking, rape and child sexual abuse.
The most frequently cited age in the testimonies is 15, but some recount experiences from ages as young as seven.
“His behaviour is an extreme reflection of the deep misogyny and entitlement present in a social scene steeped in toxic masculinity, where rape culture is not only normalised but actively celebrated.”City of London School for Boys
“The previously all-boys school culture was still heavily weighted to ‘boys club’ mentality, with locker room talk being commonplace and many girls being slutshamed, driven to eating disorders and self-harm, and unwanted pregnancies being terminated. New girls were ‘rated’ as they walked into chapel, with boys calling out scores out of ten, and female teachers were targeted with sexually explicit threats and catcalling.”Anonymous
In many of the accounts, women and men who had experienced sexual violence wrote that they were confused and ashamed about what happened to them, saying that it took them a long time – sometimes years – to come to terms with incidents of sexual assault and rape:
“It took me a long time to realise that you don’t have to say no for it to be rape. It doesn’t have to be violent to be rape, it doesn’t have to be unprotected to be rape.”St Paul’s School
“I just think about the whole situation over again and blame myself for what happened. It has made me feel so worthless.”King’s College School
Smartphones, SnapChat and Instagram are part of life for teenagers in 2021 and many of the testimonies mention feelings of coercion to send intimate photographs to peers. “Nudes”, pictures and photos are mentioned nearly 600 times across the testimonies analysed by Tortoise, while film and video appear 76 and 86 times respectively. Often, the testimonies reported that these images and videos are shared without consent:
“I have sat there whilst boys shared girls’ nudes on group chats and around the class.”Kingston Grammar School
“When I was in year 9, a boy in year 11 gained my trust and asked for nudes. To try and impress him, I did. Little did I know he was screenshotting and saving each one, where he then sent them round to all of his group.”Blatchington Mill School
Where teachers and schools were likely aware of issues of sexual harassment and assault, the people reporting their experiences on Everyone’s Invited often felt that school authorities did little to address the problem:
“Over my time at school I was sexually assaulted numerous times, and even when I did speak up on other occasions, my peers and teachers took no interest, and the boys got away with it.”The King’s School
“I was regularly cat called in front of teachers, and at one point told ‘get on your knees’ by a boy in a chemistry lesson with a teacher present.”London Oratory School
How have schools responded so far?
Some of the most frequently mentioned schools named on the site have issued statements in response to the allegations. A few have stated that they would refer pupils acccused of sexual assault and rape to the police. Dulwich College and the London Oratory School have taken this step and referred several cases to the police. Other schools have focussed on safeguarding training for staff, sex education for pupils and pastoral care and counselling for affected children.
“[We] would always investigate fully matters of this nature brought to our attention… informing the police where a criminal act may have been committed.”Sally-Anne Huang, high master of St Paul’s, letter to parents
Latymer Upper School
“All staff at the school complete regular safeguarding training and we take any report or allegation made by a member of our community extremely seriously. As well as our highly experienced pupil welfare officer, our school counsellors and designated safeguarding lead and form tutors, our students or alumni can speak with any teacher they feel comfortable talking with. We have also shared the details of charities, organisations and resources for anyone who might prefer to speak to someone outside the school.
“We have a zero-tolerance approach to behaviours that foster the prevalence of misogyny, sexism, harassment, abuse and assault. Our curriculum has continued to evolve over recent years to keep pace with the issues that young people may be facing. Sexual harassment and abuse have no place at Latymer or in the wider world. Such behaviours are completely incompatible with Latymer’s values and contrary to our ethos of respect for others.”
A spokeswoman added:
“When an allegation is reported to us we follow the appropriate processes, including referral to outside agencies, and work with our young people to ensure they feel empowered and supported.”Latymer Upper School, statement to the Times
“Behaviour of this kind has no place in civilised society. Eton insists that all our pupils treat others with kindness, decency and respect. Specific allegations are always taken extremely seriously and we work closely with the relevant external authorities when necessary.”Eton, statement to The Times
How the government has reacted so far
In response to the testimonies shared on the website, the government has launched a review into sexual abuse in schools. This review will involve government officials, social care authorities, Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, and the police. Under the direction of the Department for Education, Ofsted is launching a school safeguarding inquiry. The aim of the review is to understand the scale of the problem and to ensure that children have proper access to support and reporting channels.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson said in a statement:
“Sexual abuse in any form is abhorrent and it is vital that these allegations are dealt with properly. While the majority of schools take their safeguarding responsibilities extremely seriously, I am determined to make sure the right resources and processes are in place across the education system to support any victims of abuse to come forward.”Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education
What do young people think should be done?
Everyone’s Invited is now asking for suggestions for how to bring about positive change to tackle rape culture in schools.
Time and again, testimonies on the site talked about the inadequacy of sex education in schools. Our data shows 29 mentions of sex education and 265 mentions of the word “consent” – often raised in reference to the absence of proper teaching about consent and respect for the boundaries of others.
“The sex education at these schools NEED to be improved to dismantle these quite frankly dangerous attitudes towards sex.”Merchant Taylor’s School
“ I don’t think I realised this was sexual assault until a few years after because of the lack of sex education in schools, we do one lesson on consent where the boys sat through it and laughed the whole time and that’s it.”Grey Court School
“What did we learn in sex ed class?
-How to put a condom on a banana/dildo
-STIs are bad
-Women/girls get pregnant
-Have you been on a porn site?
Woeful, schools must do better.”Latymer Upper School
“The sex education we received was laughable which didn’t help. Consent was a non-existent line and it was always the girls fault.”St Benedict’s Ealing
Open and thoughtful discussion about sex and informed, enthusiastic consent is necessary to bring about change. Sex education needs to inform pupils not only about protection from sexually transmitted infections and the use of contraception – equal weight should be given to discussions about healthy attitudes to sex and pleasure.
Schools should talk more frankly about rape and sexual assault, too. Many young people who had experienced sexual violence felt that the perpetrators had not understood the harm that their actions were causing. Likewise, some victims reported that they did not understand until many years later that the sexual violence they experienced while at school was an offence.
From September 2020, the sex education curriculum changed to include greater education about consent, respectful relationships – and the law relating to grooming, abuse, harrassment, coercion, rape and sexual assault.
These changes to sex education are long overdue: the previous sex and relationship guidance was issued by the government in 2000. But the testimonies from Everyone’s Invited show that further significant change is needed – and urgently.
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article, the following organisations may be able to provide help and advice:
NSPCC Report Abuse in Education Helpline: 0800 136 663 this line is open Monday to Friday 8am-10pm, or 9am-6pm at the weekends or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Rape Crisis UK: 0808 802 9999. The helpline is open 12am-2.30pm and 7-9.30pm. You can use the helpline to speak to a trained worker, who can also tell you about services available near you if you would like access to support and counselling. Or visit rapecrisis.org.uk
NHS Direct – Help after Rape and Sexual Assault:
This page gives advice about the help available after someone has been sexually assaulted.