Ofsted’s report on schools is right to call for action against “normalised” sexual harassment. But if we are to know its full extent, all students should be able to share their experiences without fear of retribution
A year ago, I founded Everyone’s Invited with the purpose of tackling rape culture in schools. The response has been both incredible and shocking. We have received 16,554 testimonies about incidents of sexual harassment, image-based abuse, revenge porn, sexual assault, drink spiking, rape and child sexual abuse, mostly from women and girls, but also from boys.
Last night, we revealed just how widespread the problem of rape culture is, by publishing the list of 2,962 UK schools named in those testimonies. But our movement has always been about solutions. I am repeatedly asked to point the finger of blame – a concept on which our society is fixated – and I will not do it. Nobody should be demonised for a problem of which we are all a part.
Today, Ofsted, the schools regulator, has released its own response to rape culture. It has found, as we have, that rape culture has become so “normalised” in UK schools that young people don’t think there is any point in reporting sexual harassment. It urges the leaders of schools and colleges to assume that their pupils are affected by the kind of sexual harassment reported to Everyone’s Invited, whether they hear about it or not. And it calls on them to “take a whole-school approach to addressing these issues, creating a culture where sexual harassment is not tolerated”.
At Everyone’s Invited, we welcome the idea that action must be taken even without specific reports of abuse. But we also know that many of the concerns about the extent of sexual harassment in schools raised in this Ofsted report were already discussed in Parliament in 2016. So we question: what is different now? How can we be sure real change will happen?
One crucial point mentioned in the Ofsted report is the importance of anonymity. The number of testimonies submitted to Everyone’s Invited makes the value of anonymity abundantly clear. We know that people fear being shamed, blamed and ostracised if they do speak out. And so we know, and Ofsted’s findings emphasise, that there is a huge gap between incidents and reporting.
So if we are worried about the 16,554 incidents reported to Everyone’s Invited, at almost 3,000 schools, then we should also be worried about the schools not mentioned on Everyone’s Invited. Are some survivors being silenced? Until everyone can report anonymously, we won’t know. One way to close that gap could be for all schools to allow their students to share experiences without sharing their names. If we can ensure anonymity for survivors of sexual harassment, we can create an opportunity for people to share, without fear of judgement or blame.
Yet anonymous reporting would just be the beginning. As Ofsted says, a change is needed to eradicate this culture in which attitudes, behaviours and beliefs have, together, normalised and trivialised sexual violence. Casual misogyny, rape jokes, catcalling, sexual harassment, groping, upskirting, non-consensual sharing of intimate photos, cyber flashing and sexual coercion – all of these act as a gateway to more extreme acts such as sexual assault and rape.
No single person, institution or group is to blame, because this rape culture is everywhere. We are all products of it, and we all perpetuate it. Boundaries are repeatedly violated, women taught to “laugh off” invasive gropes and unwanted sexual advances. Parents tell their daughters to cover up, perhaps in efforts to protect them, but in doing so they implicitly suggest that she is to blame for any violence, harassment, or abuse she might face. Friends become complicit in the violence of others when they fail to intervene, or excuse behaviour “because they’re just like that”.
The London I grew up in was characterised by an endemic rape culture like this, which had a deterimental impact on my self confidence, mental health, and relationships. Young people deserve to be free to focus on their studies and make the most of their school life instead of facing these threats every day.
Having read the testimonies on Everyone’s Invited, we hope that young people can understand the profound weight of their actions. And we all must work to deconstruct the culture which taught us that those actions were acceptable.
We do this through encouraging empathy – and from a young age. We must teach the next generation the importance of being an active bystander, how to understand consent, and how to both establish and respect others’ boundaries so that they can establish and maintain healthy relationships with one another as they grow older.
But empathy goes beyond that. Every single day, all of us must practise how to listen, conscious of the fact that those we speak to are unique, complex agents who have been socialised in diverse environments and communities with a variety of values, perspectives, attitudes, and beliefs. We have to make room for nuance.
That includes not demonising boys – or, indeed, anyone. Defining a person by one action or reducing them to a one-dimensional existence is counterproductive. When we ostracise or isolate individuals, we do not fix the problem of rape culture – we simply remove it from view. And if we demonise young people, we become exactly what we are trying to work against. We become the oppressor.
If we are to challenge rape culture, we must hold abusers and perpetrators accountable for their actions by making them understand them. By helping them to become aware of the harm they have caused, and giving them an opportunity to actively change their behaviour in future.
This isn’t always easy. It requires self-reflection and introspection. But it’s been inspiring to be contacted by some people who have had the courage to apologise to someone they’ve hurt in the past. It’s also encouraging to see that many have taken the time to reflect on their actions and try their best to see things from someone else’s point of view.
Including men and boys in this dialogue – as we should – will also protect them. Because the same culture that dehumanises women does not allow men and boys to cry or speak up about their mental health. Male survivors of sexual violence are even more stigmatised. On average, it takes men 26 years to disclose details about their experience with sexual violence.
Schools enabling students to anonymously report incidents of sexual harassment, misogyny, and the countless other attitudes and behaviours that together form rape culture could be a starting point. We are looking forward to working with researchers and policy experts to find out how this idea could be implemented, and how soon.
When I founded Everyone’s Invited, I simply built a platform on which young people could speak. Now, together, we have to turn that talk – those devastating testimonies – into action.
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