Thousands of claims of sexual abuse, including rape, physical and verbal harassment, and the deliberate humiliation (Female Abuse) of girls by boys at schools are currently the subject of daily press and other comment, with a principal focus on well-known private schools. Letters, apparently often in a standard form, and other documents are being received by headteachers across the land from schoolgirls and ex schoolgirls alleging rape by and sexual predatory cultures among boys, as well as blaming schools for failing to stop appalling behaviour constituting Female Abuse. The website “Everyone’s Invited” is at the centre of the revelations, having itself received thousands of personal stories of Female Abuse, anonymously. Everyone’s Invited is dedicated to “tackling rape culture” in society. That serious attention is being applied to this dangerous subject is important but beware a feeding frenzy.
ANONYMITY AND CONCLUSIONS DRAWN BEFORE INVESTIGATION
It seems that the vast majority of the testimonies are anonymous and few it seems name any perpetrator: this is understandable at this stage as particulars should not become public at least until verified. It is expected that all schools involved will take these allegations seriously, and several headteachers have publicly avowed to get to the bottom of things and will be conducting investigations. Some are reported to have handed information to the police where crimes may be involved, but without names being at least privately disclosed, the truth of the claims, and appropriate justice for abusers and victims or clearance of the names of the alleged perpetrators, will be impossible. It will be important to hear boys’ versions of events too, again not possible without names. That victims may not wish to be named or to name their assaulters is totally understandable, but, having opened pandora’s box, the lid cannot be replaced without some heart-searching, brave honesty and real names being disclosed at least to investigators, and thorough and fair investigations undertaken, potentially with a transformational effect on the lives affected.
It is reasonable to conclude from such widespread allegations that there are real and serious issues to be addressed at the school level as part of the general drive to counter violence against females, which is getting full attention at this time following the murder of Sarah Everard and the public reaction to that appalling crime. But the truth and scale of the problem are not yet in the public domain. General conclusions are at risk of being drawn before the right level of facts are known and proportionate responses developed. The level of publicity and the repetition of allegations that is occurring in the media with some commentators being more judgemental, risks yet again demonizing schools and groups of boys before the facts are clear, as so often happens with poor quality or sensationalist journalism. The application of the term “rape culture” to a range of behaviours is now unfortunate and ill-advised, since it is likely that most incidents fall far short of the dreadful crime which is rape.
It is difficult to assess whether in any particular school it is a small cadre or group or groups of boys involved in Female Abuse, or whether such abuse is systemic, or something in between. There are few proven facts in the public domain to substantiate the position. It is perhaps reasonable to assume that all schools concerned have declared policies on principles and values which reflect high standards, but their level of practical implementation may vary. Some schools will surely be very concerned that their good principles, while seemingly understood by children, are not being played out in practice.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR TEACHING RIGHT AND WRONG?
Where responsibility lies for educating children in respectful values and respect for other people, particularly the opposite sex, and then policing them, needs examination. It is clear that school leaders and staff have a responsibility for what goes on in their school and for teaching the values of the school, and especially to fulfil an onerous safeguarding duty, as well as promoting a safe whistleblowing environment. Respect for others will be an important value of every school. Equally, it is clear that they cannot be held responsible for the behaviour of boys or girls which takes place outside the school, and the actions and words of boys and girls outside in their spare time: that is beyond school jurisdiction. For example, it seems that a common allegation, as reported at least, is Female Abuse on social media, with girls talking of boys making them do humiliating things on that medium, and of physical as well as verbal abuse at gatherings such as parties over the weekend. Reporters rarely bother with explaining responsibilities.
Most notable is an almost total lack of focus on those primarily responsible for teaching children right and wrong, and policing them, that is their parents. The parent/ child relationship seems much ignored by reporters. Is it not a prime duty of parents to explain to their children sexual behaviour, how it requires consent, about abuse, and how to deal with it, and the risks in society? Is it not a failure of some sort in the parent/child relationship that so many girls who say they have been traumatised, degraded and badly affected in many ways, by Female Abuse appear not to have even raised the subject with their parents, or even that parents have not noticed some effects which their children may suffer due to serious abuse? Maybe too some parents may be under the mistaken illusion that bringing up their children is the job of some third party, the school.
Could it be that the values boys learn and apply are the primary responsibility of the parents? No doubt boys’ and girls’ parents need to work together with schools to ensure a consistency of education about treatment of other people, in this case particularly in educating males about respect for females, but it could be that parents need to be taking the lion’s share of responsibility for their children’s behaviour.
EACH STORY MUST BE JUDGED INDIVIDUALLY
Finally, where boys are guilty of Female Abuse, the serious and malicious will need to be distinguished from stupid or teenage frippery or meanness, or clumsy but still offensive hormone driven behaviour. Sexual interaction for teenagers is to a large extent a learning experience, of trial and error, where mistakes can be made innocently, carelessly or maliciously. For some, especially where crimes are concerned, there will be tough punishment. For many, education may be the answer, to engender a sense of real remorse, engaging in genuine sorrow and apology, which may arise from simply confronting behaviour they regret.
Each “story “of Female Abuse will require sensitive attention on an individual basis: currently a whole morass of thousands of stories is being lumped together depicted as an iceberg of immense proportions.With any one story, the facts, the trauma of the victim and the consequences for the victim and the accused can be life-changing at their age. Also, it is to be expected that parents will fight hard in the corner of their child whether victim or defendant. Authorities, school leaders and parents will need considerable wisdom in assessing each case and finding the right solution. This topic is part of the wider complex issues around violence against, women, the reasons for it and how best to stop it, a matter for every person in UK society. It will be important too for this sensitive issue not to become over-politicised, for example as a tool to destroy valuable educational institutions through misrepresentation of the truth in the real world.
Everyone’s Invited declares its aim to be reconciliation, forgiving and moving forward. It is also to be hoped that disrupters are not permitted to hijack this mission, and that distortion and frenzy can be held in check.