CW: Sexual violence and harassment
I’m supposed to be talking to Ava Vakil at 3pm. It’s currently 2:58 and I’m in my pyjamas. I drop her a message, feeling a bit sheepish that I’m so unprepared to interview a woman who has, in the past week, been in the Telegraph and The Times, spoken to Vanessa Feltz, and been given her own IMDb page. “Exactly what I like to hear”, she replies, “I may or may not be in the middle of my skincare regime hahaha.”
It is only then that I ask myself why I’m nervous: Ava and I have shared countless conversations about Taylor Swift, Alijaz off Strictly, and Mean Girls: the musical; we’ve split drinks at the Turf Tavern, and I’ve sent her countless messages complaining about my love life. The difference now is that Ava, following her publication of an open letter to the headmaster of King’s College School, Wimbledon, has become a figurehead for the outpouring of frustration felt by women and girls in the face of a “culture of misogyny” not just at KCS, but at schools across the country. I asked her what it’s like to spend her vac not revising for collections, but being interviewed on BBC News: “It feels like I don’t really know what’s happening”, she admits, “but then again, in term time I don’t really know what’s happening so the feeling is kind of the same.”
Whilst this may say more about the termly workloads than suddenly having Google searches autocomplete your name, the pressure of powering through a Trinity Term reading list is altogether different to the pressure of the media circus, especially as a young woman. Telling me about the shock she felt upon opening the Daily Telegraph to a photo from her Instagram – used without prior consent – and finding that the image of her face was “about three times bigger than the story”, she gives a wry smile as she acknowledges how “it’s indicative of that desire to go ‘Oh look at this woman’, and then as a subheading ‘Here’s the story.’” Unsurprisingly, there is a vast difference in the ways different publications have chosen to report on Ava’s letter: Glamour’s headline calls her an “inspirational female student”, foregrounding her intention to “give a platform to these stories”; the Daily Mail describes how “a female student has accused a prestigious £20,000-a-year school”, quoting the “hotbed of sexual violence” line.
In a story supposedly about Dulwich College, it is Ava’s picture that appears alongside Lily Cole’s, an alumnus of another school detailed in the article. “I was seeing myself represented on platforms which I wouldn’t usually interact with myself”, she admits, and in terms of the first time she saw herself in the news, “it was, of course, the Daily Mail, and it was a picture taken from my Instagram, which I had no idea about.” I asked her what she made of her letter being taken out of her hands so quickly, her face and words being one day confined to her Instagram and the next on broadsheet newspapers, but the meteoric rise of her story speaks to the ubiquitous nature of its subject matter: “It doesn’t spread so quickly because it’s some kind of sensational story. It’s not. It’s an everyday story. And that’s what makes it even scarier – this is the everyday reality for a lot of young women. … This is the daily reality of 13- and 14-year-old girls. It’s horrifying.” Throughout our conversation, and throughout all the conversations she has been having with journalists during the last few hectic weeks of her life, Ava always directs attention, sometimes against the will of the interviewer themselves, not to the undeniably unique nature of her own experience, but to the stories with which she has been trusted, and to the horrors that girls and young women deal with on a daily basis.
And it is from this place of horror that Ava penned her letter, with real, institutional change in mind. Five days after International Women’s Day, the police forcibly arrested women at the vigil for Sarah Everard, a woman murdered as she walked home in the middle of the evening. “I all just felt like, how can you … tell everyone that it’s great, because it’s International Women’s Day, and therefore we should celebrate women, when there’s violence being perpetrated everywhere else?” Ava, of course, did not have viral fame in mind when she collected these stories of male violence occurring up the road from her – quite the opposite. She recalls messaging her friends on their group chat, feeling helpless in the face of a tragedy at once so overwhelming, but so horrifically commonplace: “I don’t know. I don’t know what to do. The problem just feels so huge.”
In the face of such a systemic problem, Ava asked herself “where does this problem affect me and affect the people around me? And what power do I have to change that?” For the answer, we need turn only to her letter, a collection of testimonies from young women and men, describing the abuse and violence they suffered at the hands of KCS students. Throughout her experience in the news cycle, Ava constantly keeps in mind that “ultimately the purpose of everything I’m doing right now is to represent the stories and the people who have got in contact with me. … What mattered to me was the voices of the people who had sent me the stories. And it mattered that they were represented properly.”
And what of this representation? Throughout our conversation, the matter of intersectionality constantly arose, not just in terms of the “nexus of oppression” that Ava used to describe the interactions of race, class, and gender in the culture of violence the letter reveals, but in Ava’s own ability to represent the stories of her peers in such a public forum. “I think the fact that I’m white really plays into this, particularly in the picture elements in the newspapers,” Ava tells me when I ask her if she believes that she has benefited from the very structures of race and class that compound the misogyny her letter describes. “I think the fact that I went to a private school has played into people’s reception of the story: even on the radio I was told that you could tell from the way I speak that I’m really articulated and educated. So, whilst that’s meant in a really lovely way, ultimately, what is behind that is ‘oh, you have a certain accent, which means what you say is worth more’, which is completely wrong. I have no doubt that the media would have been a lot harsher to me if I didn’t represent all those categories.”
Ava’s letter is incredibly written (although, she admits, laughing off the laudation of her eloquence, she spelt the headmaster’s name wrong), but she is all too aware that, were she a woman of colour, or if Wimbledon High weren’t a private school, the picture of her painted by the media may not have been so glowing. There is the very real understanding that this story may not have been picked up on had Ava not benefited from these kinds of privileges: “I feel like, therefore I have a responsibility to make sure those stories aren’t just heard from my point of view.” To be complimented on her accent, on the way she speaks, is for a listener to detract from the content of the message itself, and, when one person is ‘permitted’ by the media to represent the stories of others, “the focus always has to be on the stories, not necessarily on the way they are told, although that’s incredibly important.” And the stories told are tellingly, and worryingly, diverse: “obviously, the focus of the letter was about misogyny, but a lot of what I received was to do with racism and homophobia. I think we can’t underestimate the racial aspect of this misogyny, too.”
To shrug off these stories as “boys being boys”, therefore, is not only to forgive and perpetuate a very real culture of very real violence, but also to ignore the systems of privilege that permeate our society, extending from educational to governmental institutions. It would be amiss, ignorant even, not to acknowledge that KCS is a feeder school to Oxford – 25% of their sixth form students, according to the website, go on to attend Oxbridge – and that these universities are themselves feeders to, as four out of the last five Prime Ministers demonstrate, the highest levels of government: “These people end up having decision-making power over a great proportion of the population. If those decisions are informed by misogyny, or racism, or homophobia, of course that’s really going to impact inequality.”
“The response cannot purely be that of well-meaning talks and videos in PSHE”, Ava’s letter reads, and she is adamant that these attitudes “must be stamped out” at their source, and this requires a response both on a local level, within the governance of schools like KCS, but also in the ethics of media representation: “If young, wealthy, majority white boys grow up seeing that people like them, and people who look like them in the media aren’t held accountable … then of course it’s going to facilitate this culture of thinking that you can do whatever you want. … I think it fosters this sense of being more than or being better than and thinking it’s your right to treat people in this way.” When an educational institution, as the Daily Mail article points out so aggressively, benefits from and instils such privilege, any response must recognise that “it’s the privilege that allows them to hold these attitudes, it’s the privilege that allows them to take them forward into positions of power. And it’s the privilege that means they’re not held accountable for it.”
“We have to clock that it’s not just the people in suits who should be telling the stories,” Ava implores, “And that’s when that disruption happens, when we use social media, and when we tap into those more democratic forms of storytelling that don’t have as much top-down power – that’s when people start getting scared, because suddenly you’re hearing from people who you’re not used to hearing from.” The stories contained in her letter tell of abuses permitted within a culture of privilege, and perhaps to be unaware of this in our reporting – and who the media allows to do this reporting – is merely perpetuating the problem. “I think that’s what we need to focus on here: the wider the conversation, the better.” It is at this point her boyfriend’s phone begins to ring, cutting her off as she dismantles self-perpetuating systems of oppression from the other end of a Facetime call.
Once we’re back on track, I ask her a question which can often sound rather twee, but it is one that speaks to the kind of local activism Ava instigated, rather than the national response it has received: where does she see this going? She answers quickly – I’ve asked standard journalistic fodder: “it would lead to a place in which people feel as though they have the power to make change themselves. And that putting something on your Instagram story … something in your own words, can have a really big impact.” What follows, however, is far more specific, and a further reminder that I’m speaking to a friend, who hasn’t had to deal with standard journalistic fodder until the past week: “It’s really daunting, and it’s really scary.”
After a brief pause, she recounts “feeling like I was in trouble for speaking out about this, which I know is from being indoctrinated to think that I shouldn’t raise these issues, and that, if I do, I’ll be doing something wrong, and I’ll be causing too much of a stir.” I ask her if she felt somehow guilty, and she responds so quickly that my speech-to-text app muddles up the order of our conversation, “I felt so guilty! … I think sometimes we need to be a little less afraid of being criticised for what we say.” As I finish typing up this article, the News at 10 is playing a story about a group of students from Highgate School, who have staged a walkout following allegations of sexual assault, and I am reminded that – even if Ava rightly insists reporters focus on the stories she has published, rather than her personal experiences – she, like all of these students, is dealing with a confluence of their public and private lives, are being asked to juggle BBC interviews with revising Shakespearean history plays. “It’s very strange” she says as we bring the call to a close. Strange, yes, but also far too close to home for far too many.