TW: sexual assault

As numerous schools face accusations of ‘rape culture’, it is easy to feel shocked – the testimonies are harrowing to say the least. However, reflecting upon my own experiences at school, this shock partly reflects the entrenchment of rape culture. The culture is one in which misogynistic attitudes, thoughts and behaviours are trivialised and normalised. It is commonplace to not realise the violent potential of your ‘normal’.

It is overlooked that everyday experiences of sexism are the norm for female students. This normalisation enables sexual assault to be depicted as exceptional – this must be challenged. Rape culture is ingrained within schools and is a systemic issue. This fact has been highlighted recently by the Everyone’s Invited campaign. This initiative was set up to tackle rape culture and sexual violence within the education system and, as of today, there are over 5,800 testimonies of sexual assault and harassment. The campaign has published testimonies that have implicated several prestigious private schools, disrupting the ‘normal’ so many had previously accepted. The testimonies range from students pressured into sharing explicit photographs online to details of assault, rape and ‘stealthing’, the act of non-consensual condom removal. It is clear that schools are, as Ava Vakil put it in her recent open letter to King’s College School in Wimbledon, a “hotbed of sexual violence”. 

The Everyone’s Invited initiative defines rape culture as “when thoughts, behaviours and attitudes in a society or environment have the effect of normalising and trivialising sexual violence”, “behaviours such as misogyny, slut shaming, victim blaming and sexual harassment create an environment where sexual violence and abuse can exist and thrive.” Crucially, all the experiences described above are interconnected: misogyny and sexism cannot go unchallenged in school, as such a normalisation is inherently concerning and violent. 

The recent reckoning induced by the initiative has led many to question, how do institutions tackle rape culture in the long run? Whilst it is imperative that perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment face adequate consequences for their actions, to solve the issue a more profound recognition of rape culture is necessary – reactionary responses are not enough.

There is currently a failure of sex education amongst men. The curriculum is yet to grasp the nuances of consent, and the role technology and social media play in producing rape culture. For a start, the social side of sex must be addressed, this should include discussions around intangible ‘grey areas’ such as pressure and power dynamics. Promisingly, a group of schools in London are now discussing how to revise their PSHE curriculum. This is necessary and should be instituted on a wider level, as The National Education Union (NEU) recommended.

My argument that schools present a micro-culture of sorts in which sexism is rife and reproduced viciously is not to negate the pervasiveness of rape culture within wider society, nor the influence of the media. However, I find certain narratives which have emerged in response to the Everyone’s Invited campaign specifically alarming in the almost absolute abdication of responsibility from the institution of schools themselves. Melanie McDonagh, of The Spectator, interviewed a head of a Catholic school who attributed the problem to ‘internet pornography’. McDonagh herself paused over the impact of ‘the cultural imperative for girls to celebrate their sexuality’, and boys’ ‘inability to interpret confusing signals’. After a moment of despair, and wondering if McDonagh really saw being sexy and safe as mutually exclusive, I realised her response is symptomatic of a wider popular view that schools simply reflect issues prevalent in society at large (that is if, as in this case, sex positivity is to be viewed as an issue of course). 

Rather, schools act as a unique breeding ground for rape culture. This issue, as highlighted in the past month, is not novel. The NEU reported in 2017 that a third of girls had been sexually harassed at mixed-sex schools. The report equally stresses the direct correlation between sexist ideas and violent behaviour. Once again, the ideas which often remain unchallenged are violent: we must reassess what we deem trivial. 

I find the vehement refutation that schools play an active role in producing rape culture to be confusing, to say the least, considering it is generally accepted that schools are incredibly formative for everything else and play an active role in the development of young people. So, why are institutions so reluctant to admit their role and agency when it comes to rape culture? Within the education system, man is considered the default, it is thus hardly surprising that misogynistic behaviour is the norm.

Simone De Beauvoir theorised that women are fundamentally oppressed by men, as they are characterised as the Other. Man occupies the role of the self; woman is the object. The school curriculum exemplifies Beauvoir’s thesis by reinforcing the idea of men as essential and predominant. In 2018, Mary Bousted, the joint secretary of the NEU, criticised the national curriculum for failing to include enough black and female writers. The English curriculum is arguably disproportionately dominated by men, and much of the sexist male behaviour and violence within key texts are also not adequately addressed. Accepting men as the default is dangerous because it facilitates the objectification of women; as they are ‘othered’ they are defined in relation to men and their worth is diminished.

In considering why many of the reports published on the Everyone’s Invited website were initially from private schools, particularly in London, it is important to address how the concept of reputational prestige can perpetuate rape culture. Many schools’ lauding of their legacy and reputation is potentially damaging in that it frames a culture of abuse as implausible. Schools often describe themselves as creating future leaders, good citizens, or more generally as the vanguard of society. This is reminiscent of the traditional concept of the ‘gentleman’; students are moral, honourable and respectable. Gentlemanliness functions as a shield for misogyny by producing the false paradox of the impossibility of a respectable being, of fine character, behaving unacceptably, violating others’ rights. This incredulity is deliberate and manufactured by our culture and institutions, it immunises certain individuals.

What must be recognised is that the construct of the ‘gentleman’ relies equally upon prestige, hierarchy and a sense of superiority. Misogyny is intertwined with the subordination inherent within the elevation of the ‘gentleman’. This is relevant to the present day, and is awfully reminiscent of the time, in my own experience at school, that a girl reported a boy for verbally harassing and slut-shaming her, to be told the boy’s school did not believe her. How could a smart, lovely boy who plays in the sports teams also harass someone? It is entirely reductive, but unfortunately incredibly effective, to create this false binary between good and bad. Schools, the history of male greatness and individuals can have an ugly, traumatic history. As schools seek to preserve reputational prestige, by suppressing this ugliness, there is a denial of the complexity of rape culture and an undermining of the credibility of victims. 

The responses of certain high-profile schools to the Everyone’s Invited campaign have been promising. It is reassuring to see schools report all cases to the police, reaffirming their zero-tolerance policy to sexual harassment. However, I can’t help but feel that the focus on accountability is partly a publicity exercise. By treating the problem on a case-by-case basis it once again frames the problem as one of individuals, rather than the institution itself. Institutions must admit the pervasiveness of rape culture, rather than, as one headteacher recently stated in an email, attributing the problem to ‘a small minority of students’ who have got ‘things wrong at some time during their adolescent years’.

To deal with this reactively and separate the school from the problem is a non-solution. Many schools seek to maintain the status quo and hope that by dealing with a few ‘bad apples’ quietly, the issues of sexual assault and misogyny will all go away: sadly this is naive, will the same tree not continue to produce ‘bad apples’? Such an approach entirely disregards how disturbing and harmful the present situation is: our ‘normal’ is violent, unsustainable, and thorough disruptive change is needed.

The reality of rape culture is not only pervasive but also complex. With the benefit of hindsight it is unnervingly easy to think of personal instances of misogyny at school. This is commonplace. Equally unnerving is the extent to which I realise now that I was an active bystander at times to this culture of misogyny. Despite at times feeling a discomfort, I never properly called out my own, nor my friends, casual objectification. Accepting the status quo had its merits: I wanted to date the boys who called me pretty; I wanted to go to the parties; I even, I can admit now, saw some of the comments as compliments. Whilst it is easy to excuse such instances with the insecurity of adolescence I find it more useful to consider whether this is how rape culture functions within schools. It was, and often still is, socially profitable to not make a scene. As a status quo, which remains relatively unchallenged, all are responsible. 

As Soma Sara, the founder of Everyone’s Invited, argues, this is not about cancel culture, nor individuals. The Everyone’s Invited testimonies are anonymised to stress this point: the testimonies are individually striking but together compellingly demonstrate how sexual abuse thrives within an educational environment. This is a systemic issue, and there is a collective responsibility to call it out. Complicity normalises the behaviours and thoughts of rape culture and further socialises young people into believing certain actions are ‘acceptable’, if simply because of their frequency and regularity. 

There has also been a general sense of shock across the media in response to the Everyone’s Invited campaign. This shock appeared to be especially centred around the implication of certain prestigious private schools. For me, this reflects a shock that sexual assault happens here too. Whilst this focus on an institution’s reputation and prestige entirely misses the point, in some ways it also proves how effective privilege and grandeur can be in masking the ugly. Once again it purports the false dichotomy between the good and the bad. It also pinpoints a current wider problem in discourses surrounding sexual assault, a perceived need to categorise and mark out who the typical abuser is. Rape culture is pervasive and transcends many boundaries within society, including class. There is also an irony to this shock: male entitlement is an integral component of rape culture; of course, this entitlement is present at schools where boys are taught that they are God’s gift.

The mass reaction of shock, however, is damaging in that it again risks presenting this culture of violence as exceptional – this is not only an issue rooted within prestigious schools but all schools. The experience of one subsection of society is valid and worth discussing but should not subsume the voices of others. For example, the testimonies originating from state schools have garnered substantially less attention.

Equally, in the reporting of sexual harassment within schools the intersections of being a survivor and a part of a minority group have hardly been mentioned. The NEU report in 2017 revealed the lack of a national government-led response to rape culture within schools. Despite this, recent public opinion seems to have been galvanized around the institutional indifference of a small number of schools. Whilst it is promising to see certain schools finally begin to take adequate steps in addressing the problem, the problem is not limited to the top fifty schools in the country. As the NEU states, it is disappointing that the Department for Education is yet to take a “stronger lead”, the national curriculum should be redesigned to deal with the issue. Firstly, the scope and severity of the issue need to be acknowledged if we are to tackle rape culture within all schools. The recent announcement of an immediate review into sexual abuse in schools by the Department for Education is a step in the right direction; I can only hope that this review signals the continuation of a crucial conversation.

Essentially, schools must admit the extent of the problem and seek a new future. Hindsight and reactive solutions are not enough. We must all consider the role we play in the normalisation of misogyny. We cannot see cases of assault as anomalous, sadly sexual assault is incredibly common: to disregard this fact, is to not gauge the severity and complexity of the problem. Our culture actively manufactures this crime. Schools must understand rape culture. Seeking clean testimonies; perpetuating a false dichotomy between good and bad; using morality as a metric, predisposes schools to inadequately deal with sexual assault.

As Jia Tolentino wrote in Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, currently ”the best-case scenario for a rape victim in terms of adjudication is the worst-case scenario in terms of experience: for people to believe you deserve justice, you have to be destroyed.” Grimly, this holds true if the kaleidoscope of behaviours and thoughts which constitute rape culture within schools is considered: the trivial is boys being confused, the normal is a minority being ‘bad apples’. Such an outlook enables the status quo to prevail, it is integral to properly address rape culture. 

Image Credit: Creative Commons – “Red River High School”, by senatorheitkamp, marked with CC PDM 1.0.


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