“Everyone’s Invited”: Sounds nice, doesn’t it? So welcoming, so inclusive.
And to my pleasant surprise the Instagram campaign with this name, which went viral last month with its testimonies by (mainly) teenage girls to sexual harassment they have suffered at the hands – and occasionally penises – of their classmates, is not at all the shrill, vengeful, hyperbolic litany of righteous fury that might have been expected to follow the #MeToo hate-fest.
Setting the tone, the campaign’s Homepage says:
Moving forward, we know that our responsibility lies in improving and healing the wounds we have uncovered. We do not condone or believe in cancel culture. We have taken crucial steps to ensure that everything on our platform is anonymised for this reason. We urge our community to practice empathy. To reconcile is to understand both sides, to listen…
Could be a lot worse, couldn’t it?
The website’s co-founder, Soma Sara, 22, was at Wycombe Abbey School in Buckinghamshire, an exceedingly posh, prestigious all-girls school. Hardly the place, one would have thought, for her to learn much about sexual harassment by boys, who are overwhelmingly the complained of sex in some 15,000 testimonies now posted at Everyone’s Invited. We gather from interviews that she picked up her knowledge of “rape culture” from talking to friends and watching TV – specifically, last year’s BBC drama series I May Destroy You.
Plenty of scope here, then, for a cynical suggestion that this this is a young lady who has cleverly spotted a gap in the market for victimhood narratives and jumped on the bandwagon.
Maybe there is an element of opportunism; but the moderate, reasonable, constructive approach I discovered at Everyone’s Invited suggests a degree of sincerity that deserves to be taken seriously – as does the sheer volume of all those personal testimonies from youngsters whose stories likewise do not strike me as dishonest from the sample I have read.
So, what is “rape culture” according to this campaign, and what are we to make of the testimonies?
Rape culture exists, we are told:
…when thoughts, behaviours, & attitudes in a society or environment have the effect of normalising and trivialising sexual violence. When behaviours like “upskirting” or the nonconsensual sharing of intimate photos are normalised this acts as a gateway to criminal acts such as sexual assault and rape. Behaviours such as misogyny, slut shaming, victim blaming, and sexual harassment create an environment where sexual violence and abuse can exist and thrive. All behaviours, attitudes, thoughts and experiences in this culture are interconnected.
Whoah! This is a very mixed bag that needs careful unpacking. It is a job lot ranging from quite specific acts such as “upskirting” to far more nebulous notions such as “misogyny” that could cover a multitude of sins or none, depending, as with beauty, on what is in the eye or mind of the beholder. Being aware that attitudes and behaviours, etc., are connected without exploring the nature of those connections quite carefully runs the risk of jumping to false conclusions as to what constitutes a “gateway” to crime.
Upskirting and sharing “intimate” photos are described as “a gateway to criminal acts”.
I have news for Sara. They are criminal already.
No one, including school kids, can legally distribute “intimate” photos of a minor under 18, with or without permission. As for upskirting, it is now specified as an offence under the Voyeurism (Offences) Act, 2019. So it is false to suggest that these things are wrongly being tolerated and that this is normalising rape.
If we really want to examine what sort of thoughts and attitudes are likely to generate bad behaviour, we need to pay attention, as ever, to properly researched evidence on the matter.
But first, it is time to turn to last month’s massive outbreak of moral agonising over the testimonies, and how they were interpreted by politicians, senior police officers, head teachers, and media commentators in a deluge of coverage.
After a relatively quiet start to the Everyone’s Invited campaign last June, the conflagration appears to have been set ablaze when media interest was sparked by outrage over the kidnapping and killing of Sarah Everard. An interview with Sara by Alice Thomson appeared in The Times at the height of that outrage. Vastly more coverage would follow in the next days and weeks, media interest whetted by the fact that many schools, including elite ones such as Eton and Dulwich colleges, had been identified and associated with allegedly rape culture incidents.
Thomson began her interview piece powerfully:
Scroll down the testimonials on @everyonesinvited and weep. Eleven-year-olds forced to send nude photos to older boys, 13-year-olds molested in front of cheering pupils in parks, 15-year-olds coerced into having sex at parties, hundreds of children’s desperate stories of rape culture, harassment, assault and sexual humiliation. This is Britain in 2021.
Soon she was naming famous schools that had been called out: St Paul’s and Harrow, Latymer Upper, Wellington College and Bedales. Thomson was at pains to mention less elite places, too, but the media spotlight was mainly shone on what was being perceived in some quarters to be outdated, sexist, arrogant, entitled attitudes in the higher echelons of British society.
This was strongly exemplified a week after Thomson’s interview, again in The Times. This time the focus was on Westminster School, a seat of learning so distinguished it has produced six prime ministers, three Nobel laureates and seven Victoria Cross holders, plus an astonishing pantheon of famous artists, musicians, novelists, and poets.
Current and former pupils at the school, the Times reported, had compiled a 21-page dossier of discontent, detailing 76 entries from students claiming they had been left traumatised and humiliated by being forced to perform sex acts on boys, subjected to threats of sexual assault, and joked about as gang rape victims. They alleged that girls, who are admitted to the sixth form, were only there “to raise the academic level” and teachers did not “invest in their emotional being”.
The dossier claims that “senior management is more prepared to protect their image by defending abusers … Having a close friend sob out their soul in your arms after being told that ‘nothing could be done’ after a fellow pupil raped them was a truly harrowing experience”.
A former female student wrote:
A boy, who I perceived to be my friend, took my hand and dragged me to a younger group of boys, who I didn’t know, in front of maybe four or five people, and said “Who wants first dibs?” It was filmed and it’s really traumatic rewatching that video. This behaviour is implicit in the narrative which the school teaches the boys: that they are the best, the brightest, the future leaders of the world and therefore untouchable.
One thought that strikes me after reading a number of these testimonies from a range of schools, including mainstream state ones, is that we find an intriguing mixture. Some incidents are described in convincing graphic detail but mainly relate to incidents at the milder end of the scale, while darker allegations of “rape” tend to be vague, as though trying to hide what was really only a squabble within a relationship. Just as with the description of rape culture given by Everyone’s Invited, everything is chucked into a heady punchbowl of discontent without any taxonomic structure or quantification to give a basis for clear conclusions.
The knee-jerk response of politicians from all sides was to call for an inquiry. For once, I agree with them. An in-depth investigation would gain useful clarification if it were to commission academically independent formal research, but not – and sadly this is more likely – if it were merely to gather opinions from the usual biased sources, such as the NSPCC.
Not that the current lack of clarity inhibited the pedagogues and the pundits. Headmasters of the schools named were quick to deflect blame by pointing to wider problems in society. The columnists and podcasters gave us their pet theories, a favourite explanation being, as so often, the evils of modern technology, especially the ready availability of pornography on the internet, and the ubiquity of the mobile phone in teenage hands, offering endless possibilities for illicit photography and malicious social media postings.
It would be unwise to dismiss such thoughts lightly. There is definitely an ugly malaise on the social media platforms, where freedom of expression has undeniably delivered a cesspit of abusive hate speech, and where depictions of sex are by no means confined to enthusiastic and mutually enjoyable intimacy.
By why bother going into other people’s pet theories when I have my own? Better than that, I have ideas with strong research backing – unlike the anti-porn lobby, which has been trying for decades without success to come up with evidence showing that pornography is morally corrosive and turns men into rapists. The latter is certainly not true, and here is my first research-based point: a whole succession of studies across a range of countries have shown that where pornography laws were liberalised in the past, sex offences went down sharply. Likewise, in the US after porn became widely available on the internet for the first time, sex offences fell.
Also, much as I like the idea of bashing the elite culture of entitlement perceived by many of the Everyone’s Invited complainants as the source of their woes, I am sure this is not a complete explanation. The prominent representation of posh schools in the testimonies can be accounted for at least in part by Sara’s own background and contacts in private education. A study based on data taken proportionately from all types of school might have revealed a similar pattern of grievance everywhere.
At its broadest it appears to be a pattern of bad manners and mismatched expectations between the sexes as to how to go about achieving mutually desired sexual contacts and relationships. It is a failure, just as Sara says, of relationships education.
So what sort of education is needed? Sara wants to find out through a process of reconciliation, saying that to reconcile “is to understand both sides, to listen”. It means, she says, to “forgive and go forward”. While the generosity of spirit expressed here is commendable, her suggestion goes nowhere far enough, in my view. Individual sixth formers might well be able to work things out in this way, and good luck to them; but the systemic problem will remain.
For a start, this view is based on the unsustainable premise that girls are necessarily right (they will do the forgiving) and that boys are wrong. The listening part might well need to take on board the thought that chastity is overvalued in our culture, and that girls might be happier if they (and boys) had relationships education that allowed them to lighten up a bit without being slut-shamed.
The teenage years are not the right time to start. Basic attitudes to the relationship between the sexes are learned long before, starting with the social behaviour of toddlers and becoming more entrenched through middle childhood. Extensive research on the evolutionary biology of our species and that of our fellow primates has demonstrated that humans uniquely have a lengthy childhood period in which we are not capable of reproduction.
Why? It enables us to maximise the advantage of having a large brain, giving time for a period of learning and apprenticeship. The evolutionary background is explored in Melvin Konner’s The Evolution of Childhood, although be warned it is a highly technical book and its 944 pages do not make for light reading. Parents and teachers alike have long understood that kids in middle childhood soak up information like a sponge, memorising much more efficiently and effortlessly than at any other time. Relatively recent research, as explained to a wide audience in the wonderful Channel 4 series The Secret Life of 4 and 5 Year Olds, has also shown that children are capable of understanding moral concepts at a considerably earlier age than used to be thought possible.
This presents a huge opportunity for social education that is largely going to waste at present. In the Gradgrindian rush to stuff kids’ heads with facts that will get them through exams (and will often be of little other use), the WEIRD culture we live in has lost sight of the very basic need for boys and girls to learn about each other’s bodies and sexuality, so they can be more at ease with each other. And even when this need is vaguely understood, we have become too “civilised” to grasp how to facilitate this learning, mistakenly thinking it has to be done by specialist teachers trained to tiptoe euphemistically and inoffensively through a minefield of potentially “triggering” topics.
Ironically, expert educationalists are well aware that the ideal way of learning is by doing, not by listening. Why not apply this to sex education? And what better time to apply it than well before puberty, when there is no possibility of unwanted pregnancy? Instead of being thought of as a school lesson, along the lines of orthodox Relationship and Sex Education (RSE), the doing part should be seen as rehearsal. Little girls have traditionally anticipated and rehearsed motherhood by playing with dolls. Why shouldn’t little boys and girls alike be allowed to play “mummies and daddies” in a kindergarten bedroom, fulfilling a similar role rehearsal function?
This is not off-the-wall extremist theory. It is practical. It has been done. Work that came out of Scandinavia in the 1980s included an observation-rich book on the sexual behaviour of kindergarten children, Barns kärleksliv (Children’s Love Life) by Gertrude Aigner and Erik Centerwall. Published in Sweden in 1983, it features scenarios in which kindergarten staffs were able to observe and hear the goings on in a “Cosy Room” with comfy bedding, where the pre-schoolers are able to relax away from adult company. The reports of their sexual activities are graphic and extensive. This book has never been published in English, but at least I blogged about it and was able to introduce it to a wider Anglophone readership last year when my review of the Cambridge Handbook of Sexual Development: Childhood and Adolescence was published in Sexuality & Culture.
For present purposes, though, the really important point is not children’s expression of their sexuality in itself, but the fact that from time to time it is not plain sailing. Just as in other areas of life, in which children learn to treat each other considerately, to share fairly and so on, this “body learning” includes just such moral elements. A fascinating aspect of Aigner and Centerwall’s book was to reveal the detailed and effective engagement of the kindergarten staffs of the time with the tricky question of how to allow sexual freedom for children while avoiding harassment of one child by another. Their debates over power-play amongst the children, and indeed between children and staff, are well worth re-visiting and offer a model for nipping teenage power-play in the bud.
NOW IT’S FOUCAULT’S TURN FOR THE CHOP
The reputational guillotine that fell recently on the necks of French public intellectuals Gabriel Matzneff and Olivier Duhamel over alleged child sexual abuse, has now been brought slicing down on an even bigger figure than either of them in the new revolutionary reign of terror: Michel Foucault. The Sunday Times broke the story in an interview piece, and there was a follow-up report in the next week’s issue:
The philosopher Michel Foucault, a beacon of today’s “woke” ideology, has become the latest prominent French figure to face a retrospective reckoning for sexually abusing children.
A fellow intellectual, Guy Sorman, has unleashed a storm among Parisian “intellos” with his claim that Foucault, who died in 1984 aged 57, was a paedophile rapist who had sex with Arab children while living in Tunisia in the late 1960s.
Sorman, 77, said he had visited Foucault with a group of friends on an Easter holiday trip to the village of Sidi Bou Said, near Tunis, where the philosopher was living in 1969. “Young children were running after Foucault saying ‘what about me? take me, take me’,” he recalled last week in an interview with The Sunday Times.
What amuses me is the framing of the indictment here, by reporter Matthew Campbell in his opening sentence. He makes it sound as though being woke is worse than child molesting. I might agree, but it is surprising a Sunday Times writer would think the same! Perhaps it is because of what he reports in the last paragraph quoted here, about all those Tunisian kids running to be molested. Campbell must have noticed they hardly seemed to have found Foucault’s company traumatising!
FROM RUSSIA WITH MISCHIEF
Russia’s mischievous meddling in other country’s domestic politics, aimed, it is said, at destabilising its democratic foes, has now struck the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the middle of an election campaign. Moscow-based news agency Sputnik News has run a story linking the SNP rather circuitously to the Paedophile Information Exchange. Even my name is dragged in, apparently for slightly more up-to-date smear value.
The most culpable player in this dirty politics, though, could well be former SNP leader Alex Salmond. As anyone keeping a close eye on British politics will know, Salmond has a bitter personal score to settle with the party’s current leader Nicola Sturgeon, following his acquittal at the end of a trial for attempted rape and other sex offence charges. Sputnik cites information coming out of a conference called by Salmond’s new Alba Party as a source of the politically embarrassing alleged paedophilia connection. Murky!
SEVEN-YEAR-OLD CHARGED WITH RAPE
It is reported that a 7-year-old boy from Brasher Falls, New York State, has been charged with rape.
“State police didn’t release much information,” reports the report, unhelpfully, although it is hardly surprising the police might be coy on their own account as well as any concern over the privacy of the young parties and their families.
So, what to say? What a little bugger (allegedly)! Or fucker! Or should that be “What a wrongly accused pure, innocent, little angel!”, as we all know that children have no sexual feelings?