'I wish I could say rape culture didn't exist. I can't'

Any one of the posts on Everyone's Invited could have been written by my female friends, students or colleagues, says Sarah Ledger

Sarah Ledger

Teenage girl, slumped against a wall in despair

The brutal oxymoron “rape culture” is front-page news again. This time, the focus is on schools and education, prompted by the website Everyone’s Invited

It’s a forum for testimonies about sexual assault, rape and the response – or lack of – to those incidents from educational institutions. The posts are anonymous and individual alleged perpetrators are not named, although schools and colleges are. To date, more than 13,000 statements have been posted. 

I braced myself to read as many as I could. What I came away with is not shock or even anger, but immense sadness at how depressingly familiar these stories are.

Any one of these posts could have been written by any one of my female friends, relatives, students or colleagues who’ve shared their experience of sexual assault. My own story is there – recounted by another woman from another place at another time. Yours probably is, too. 

There are posts from men on Everyone’s Invited but the overwhelming majority are from young women, writing about the pain they’ve endured at the hands of men and the silence they’ve encountered from those from whom they sought help.

Everyone's Invited: Rape culture isn't just about rape

I wish I could say rape culture doesn’t exist, that it’s blown out of proportion, that our boys would never…that our girls wouldn’t stand for it…that, yes, it used to be the case, but in 2021, it’s better. 

But I can't. None of these wistful statements bears scrutiny. For a start, precisely what proportion of sexual assault is acceptable?

Rape culture isn’t just about rape, it’s about the normalisation of unwanted sexual attention – putting one human’s gratification above another human’s safety and wellbeing.

If these aren’t our boys doing the cat-calling, groping, threatening, drugging, choking, forcing, then whose boys are they? As for the girls “standing for it”, what bloody choice do they have?

I’m not going to go into detail about the rapes and assaults that have come to the attention of my pastoral teams over the years.

What I will say is that the vast majority have been incidents that have taken place outside school, perpetrated by men who are not part of our school community. All are passed on to the police, but only a tiny handful end up in court, let alone in a conviction. 

As schools are often the first point of contact for wider social issues, we rely on external agencies for support. I’m always amused when, on soaps or TV dramas, a 999 call prompts blue lights, a screech of brakes and two uniformed coppers and a DI hammering on the door. 

Pretty much what happens when a child is raped, you’d think? Well, no. It takes ages. Specialist officers have to be on duty; video suites have to be booked. And, if charges are pressed, the path from arrest to trial is glacial. 

It can take the whole of Key Stage 4 for a case to come to court – a significant proportion of a young person’s life. That’s 312 maths lessons where she can’t concentrate. Counselling is not without complication, as the defence team may be able to request access to her notes. 

If a conviction is obtained, the sentence can be reduced because the defendant has waited so long for the trial. Meanwhile, the victim – and I don’t use that word lightly – has run away from home twice, self-harmed, failed her GCSEs and can’t face going to college.

The police and the legal system are underfunded and underresourced; schools and pastoral teams who want to support are paralysed. I start to wonder why anyone bothers to report rape at all.

'What did you do to provoke him?'

I tell myself, in some ways, we’ve moved on. In 1980, I studied An Inspector Calls at O level. The villain back then was the cold-hearted matriarch, Mrs Birling. Eric and Gerald and their casual exploitation of Eva was accepted as fairly standard male behaviour. 

In 2021 (and let’s leave aside the stagnation of the English literature GCSE curriculum for another column), Eric’s admission that “I was in that state when a chap easily turns nasty” is met with a gasp of recognition and “Oh, my God, Miss, did he rape her?”

Meanwhile, Gerald’s “I insisted” is quickly identified as the hallmark of a practised predator. Our kids have a better understanding of consent than we – or JB Priestley – ever did.

If underreported sexual assault is an iceberg now, it was a submerged kingdom in the 1970s and 1980s. Girls who objected to being touched up or coerced ran the gamut of contradictory sexual slurs: “slag” or “frigid” or “lezzer”. 

I remember an older lad bragging about having sex with a 12-year-old, and thinking, “That can’t be right,” but all of us shunning her in the corridors.

I remember another girl being slapped in the face by a member of staff for reporting a sexual assault by a group of boys. 

I remember stammering out a frightening encounter to a trusted older woman who asked, “What did you do to provoke him?” I faltered into shamed silence and wondered for years what I should have done differently. 

Boys – we were told, and they were, too – had urges. It became more complicated if it was a boy you liked. The girl’s job was to keep it decent, not to inflame even though looking attractive was part of the deal. 

There was no suggestion that girls had urges too. The expectation for the average female teenager was to control not one, but two youthful libidos. In a darkened room with a drop of cider, it was like trying to keep two lively lurchers walking to heel in a field of rabbits. 

Mind you, the same uncontrollable lads, we were also told, were fragile. “If a boy asks you to dance” – yes, I am that old – “you mustn’t say no, even if you don’t want to, because it might embarrass him.” 

I found it odd that some of these shrinking violets had not the slightest embarrassment about bellowing “Melons!” over a crowded dinner hall or trying to grab a handful of soft flesh any time they passed in the corridor. 

At the time, there was little language to protest; boys, after all, will be boys. It was horrible, upsetting and degrading, but we thought we were supposed to put up with it.

The shame of the choices we later regret

As I blithely type away, wallowing in my “kids today don’t know they’re born” self-pity, my persistent worry is that life might not have changed very much.

If our young people are being heard, then why would 13,000 resort to posting their pain on an anonymous website? 

I hope we have better clarity about consent and boundaries. We certainly have better safeguarding and recording procedures. But we also have the added complication of omnipresent online porn. 

And then there’s the curse of sexting. In schools we only know about the ones who end up weeping in our offices; I suspect there are many, many more who take pictures, which are then circulated, with or without permission. 

Of course, they shouldn’t be doing it – girls and boys – but they do. Brisk judgement from the comfort of adult wisdom doesn’t help.

Part of the complexity of reporting sexual abuse is the shame of making choices we later come to regret, and the fear (see above) of being blamed. 

Anyone who’s been at the sharp end of a silver-tongued charmer – or simply the joy of having a newly formed adult body – will understand why kids send naked selfies. I’m thankful Snapchat hadn’t been invented in 1980, and I was allowed to make my mistakes within the relative privacy of schoolyard gossip. 

Still, the outpouring of hitherto unexpressed, unheard anger is shocking, and it’s easy to be defensive. There’s been a shift in the world since 2016; so many voices from so many quarters, saying enough is enough. 

That’s difficult to hear, particularly if we – or our institutions - have been part of the problem. But it’s not time for denial. It’s time to listen, to re-examine, to challenge our own assumptions.

Where do we start? 

How does respect and empathy trickle down to where it’s needed? How do we, as educators, support young people to make the right decisions? 

It starts with making sure no means no at every level: play fighting, namecalling, pushing and shoving. We need to be much more clued up about what kids do and see on their phones, and be honest when it goes wrong. 

We need to encourage boys to set boundaries for themselves and each other, and recognise the responsibility that comes with physical strength and the privilege – diminished though it might be these days – of patriarchy. 

We need to model respectful behaviour and empowered language to all children. We need to be kind, to remember what it was like to feel vulnerable and powerless and ashamed. We need to use our own power with sense and discretion. 

There needs to be more – we’re talking about shifting thousands of years of ingrained behaviour, and it’s not only individual teachers or pastoral teams or schools who have the responsibility of making that shift.

But, as ever, as we’re the ones who work with young people all day every day, we have to consider how they learn to behave towards each other.

Rape culture has been with us for a long time. It’s not going to disappear overnight. But the direction of the wind is changing. We need to accept the challenge and the positive power of that change.

Sarah Ledger is an English teacher and director of learning for Year 11 at William Howard School in Brampton, Cumbria. She has been teaching for 34 years

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Sarah Ledger

Latest stories