There are currently 16,500 testimonies about rape culture in Britain’s schools on the Everyone’s Invited website. On its testimony page, something like #MeToo is unfolding as young women share their stories. A recent entry, which names an independent London day school for boys where attendance costs £13,000 a term, reads:
"Boys would often hook up with certain girls and then pretend to act disgusted, as if they were forced into situations. They would make insulting remarks on her looks, shape or 'easiness' to try and excuse the situation to their judgmental friends."
Another entry, naming an equally expensive independent school for boys in Oxfordshire:
"I was really drunk I don’t remember how drunk he was ... We were making out at this party and he kept asking to go to another room and was saying really explicit things. Even though I was drunk I knew I said I didn’t want to and I felt really uncomfortable. He continued pressuring me and wouldn’t stop until I got quite angry. He then proceeded to put his hands up my skirt and my top and finger me even though I’d said no. This was in a room full of other people from the school. No one noticed."
As chilling as they are familiar, as unrepeatable as they are relatable, these entries speak to the continued insidiousness of rape culture, male violence and male privilege. Twenty-two-year-old Soma Sara set up Everyone’s Invited in June 2020 while she was finishing her degree in English at UCL in London after she began sharing her own experiences on Instagram. The site went viral in March, around the time of Sarah Everard’s disappearance. It has already effected positive change: the children’s charity NSPCC subsequently launched a helpline for young people who have experienced sexual harassment or abuse at school, while the schools regulator Ofsted and the government announced immediate reviews into allegations about a culture of cover-up at specific institutions.
When I speak to Soma, who attended the prestigious Wycombe Abbey school in Buckinghamshire, over Zoom, she is energised. "I don’t like to go into detail about my own experience," she says firmly. "I feel that it detracts from the fact that this is very, very much a universal and endemic problem. That’s what I want to shine a light on."
She’s right. More than three years since the air crackled as women the world over fired off tweets, DMs and WhatsApp messages to other women who were, finally, saying "Me Too", it’s clear that, from our boardrooms to our classrooms, we still have a problem.
In March, women responded in droves to the disappearance of Everard by sharing their stories of harassment. In April, Guardian journalists Sirin Kale and Lucy Osborne exposed sexual misconduct allegations against now-disgraced actor Noel Clarke. Then, in The Times, journalist Sophie Wilkinson revealed a dossier of sex predator allegations against TV producer Charlie Hanson. The overarching message? Men – of all ages – harass women every day, violating their boundaries with impunity.
I do think that there is extraordinary power in a story.
Far from being cynical or indeed as jaded as some of her millennial and Gen X forebears have become, Soma is determined. "I’ve been really encouraged to see the response so far from schools in the UK. I think it's promising," she reflects. The ripple effect has been huge. St Paul's school in Barnes, which was named 90 times on her website, has responded to the allegations by making the police and the relevant children’s services aware of the website and instating a designated officer who is responsible for managing all child protection allegations against staff and volunteers.
What heartens Soma is not purely justice but the conversation that has been sparked. "It’s amazing to see that crucial dialogue now existing between students and survivors, teachers," she says, moving closer to the screen in enthusiasm. "I think it's just so fundamentally important to be prioritising the survivor and making sure that we're creating spaces where survivors have lived and that they're listened to and that they are adequately supported."
Via the platform Soma has created, British schoolgirls have found their voices to tell of sexual harassment and sexual assault. It’s easy to be cynical about the emotional labour and mental load imposed upon women in the name of bringing about culture change but, as examples from Harvey Weinstein to Noel Clarke and Charlie Hanson demonstrate, individual testimonies can change the world.
"I think the act of sharing and telling a story is just incredibly powerful," says Soma when I put this to her. What’s happening, as she sees it, is a connecting of the dots between women’s testimonies around the world which will gradually lead to the dismantling of the rape culture which underpins male violence.
"Everyone's Invited has sparked this incredibly powerful national conversation which has provoked response from the government, response from schools, responsible universities and a written review of new guidelines from the Office for Students. So I do think that there is extraordinary power in a story."
Gen Z is continuing the work of MeToo and all of the movements that went before it, building on that legacy. But at 33, almost a decade older than Soma and having lived through waves of testimonies from my peers and older women I love and respect, as well as my own experiences of assault at university, I want to know if any part of Soma feels frustrated that we are still having to do this work?
Her response makes me want to continue the fight. "We are related to MeToo, to those other movements," Soma says. "I don’t think Everyone’s Invited could exist without them. However, I do feel our focus is different and distinct in that we are trying to shine a light on this as a universal problem and on society as a whole as being complicit in perpetuating this culture, rather than focusing and narrowing down on individuals, or a particular demographic or an institution, because it actually really limits the problem and makes it seem like it only exists in those places, or in that person. And that's just not true. It's everywhere. I believe that everyone is complicit in this culture because we have been socialised to be and because we have been brought up in environments where misogyny and harassment is normalised."
Could Everyone’s Invited succeed where years of debate about changes to sex education, consent workshops and even government calls for a "crackdown on lad culture" back in 2015 have failed? It remains to be seen.
As we say goodbye, Soma says: "It's not just about putting the burden on one gender or one demographic or one generation. It's about all generations because we all exist together in society."
It is a damning indictment of those initiatives that it is young women, once again, who are taking matters into their own hands. But then again, that’s what we always do. That’s what we will continue to do until it’s no longer necessary. We can live in hope that, one day, we won't have these stories to tell. For now, perhaps we can take comfort that when we tell them, individuals and institutions are forced to respond and, like those who went before them, Gen Z women like Soma are refusing to let them off the hook.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind and need help or support, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.