You’ve heard about Everyone’s Invited? It’s the controversial new website for female students, mostly schoolgirls, to unburden themselves about boys behaving badly. It has trashed the reputation of some independent schools, Dulwich being the latest. There are sections for St Paul’s, Eton and Latymer Upper — and, among the private schools, my son’s state school, which takes girls in sixth form. The first thing my daughter, 14, does in the morning is to whip out her phone and scroll through the posts. ‘More from J’s school!’ she carols. ‘Look at these! Actual abuse!’ Frankly, I am far from pleased that she can understand the language on the wretched site.
I take a look and, my goodness, it’s sordid. A typical post is about girls going to parties, getting drunk (often so much that they don’t know what they’re doing) and then finding a boy trying to have sex with them; or worse, waking up and not knowing whether a boy has had sex with them.
There are boys who try to pressure the girl into sex of some description and turn unpleasant when they’re rebuffed. Then there are the remarks that boys make about the girls — including a post from one whose class took it in turns as they waited for lunch to grade passing girls and who now feels sorry for ‘objectifying women’.
It’s followed by the assurance that ‘all contributions will be anonymous and all contributions will be posted’. So, no accountability, no opportunity for the alleged perpetrators to put their side: just a safe online space for girls to sound off, on their own terms. Naturally this educational Trip-Advisor hasn’t gone down well with the schools. And it’s resented by boys, who don’t care to be stigmatised as predators.
The upshot is clear in my daughter’s case. ‘There is literally no way I am going to that school!’ she says. ‘I feel safer at my [girls’] school.’ Some of her classmates are, she says, ‘terrified’ by boys in general. ‘When girls are going up the stairs in front of boys, you should see them,’ she observes. ‘They gather their skirts up round their bum or they pull their skirts down.’
On the other hand, many girls do go to mostly boys’ schools to meet boys. And in some cases they send out mixed messages. ‘What kind of idiot,’ I said to my daughter, ‘shares pictures of themselves naked?’ (There’s lots on Everyone’s Invited about boys pressuring girls for ‘nudes’ and sharing them with their peers.) ‘I cannot,’ said my daughter, ‘believe you are saying this. Are you actually saying that it’s the girls’ fault? Some of these girls are vulnerable. They feel pressurised.’ Yep, it doesn’t take long for the mental health side of things to crop up. ‘What’s more,’ I said, ‘girls shouldn’t get so drunk at a party that they don’t know what they’re doing.’ My daughter narrowed her eyes. ‘That is absolutely no excuse for boys’ toxic behaviour.’
My son really hates this stuff. He barely talks about what’s said about his school, but he does let slip that one woman teacher sent a message to the sixth-form girls telling them to ignore boys in the lower school because they were perverts: ‘We didn’t talk to her after that.’ He does, however, wonder how girls react to boys’ behaviour: ‘There were two boys fighting in the corridor — one had the other in a headlock — and no one took any notice. No hard feelings; they were probably friends. But I wonder what the girls thought.’ However, when there’s a sexual element to the interaction, it’s another story, especially with the activism that followed the terrible death of Sarah Everard. My son’s school is now organising a series of discussions, involving boys and girls and teachers.
What strikes me, with two dogs in this fight, is how fraught relations between the sexes now are. For one thing, the culture is sexually saturated in a way that wasn’t true even a decade or two ago. The inevitable result, when everything you watch on screen features people getting their kit off, is a generalised feeling of sexual entitlement, which can be coarsely summed up on the part of some young men as: ‘If that’s what’s out there, yes please.’ Ours is not a culture — how can I put this? — conducive to chastity or sexual restraint. And for shy teenagers, boys or girls, it’s intimidating. What seems to have been lost somewhere is the gentle art of snogging — physical intimacy short of actual sex.
I asked one nice, sane head of a Catholic school what the problem is. ‘Internet pornography,’ he said instantly. ‘That really is a game changer. It’s dehumanising. And then there’s social media. What’s happened is that teenagers can seem to have parallel lives: one where they are perfectly nice, normal young people, the other where they go in for things like sending out pictures of themselves naked.’ So, what’s the solution? ‘You’ve got to start from where the young people actually are,’ he said. ‘We’ve got an ethos of human dignity, but you’ve got to find a way to apply it to the situations teenagers find themselves in. If you try to pretend that you can tell them “just say no”, you’ll lose their respect.’ In his school, every form has a tutor with a remit to deal with problems like this, in or out of school, whom pupils can talk to.
What Everyone’s Invited has done is expose a clash between feminism and the cultural imperative for girls to celebrate their sexuality (see every gyrating female singer online); and between boys’ assumptions about what girls are up for, and their in-ability to interpret confusing signals. There’s never been a good time to be a teenager, but this generation has it worse than most.