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.
No individual is singled out but the schools named include famous single-sex ones such as St Paul’s School and Harrow, as well as mixed-sex schools such as Latymer Upper School in west London, Wellington College and Bedales, grammar schools and state secondary schools. Students at university have also started posting their experiences at Edinburgh, Exeter, Manchester and Newcastle. This Instagram campaign highlighting teenage sexual abuse has gone viral.
Behind Everyone’s Invited is Soma Sara, 22, a quietly spoken, polite, considerate member of Generation Z who has been living during the pandemic with her grandmother in Paris. She started the campaign last summer with friends after she realized that she wasn’t the only one who had spent her teens being forced into sexually compromising situations, abused by boys, teased and shamed.
“We all discovered that we have so many experiences of appalling sexual violence we have hidden from each other and from adults. We were shocked at how common it seemed to be so I posted about it on my Instagram and the response was overwhelming,” she says. “So many teenagers messaged me that I felt compelled to create something more permanent to give survivors a space to share. Then … my friends and I started posting testimonials with school names but not personalized and it’s been insane.”
This Instagram campaign highlighting teenage sexual abuse has gone viral.
Soma went to a girl’s boarding school, Wycombe Abbey, in Buckinghamshire. “In the holidays I grew up in London social circles and sex was a palpable presence throughout my teens. Disgusting behavior was trivialized. It could be sexual coercion, rape, catcalling, sexual bullying, stealthing [non-consensual condom removal], image-based abuse [revenge porn], victim-blaming. Sexual abuse didn’t just exist, it thrived. It was rife.”
The overwhelming response of mothers I have talked to is that these testimonials are worse than what most of them went through in the 1980s and 1990s. “I’ve started speaking to my American grandmother about it and she says it’s been going on forever. It’s still a very patriarchal society and boys feel the need to prove themselves to each other. The only new thing is the social media technology, which exacerbates and spreads these behaviors.
“My grandmother had flashers on the streets — that’s an unsolicited dick online now. Misogynistic bullying has moved from the pub to group chats.”
But the sexual violence is still so stigmatized and shaming that girls won’t come forward and if they do mention it to their teachers or even the police, they often aren’t believed or are brushed off.
“The stories are not exclusive to one demographic or area, it’s everywhere. A girl in Australia has just started a similar project and the testimonials are very similar; girls are now sharing the same stories in America about rape culture.”
“So many teenagers messaged me that I felt compelled to create something more permanent to give survivors a space to share.”
Soma said that she coped by internalizing the guilt she felt having been abused. “One hundred percent, I felt it was my fault. A lot of girls when they are in it are so young they don’t really understand, and a lot of the trauma is repressed and delayed until a few years later. At 16 I was insecure and just wanted to fit in, I couldn’t call out everything that was happening to me or walk away. I thought it was part of the price for going to parties and meeting boys. But the trauma is lasting. Boys have Google drives of nudes that they have shared between multiple schools and are now famous.
“Girls have got body dysmorphia and feel inadequate and unworthy. Many of my generation are depressed. Girls have been put off having sex; they have these terrible intrusive thoughts, it’s horrendous. We are having to learn to live with it.”
The online porn culture can’t have helped. “It reinforces boys’ idea of entitlement over women’s bodies and consent not even existing in porn. It’s very toxic, yet it’s ingrained at such a young age — 11-year-old boys are watching porn. That’s their sex education. Sex education needs to be treated with the same interest as an academic subject, but it was a joke.”
This isn’t an exclusively female movement. “I’ve received a lot of response from many boys too and a lot was overwhelmingly positive, about changing their perspective. Some admit, ‘I was complicit, now I understand the true impact of my actions, I didn’t realise how toxic it was, I thought it was just a couple of bad apples.’ But some boys felt attacked because it’s horrible to look back at your behavior and recognize that your actions could have been so destructive and harmful.”
Girls, Soma says, are complicit too. “The slut-shaming, jealousy, competition. We are all guilty to some extent. We have this weird culture now where we post pictures of ourselves and want to be liked like the Kardashians. Social media gives us this impossible body image that creates insecurity and eating disorders and never feeling perfect enough.”
Male sexual assault is an issue that she says is “super” not talked about. “That is even more stigmatized — boys forcing other boys into actions that they didn’t want. Some boys have been sexually coerced by girls, too. Girls who have relationships together are fetishized by boys; it all comes back to boys feeling entitled to be entertained.”
Did she ever encounter racism too? “Absolutely, I was fetishized for being Asian. Race and sex can be a double assault. I experienced endless micro-aggressions, ‘Where are you really from?’ Constantly being compared with this Japanese porn star. I’m half-Chinese. It was really disturbing but I accepted it.”
Why have teachers and parents seemingly been so unaware? “I think they [the teachers] didn’t understand or thought girls should just change their behavior.”
“We were shocked at how common it seemed to be so I posted about it on my Instagram and the response was overwhelming.”
Many female friends started covering up. “Girls felt it was their fault for wearing short skirts but that is victim-blaming. What were you wearing, how drunk were you? Those kinds of responses prevent survivors coming forward to talk about sexual assaults. It makes you so vulnerable. To tell your story, to have them hint that you brought it on yourself, is devastating, it’s a terrible rejection.”
The testimonies from universities are equally harrowing. “There were serious sexual allegations at my university — UCL in London — with some sports societies. Personally, I’d learnt by then and was lucky, I found a group of friends who helped me realize how disturbing my teenage years had been. I was like, wow, there are boys who are genuinely my friend.”
The real problems, she says, begin at secondary school. “Some of the testimonies I have received are from 11-year-olds saying I was pressurized by an older boy to send a naked picture. That’s not the girl’s fault. Even if you consent to send it you do not consent to share it with other people. That’s a complete violation.
“But the boys have so much power. They are more popular, you want to get in with them, the girls sometimes compete to be liked and included.”
Drugs and alcohol fuel the toxic environment. “It’s used as an excuse, it exacerbated everything.”
She wants parents to read the testimonies so that they understand what is happening to their teenagers. “So they can talk to their kids and other parents. There should be a no-tolerance policy. Children should be relaxed enough to call bad behavior out. You shouldn’t be friends with someone you know behaves badly; the abuser is allowed to keep going otherwise.”
It has been exhausting reading thousands of testimonials, Soma says. “It’s very intense and overwhelming. There is now a team of us who make sure that they are genuine and there are no names. We have to expose it before we can change it. We are trying to educate our generation and the older generations at the same time.”
The writer Sylvia Plath said that she would prefer to be a man. “I’m glad I’m a woman,” says Soma. “I love the sisterhood and relationships I have with other women which are incredible and inspiring. But I have a baby sister and an older sister, which is why this work is so incredibly important to me. I don’t want my baby sister to grow up and go through what I did.”
Older women have been sharing their stories of being stalked on the streets, after the disappearance and death of Sarah Everard. “The feeling of danger on the streets starts very young. I lived in Finsbury Park in my second year and I always had my keys in my knuckles. I feel fear walking around at night. At school we were never warned about public sexual harassment, which is terrifying and intimidating and feels 50 times worse from 11 to 25 than when you are older. Men seem to like younger girls; I get catcalled and followed much less now than when I was 15. You are fair game then. It’s horrible to go through.”
She doesn’t want to foster a cancel culture. “I want to create something positive. I don’t want to single out a single individual or institution. Me Too singled out people like Harvey Weinstein, but that risks blaming it on a few high-powered men or industries. Everyone is complicit and we should all take responsibility. It’s insane to pretend it isn’t everywhere. Children can see it, adult women being shamed the whole time in public. If I called people out as a child I was called a feminazi and gaslighted and berated for being dull and intense. I remember a boy telling me women have more rights than men. There is this predominant belief that because we live in a Western culture we must be progressive but we aren’t.”
Soma knows that it is incredibly rare for women to be abducted off the street by strangers, “but it still makes teenagers nervous”. She adds: “As adults we may come up against domestic abuse, yet adults don’t seem to care that so many women are dying in their homes at the hands of their partners. For us it’s anxiety-inducing and terrifying. This has to stop and we have to start young. I’m thrilled that people are coming forward now. It’s incredibly brave. I want this to be uplifting.”
Alice Thomson is a columnist and interviewer for The Times of London