“When I woke up, my parents shoved the article in my face,” says a student at Dulwich College, a well-regarded and historic private school in the leafy suburbs of South London. “That was definitely a sign that this was way bigger than I expected.”
Last month, in bedrooms and conservatories and living rooms across England, on Snapchat and Instagram and WhatsApp and TikTok, there were thousands of similar awakenings. And they all concerned a single topic: a noxious, ingrained, seemingly inescapable culture of rape and sexual assault spanning the entire British private-school sector.
It started as a trickle of rumors and gossip just under a year ago. But by February 2021 it had grown to a torrent of public allegations that swept rapidly through King’s College School in Wimbledon; Westminster in central London; Dulwich College; and, by late March, almost every single tuition-charging school in England.
This is the education sector’s #MeToo moment: a dam-bursting of colossal proportions that has tarnished the names of some of the most prestigious institutions in the country.
It began, in many ways, on a Web site called Everyone’s Invited, a portal that allows students to submit anonymous testimonies. Created by 22-year-old Londoner Soma Sara, who describes her work as “a movement committed to eradicating rape culture,” the Web site now has more than 14,000 individual posts, arranged like ominous tiles against a dark-blue backdrop: a sheer, unscalable wall. These personal accounts have not yet been independently verified, but taken together, they paint a disturbing picture.
It started as a trickle of rumors and gossip just under a year ago. But by February 2021 it had grown to a torrent of public allegations.
“I started this project back in June, and it was actually really isolating, because most people didn’t understand what rape culture was,” says Sara. “They felt quite defensive or maybe viewed it as extreme or emotive with the word ‘rape.’ And they didn’t have an understanding of what I was talking about, let alone believe that it existed. So to see it now being spoken about on a national level is just such a huge achievement for us.”
The movement has been elevated rapidly from a fringe forum to the mainstream political stage. Last month, one of Britain’s most senior police officers, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, told The Times of London: “This goes right across the whole of the education section … and I think it is the next big national child sexual abuse scandal.” What’s more, he noted, police are not just interested in what has been alleged—but also in the “culture of misogyny and sexual harassment” that had taken root in some schools, and in what might have been covered up.
Now at least 100 private schools and 75 state schools have been implicated in the rolling scandal. It has hit single-sex institutions, such as St. Paul’s, Harrow, and Dulwich; co-ed establishments, such as Latymer Upper School, Wellington College, and Bedales; and grammar schools and state high schools.
The testimonies span allegations of vicious sexual assault, rape, revenge porn, classroom sexism, and slut-shaming, as well as cases of drink-spiking, upskirting, unsolicited nudes, and sexually charged insults. They involve instances of official rug-sweeping, “Boys will be boys” platitudes, and teenage drug use. The influence of hard-core pornography is ubiquitous. The abuses take place on school grounds and playing fields, but also on the bus, at parties, in nightclubs, and on social media. There is a sense for many women that this behavior is unavoidable and institutional, simply part of the texture of everyday life.
“This goes right across the whole of the education section … and I think it is the next big national child sexual abuse scandal.”
“It’s not just about the criminal acts of rape and assault, which are a consequence of a wider culture of abuse, dehumanization, misogyny and sexism that normalizes and trivializes more extreme acts,” says Sara. “It’s about the attitudes and the beliefs … so things like victim-blaming and slut-shaming when a survivor comes forward and they aren’t believed. That also perpetuates rape culture and creates a wider environment where sexual violence is so stigmatized that no one feels able to come forward.... They end up being these hidden traumatic things that people learn to live with, and suffer in silence for years.”
Beyond the testimonies on Everyone’s Invited, students at schools across the U.K. have been compiling dossiers filled with evidence to present to their school principals. The Times of London reported how, five years ago, 160 male and female pupils submitted a letter warning the head of Dulwich College that his school had “a culture of misogyny.” Dulwich’s headmaster, Joe Spence, said, “Appropriate investigations and disciplinary actions were carried out,” but he admitted that while he had offered to meet with the students, that meeting “did not take place.”
Similarly, according to The Times, students at Westminster have compiled a 21-page document that includes “76 entries from students. There are claims they were left traumatized and humiliated by being forced to perform sex acts on boys against their will, received threats of sexual assault and were joked about as ‘gang rape’ victims.”
One female Westminster graduate said, “If you go into the boys’ bathrooms—which they’ve now deep-cleaned—all over the toilets are conquest lists, and horrible explicit things are written, and nudes have been printed out and stuck on the walls. There was even a published list that had been compiled, numbered 1 to 180, ranking the hottest girls at school.” (Westminster did not respond to a request for comment.)
A number of schools have been accused of prioritizing good public relations over the safety of female students. At Highgate School, in North London, one student disclosed to The Times how she was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement and was told by a staff member to consider “how legal ramifications for [the alleged attacker’s] actions might hurt his feelings.” The school denies this.
“All over the toilets are conquest lists, and horrible explicit things are written, and nudes have been printed out and stuck on the walls.”
A dossier of some 230 other allegations said Highgate School “silenced” students who spoke out, with one pupil writing that “this school has become obsessed with its image, making money and its PR, and has disregarded and left its pupils in the dark.” A representative for Highgate denied that students had been asked to sign NDAs, and noted various measures the school had taken, including the hiring of a director of well-being, a consulting clinical psychologist, and a director of inclusion.
A former student at Westminster—who, like other students we spoke to, agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity—recalls how the labyrinthine disciplinary procedures at the school often involved powerful family lawyers and a lack of transparency. “The idea is that a disciplinary body is meant to look at things. But that doesn’t always happen, and often parents bring in external legal services, there are confidentiality clauses, so it’s hard to know what’s going on. Sometimes it’s done in-house, but sometimes it’s done externally and in criminal courts—at which point, the school has a duty of care to both the pupils, and they have to support both the victim and the abuser. It’s very messy.”
What’s more, the Westminster graduate claims that teachers would often turn a blind eye to a great deal of the misogyny. “Most of the teachers were men—very old-school-style teachers, so they’d sort of say, ‘Boys will be boys,’ which wasn’t helpful. One history teacher said girls had no place in the classroom, and that he wished he could go back to the 19th century, when everyone knew their place. When the boys see teachers behaving in a certain way, they think it’s O.K. and that they can get away with it.”
The story has now swelled to include accusations of abuse not just between students but of teachers toward students, too. At least 20 testimonies on Everyone’s Invited contain stories in which “staff are accused of groping female pupils, making sexual comments towards them and masturbating during classes.” A former Bedales student recalled how the husband of her housemistress would stalk the hallways and “walk into our rooms when we were getting changed.”
By mid April, universities began to be implicated, too—and the reports came in such numbers that Everyone’s Invited took the step of releasing a list of more than 100 higher-education institutions named in allegations submitted to the site. In a single week, a fifth of all testimonies came from university students, with several establishments named dozens of times: Exeter, Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, UCL, Manchester, York and Edinburgh all came under particular scrutiny.
Many of the schools have taken swift and decisive action. The headmaster at Westminster, Dr. Gary Savage, has announced multiple external investigations into the allegations at the school. King’s College School has said all testimonies on Everyone’s Invited “will be investigated and referred to relevant authorities and agencies.”
Dulwich has gone even further and reported individual pupils accused of criminal acts to the Metropolitan Police. But the mood remains febrile. One current Dulwich College student described being “quite disappointed when the Master in one of his assemblies hinted that some of the allegations might be false,” while another says that the administration stamped out a planned protest on school grounds, motivated solely by “fear and control.” Dulwich claims the event was canceled due to coronavirus restrictions. At Highgate last month, the student body staged a mass walkout.
A former Bedales student recalled how the husband of her housemistress would stalk the hallways and “walk into our rooms when we were getting changed.”
In an effort to get ahead of the allegations, many schools are now addressing how they educate their student bodies on these issues and foster healthy relationships between young men and women. Much of the sex education on offer is said to be anachronistic. A former Westminster student recalls a lecture the school hosted instructing students on how to protect themselves from sexual assault. “I remember it was compulsory for the girls, and I think we had to miss lessons to go. But it wasn’t compulsory for the boys,” the Westminster graduate says. Another former student says that new girls were warned that the male students “would go crazy when we first arrived, and try to show off, but that they’d mellow out,” but that little or nothing was done to educate the boys themselves on these issues.
In The Times, students at Highgate recalled being shown a sex-education video that compared non-consensual sex to forcing someone to drink a cup of tea. A Dulwich boy said that his peers’ sole education on consent “is one video every other year, which half of us are asleep in.” (Dulwich did not respond to a request for comment.)
Needless to say, many teenagers turn to other sources for their sexual education. Hard-core pornography—and its ubiquity on smartphones and lack of effective age restrictions—is frequently cited as a major contributing factor. “We cannot talk about consent in isolation from porn,” says Helen Pike, master of Magdalen College School, in Oxford. “Porn addiction can shape attitudes and behavior in real life, leading to unrealistic ideas about performance, body image, and also poor decision-making. Some teenagers learn this the hard way.”
“Porn takes you down a tunnel of more and more unrealistic values of women,” says a former Dulwich student. “Whether they are tied up or doing jobs like a maid or a kinky policewoman, all of these [broken] taboos are contributing to the overall image of women as a lesser … that [they] can be toyed around with, needing to say yes and be at your beck and call.”
Students at Highgate recalled being shown a sex-education video that compared non-consensual sex to forcing someone to drink a cup of tea.
Another student points to what he calls “the alt-right pipeline”—a YouTube rabbit hole of anti-feminist videos algorithmically fed to angry adolescent boys. Soon, he says, many boys “are at a point where they start to believe and say very intolerant things.”
What is striking when speaking to many of the male students of this generation is just how reflective and conscientious they often seem. Many of them are understandably shocked and distressed about the abuses that have been perpetrated around them, often by their close friends. And they are desperate to help if they can.
“It is not enough to not be a rapist or to not be misogynistic—that is the minimum,” says one Westminster high-schooler, while a Dulwich boy says, “Many [male] students have personally written to the master about their disgust for the situation and suggestions on how to improve it.” But others feel a weighty collective guilt, a looming sense of hopelessness.
“My generation of boys, in my opinion, are a goner. We know that the harassment is wrong yet continue to do it,” says a current Dulwich student. “I think it is more about educating the [students] to come, conditioning them to respect women way better than us.”
“It is great that it has been caught now,” he adds. “Any longer and I don’t know how deep this rabbit hole could have gone.”
Either way, it is clearly a watershed moment for the British private-school system. “I hope we will see positive change,” concludes Pike. “In my conversations with pupils this week, I am hearing a profound desire among boys to get it right—and we have a real opportunity as educators to guide them to be their best selves. This is about allyship in a cause that will actually benefit everyone.”
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL
Bridget Arsenault is the London Editor for AIR MAIL