Having the time of their lives. Credit: John Rogers/Getty

April 1, 2021   6 mins

We think of the teenage years as a time of adventure, of making mistakes, of taking up space. We think of the teenage years the way they are for boys. But for girls, it can be a time of retreat. The catcalls and the pinching and the men who stand too close or follow you — all these things that teach you public space is not something you can use, but something you have become. No wonder teenage girls shrink away to their bedrooms, away from that scrutiny. And one of the places where you learn what it means to be public is at school.

School was where I overheard the boys discussing the relative merits of the anointed hot girls outside class (I say “overheard”, but they filled the corridor with their bodies and the air with their newly-deepened voices, so there was no discretion involved at all, and anyway, boys will be boys). School was where I learned to dread the comments which let me know where my slow-to-change body sat in that hierarchy (because boys will be boys). School was where I envied the girls set above me and dreaded the kind of attention they received (because boys will be boys). And school was where I eventually learned to shrink my body defensively when I sensed someone behind me — because boys will be boys.

I don’t know how much this was the thing that drove my own bedroom retreat (it’s never one thing, is it? But it so often is this thing among many). But for whatever reason, I became a committed school-avoider, and I spent my school-avoiding years reading about people having an even crappier time of being a teenager than I was. That meant those twin bibles of angst, The Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar; and I don’t know whether I noticed at the time, but it makes a lot of sense to me now that Holden Caulfield’s breakdown involves wandering New York, while Esther Greenwood secretes herself in a crawlspace under her house to overdose — the tiniest chamber it is possible to fold herself into.

I don’t know if it’s really possible to be a school-avoider now. You could obviously just stop going, but I don’t see how you can wholly get away from it like I did. I’ve got two teenagers of my own now, and they are of course constantly attached to their phones. Now, those corridor conversations happen on Snapchat, constantly — you could avoid them, but only at the cost of cutting yourself off entirely from communication with the world.

The other thing that teenagers have now, and I did not, is internet porn. When boys decide to size up the available girl-flesh, their appraisals are informed by a worldly acquaintance with the female body in various states of penetrative duress — an NSPCC study from five years ago found that by the time children were 15, 65% had seen pornography, with boys viewing it more often and more deliberately than girls. And 53% of boys who had seen online pornography considered it to be “realistic”.

One of the things I’ve found consistently through 18 years of parenting two children is that I simply never manage to land my life lessons in time. The moment I realise that some particular horror of growing-up is liable to impinge on them or their friendship group, it’s usually already happened. And how, in any case, is a parent supposed to discuss the grisly realities of the pornified world without, well, discussing the grisly realities of the pornified world? I count myself a pretty honest parent, but even so, it’s hard to envisage having the steely unembarrassability required to sit them down for a Talk about Pornhub.

Adolescents are caught between the inevitable innocence of their age, and a terrible excess of information. It’s impossible to warn them against something they can’t yet imagine; and once they’ve encountered pornography, impossible for them not to imagine that what they’ve seen in some way represents the truth about sex. A truth which, according to the front page of Pornhub, involves “hot stepsisters”, girls who want to be “passed around”, and “horny bitches” who love anal.

This pervasive, brutalising culture of sex is part of the background to the accounts of sexual assault and harassment collected by Everyone’s Invited — over 11,000 when I last looked, all of which only tell us in more detail something we already knew. The abuse of girls and women is endemic, and schools are no kind of a safe space. A 2019 survey for the National Education Union reported that more than a third of girls at mixed-sex schools had experienced sexual harassment at school, and nearly a quarter had experienced unwanted touching of a sexual nature.

Everyone’s Invited became a story this time because of the names of some of the schools involved. Which raises the bitter thought that if only one girl gets sexually harassed, that’s a tragedy. If thousands get sexually harassed, that’s only statistics. Unless the reports happen to involve some famous British public schools, in which case sexual harassment in schools can become a national crisis for several days and finally receive parliamentary attention. The Department for Education has just announced an immediate review into sexual abuse in state and private schools.

So now we have this moment where we might, perhaps, be able to talk about what we should do. It won’t last long: already, people are starting to worry that all this concern about girls risks doing that most terrible of things and “demonising boys”. You can feel sympathy lurching back to its habitual centre of gravity. Yes, it’s bad that girls suffer these habitual intrusions and humiliations; but how much more compelling it is to imagine the pain of the boy wrongly accused, outcast, ashamed. Boys will be boys! And wouldn’t it be a pity to stop them just so girls could get to be girls.

How good an argument some seem to find that for shushing the girls and doing nothing. How hard it seems to be to remember that boys are vulnerable too — scattered among the harrowing testimonials from girls on Everyone’s Invited there are a few male voices of distress, reporting terrible things done to them or cruelties they watched their peers commit. Boys do not, on the whole, want this grotesque version of masculinity to be the one they attain; but where will they find a better option?

For schools to intercede against this attitudinal tide is a lot to ask. But many of them are not even trying: 64% of teachers in the NEU survey were unsure or not aware of their school’s policies and practices on preventing sexism. And while the relationships and sex curriculum was updated by the government in 2019, there’s still a tendency to treat it as a discrete component of education that can be dealt with in its allotted periods.

Children have no such respect for the boundaries of the timetable. The beliefs they are acquiring about sex and relationships spill into every part of their lives, and teachers need to be attuned to sexism — and ready to counter it — wherever it manifests. They need to have independently established processes for dealing with incidents of harassment and assault that involve pupils, whether as victim or aggressor; they also need the ability to impose appropriate behavioural management (and where necessary, penalties) on children. They need to find the resources to do all this at the same time that they somehow also deliver an education.

We’ve been here before, with #metoo and #everydaysexism and #hollaback, if your memory goes long. A project like Everyone’s Invited can give us a strong sense of what’s wrong, but it’s not (and never claimed to be) the route to restitution. As feminism seems to be repeatedly in the process of finding out, raising consciousness is the easy part. Moving from the knowledge of collective trauma to the politics that stops it happening again is time-consuming, often expensive and — after the catharsis of revelation — an anticlimax.

Without that move from recognition to reformation, though, all you end up with is a lot of hurt disclosed to ultimately no effect. A lot of hurt, and a hunger for justice. Although given that the criminal justice system is currently failing woefully to prosecute rape, it’s hard to promise that much justice will be forthcoming. What is reported in classrooms only mirrors what happens in the adult world.

We might reassure ourselves that children will grow out of their worst impulses — and many will, though some of the sexual violence described on Everyone’s Invited has the sound of a lifelong habit that a boy will never shake without intervention, if at all. But children must be given something to grow into as well. A promise of not having to live with violence, and not having to see cruelty tolerated, that will give them something worth leaving their bedrooms for.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.