SARA SOMA: We helped expose the ‘rape culture’ of schools, but many parents refused to believe it was true

The world teenage girls navigate today is vastly different from that of their mothers. And that’s a problem.

I often think that some women in their 40s and 50s, who were teenagers in their 80s and 90s, don’t see the magnitude of that difference, or don’t want to.

We like to see society as progressive and more equal, so it’s hard to recognize the reality of a modern world that can routinely hurt our daughters – casually and on a daily basis.

The truth is quite brutal. I grew up in a world where boys at school shared libraries with nudes of underage girls on google drives; a world of sex without dating, where the requirement that we engage in unwanted sexual acts felt like a predetermined fact.

It’s a world where young girls are put under tremendous pressure to perform “hotness” online for guys’ “likes”; where sexual assault is not rare, not even in school, and where pornography is the background to much of what they do.

Growing up before the digital revolution and the mainstreaming of hardcore porn, many parents don’t understand their children’s digital lives – which is their real life, because for them there is no distinction between offline and online worlds. Parents live in a state of naivety, a kind of comfortable bubble in which they think their teens will remain untouched by it.

When I launched the Everyone’s Invited website in 2020, I wanted to provide a safe space for survivors of all backgrounds, ages and genders to tell their stories. What I couldn’t have foreseen when I pressed the button on the first story I shared – my own – was the explosion of interest and attention it provoked, followed by backlash and backlash.

Sara Soma (pictured): ‘I grew up in a world where boys at school shared libraries of nudes of underage girls on Google drives; a world of sex without dating, where the requirement that we engage in unwanted sexual acts felt like an established fact”

I was 21 at the time, just out of college, and started judging my teenage years with a more mature eye.

I went to girls’ schools but hung out with teenagers from all over London where I grew up. Looking back, the misogyny was insidious: endless sexual comments, slut shaming, guys bragging about conquests; too many times when something felt ‘weird’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘uncomfortable’.

As I got older, my friends and I identified dozens of incidents that startle me now, but were then just part of life, normalized and expected.

We remembered rape jokes, sexual bullying, unsolicited cock photos, groped at parties, banned and shamed and humiliated online.

Everyone’s Invited was about providing an anonymous space for those affected to get catharsis, help and community.

It didn’t take long for the project to go viral: young women, girls and some boys started adding their stories.

To date I have received over 50,000 submissions from young people in the UK.

Research shows that more than half of 11- to 13-year-olds, and almost all 16-year-olds, have been exposed to smartphone pornography that was probably given to them by parents

Headlines about the website multiplied and went global, prompting Ofsted to conduct a groundbreaking review of school sexual abuse safety policies and the NSPCC to launch an educational abuse helpline.

I expected a backlash; but I found the source surprising. The fiercest critics, the ones who brought charges to discredit the validity of the testimonies, were not boys or young men whose behavior we spotlighted, but their mothers. Almost daily, mothers of boys—those middle-aged women who grew up in such a different world from mine—called the office to question our intentions and dismiss our work as “reckless.”

My colleagues spoke to dozens of such callers. The testimony was “false,” the callers said, “exaggerated” or too “sexualized” to appear, and a bad influence on younger children.

The irony had not escaped our notice – research shows that more than half of 11-13 year olds, and almost all 16 year olds, have been exposed to online pornography on smartphones that they probably got from their parents. But sharing first-hand evidence of its damage was apparently a step too far.

The fact that the submissions on the website were anonymous especially annoyed these women, although only by remaining anonymous, victims could speak freely – often for the first time.

What would happen to innocent boys who were “falsely accused” because of us, they asked. We would be personally responsible for any consequences.

It is, of course, a mother’s instinct to protect her child, but it seems to me that some of these women also reflected the broader societal instinct to always protect the promise and future of boys over the promise and future of girls – simple sexism, internalized just as much by women as by men.

In my new book, I write about the early weeks and months of Everyone’s Invited, and the unexpected initial reaction to it.

Each account must contain the pushback we also received from certain schools. Initially, we published the name of the school (or university) next to the entries. It was often where the incident took place – beaten in hallways; sexual name-calling on the playground; a hand in a skirt in the classroom.

While we were generally impressed with how seriously schools took these stories, a minority were not so constructive. Sometimes it felt like some schools were not focused on the rights of their students, but on their own reputation.

When protection is sacrificed for the sake of a school’s name and income, it’s hard to believe.

They don’t believe us, partly because they don’t believe the world out there is really so shockingly different

What all these comments have in common, from moms of boys to school teachers to commentators who have accused the site of defaming the entire male gender, is disbelief.

They don’t believe us, partly because they don’t believe that the world out there is really so shockingly different.

When I tell teen parents that kids can barely get online without being bombarded by sexbot chats—spam programs that often send explicit photos—or messages from 40-year-old men, they are shocked.

Some parents, and those of older generations, accuse and punish girls who send nude pictures of themselves to boys because they don’t understand that digital sex is teenage sex today and sending a nude is as real as an experimental back rumble. row of the cinema was in front of them.

The world has changed and for many older generations it is changing their view of how boys and girls behave.

Children need sex education that truly reflects the world they live in, with age-appropriate lessons on pornography, female sexual pleasure, sexual bullying and what consent really means.  It should be taken as seriously by schools as math and English (File image)

Children need sex education that truly reflects the world they live in, with age-appropriate lessons on pornography, female sexual pleasure, sexual bullying and what consent really means. It should be taken as seriously by schools as math and English (File image)

But our work was never about demonizing boys and men. I never subscribed to the “cancellation culture” that my generation embraces in some quarters. Rather, both the website and the new book stand for empathy, compassion, and forgiveness, although I realize this is much to ask of those who have suffered.

I truly believe that if we want to change a sexist, misogynistic culture that dehumanizes girls and women, we won’t do it by dehumanizing boys and men instead. This has never been a gender war.

I firmly believe that many of the guys responsible for the horrendous harm to girls reported on Everyone’s Invited didn’t understand what they were doing, or how damaging it was.

There is no single solution to such a big problem, but better education can help. I wrote my book in part to provide parents with the understanding, knowledge, and tools to support their child in navigating the modern sexual landscape.

Children need sex education that truly reflects the world they live in, with age-appropriate lessons on pornography, female sexual pleasure, sexual bullying and what consent really means. It should be taken by schools as seriously as math and English.

It is crucial that mothers, fathers, teachers, boys, girls, old and young challenge this culture on a daily basis. Only then can we hope for a meaningful change.

Everyone’s Invited by Soma Sara (£14.99, Gallery Books) is out now.