When my teenage daughters first used the phrase ‘rape culture’ I warned them to be careful about deploying such emotive words. As a journalist who has covered several significant rape trials in my career, it jarred with me. Teenagers can be so dramatic, I thought.
The expression came up as we discussed the website Everyone’s Invited, which has come to prominence in recent weeks as a place where young women leave testimonies of sexual harassment, assault and abuse.
But as the conversation continued I felt guilty for underestimating my 17 and 18-year-old girls. As they shared tale after tale of toxic misogyny among teenage boys, it became depressingly clear that neither of them was being dramatic.
We must encourage the idea that there will now be consequences, legal or otherwise, for any toxic, abusive behaviour
The stories that have come to light in the past few weeks have laid bare a climate in schools that normalises sexist and abusive behaviour towards women. (Pupils stage a protest against rape culture at Highgate School in London)
From being sent unwanted ‘d*** pics’ which they saw as an everyday hazard, one they and all their friends had endured, to boys secretly filming during sex, boys having sex with drunk girls against their will, boys raping or sexually assaulting girls on nights out, boys groping girls on public transport, in the street, in school corridors and playgrounds, the litany of incidents that had happened to girls they knew seemed endless.
And from what they described, almost any boy at any kind of school could be capable of this behaviour. And if he wasn’t, he would be unlikely to have the courage to call his mates out for it.
‘But why don’t these boys get reported?’ I asked incredulously.
‘There’s no point,’ they replied. ‘The most that happens is the boy gets told off at school but it doesn’t stop them. There’s no punishment, nothing changes, no one cares. They have no respect for girls. Doing this stuff gains them respect.’
Until then I had no idea of the scale of the problem, wrongly assuming incidents as severe as those they were describing would be rare in such young teenagers.
Yet, as a number of prominent schools refer pupils to police over allegations and it’s announced that a national helpline and taskforce will be set up to tackle the issue, what is becoming increasingly clear is that a ‘rape culture’ does indeed exist in our schools, both state and private, a culture that until now has been largely ignored by teachers and nurtured by a dangerous lack of awareness or denial among parents of boys.
Which brings me to my 14-year-old son. Alongside protecting and believing my girls, how do I empower and protect him, too? Hearing the girls talk clearly made him uncomfortable and confused. I feel for my daughters, but I also I felt for him, too. It is important we understand that not every boy is involved in the behaviour being reported.
Some boys have already been identified on sites where girls post their experiences – and we cannot know yet what is true and what is not.
That is a fact: however, I think we should believe every girl’s story right now because I know how hard it is to come forward with these accounts in a society that is statistically proven not to believe women’s experiences of crime.
But equally, bringing about meaningful and lasting change will be more complicated than pitting boys’ defences against girls’ accusations; this should not become an anti-male witch-hunt, but be about altering entrenched sexist attitudes towards women and girls to keep them safe.
The first step towards that will involve a dose of honesty and reflection from all parents. We all have to educate ourselves on this situation, no matter how kind or sensitive we believe our sons to be.
When Scotland Yard offers to send experts into schools to talk to boys about consent, and one of the country’s most senior police officers calls this ‘the next big child abuse scandal’, we have to accept the severity of what is going on. And having spent years interviewing experts on teenagers for my parenting book I can tell you that while you may think you know your child, you really don’t.
Indeed in a BBC survey last year 75 per cent of parents didn’t believe their children had seen pornography, yet the majority of their children told researchers that they had.
All teenagers lead a private life parents know nothing about and it is healthy for them to have that independence, but it means you cannot truthfully know your son isn’t part of this problem.
The stories that have come to light in the past few weeks have laid bare a climate in schools that normalises sexist and abusive behaviour towards women. And it’s a climate of fear that also makes it hard for teenage boys to avoid peer pressure and condemn the behaviour of others.
The majority of parents of teens will be over 40, meaning their experience of navigating teenage relationships is outdated.
The environment is different to when we were at school – much less exposure to porn, no social media, no sexting. This means educating ourselves – no more ignoring or avoiding the issue – because it affects all of us.
You need to find out what your sons’ sources of information are online, to find out how their schools are addressing this toxic culture after the news over the past few weeks.
If you only have boys, you need to talk to the mothers of teenage girls whose stories will be different from yours. And yes, you need to talk directly to your sons about sex, consent and relationships, and the earlier you start the better. You might think your children would rather survive on broccoli and cabbage for a year than hear about this from their parents, but family planning experts have told me many times that teens do want to hear about relationships, consent and sex from their parents.
In fact, contrary to popular belief, psychologists I have spoken to say it is a parents’ words and attitudes that hold the most power over shaping a child’s views on sex and relationships.
So IT is up to us to ask our sons, as well as our daughters, about what’s going on, to really listen to them when they tell us, without judgement or criticism, to hear their stories and decide if we need to step in and educate our sons about the issues young girls are facing.
We must encourage the idea that there will now be consequences, legal or otherwise, for any toxic, abusive behaviour.
Our children are growing up in a time like no other, a super-connected world where the stresses on them are huge and complex. It is not enough to assume that schools will take care of sex education. They don’t appear to have done so far.
Teens need guidance and boundaries from curious and open-minded parents to help build resilience.
Being a teenager is tough. It requires enduring five years of rapid physiological and psychological change from 13 to 18 which involves a complete re-wiring of the brain and this means we have to treat all adolescents with care and patience, our own and other people’s. Boy or girl, they need more support from their parents now than at any other time of their young lives.
Mum, What’s Wrong With You: 101 things only the mothers of teenage girls know, by Lorraine Candy, is out on June 10, 4th Estate