Updated: Apr 11, 2021
In the past couple of weeks we have seen a great outpouring from young people about ‘sex, abuse and harassment in schools and colleges’ with a focus on the non-consensual and some quite alarming descriptions of what is going on. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence only broken when people connect with others so that they can try to prevent what happened to them happening to someone else. This is when we see, what in the media is termed, ‘a scandal’, a challenge to the institutions which is difficult to answer.
Getting the 'scandal’ out in the open takes courage, persistence, a lot of time and a lot of persuading of those holding power to support taking action. For example, think about the parents involved in the NHS baby scandal and what they have gone through, the Windrush generation, the ‘Me Too’ movement and so on.
The question is why do we need a scandal to break the conspiracy of silence that is fed by the isolation of those suffering and the perceived right of our institutions never to be wrong, at least in the public domain? But even more concerning is the way society seems to keep a lid on the things that affect our well-being, our right to be listened to, to have our experiences valued and for organisations to respond with respect if we dare to question what happened to us and look for answers. Making the case to be listened to is not for the faint-hearted and for many it is just too much when you need to earn a living, spend time with your children, support an elderly parent and so on.
Let’s consider what has just happened. Maria Miller MP said on BBC Breakfast Time on 31 March 2021 that; “This isn’t anything new, but it needs to be taken seriously”. Quite right. TES, on 6 April 2021 published the article 'I wish I could say rape culture didn't exist. I can't'. It ponders ‘if our young people are being heard, then why would 13,000 resort to posting their pain on an anonymous website?” Quite right.
Maria Miller refers to a parliamentary inquiry launched 5 years ago when she was Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee. At the time she said: “It’s clear from the young people we’ve heard from that sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools is having a profound impact on their day to day lives. We need to address this issue now and stop it from blighting the lives of another generation of young people – both male and female.”
Film produced by Fixers
In the background were a number of national charities trying to change the law to make sex education in schools mandatory. In the public domain was youth voice charity Fixers (of which I was founder and Chief Executive) with the report, created by young people; ‘The Trouble with Sex in Schools’ containing young people’s testimonies. Fixers supported Maria as the issue gained almost blanket coverage across all media networks. Young people took to the airwaves and like me, many generations would no doubt have been shocked by what they heard. (Of course, I suspect many of us have examples of our own over the years, hidden away, never to be discussed.) It was indeed ‘a scandal’, but not called one in the media.
There was an unprecedented response to Maria’s call for evidence and in March 2017 Justine Greening MP announced that ‘relationships and sex education’ would be put on a statutory footing in schools. What happened next was surprising, at least to me. Rather than using all the evidence they already had to create the curriculum and think about how to deliver it appropriately, they decided to call for ideas and suggestions. It took until in September 2020 for the new curriculum to become compulsory but you can wait to start teaching it until summer term 2021! (Fixers won the award for the best use of evaluation or research category at the Public Sector Communications Awards 2017!)
In March this year - who knows what triggered the outpouring - what was a relatively unknown website called ‘Everyone’s Invited’ suddenly saw increased traffic. Young people were reporting what had happened to them at school and university. Soma Sara, the founder, started with her own experience and it snowballed from there. The number of stories grows day by day, now in their thousands and, according to the website, they ‘reveal the urgent need to tackle these deeply entrenched patterns of abuse that exist all around us.’ Well said, I say.
Her website says: ‘Rape culture exists when thoughts, behaviours, & attitudes in a society or environment have the effect of normalising and trivialising sexual violence. When behaviours like ‘upskirting’ or the non-consensual sharing of intimate photos are normalised this acts as a gateway to criminal acts such as sexual assault and rape. Behaviours such as misogyny, slut shaming, victim blaming, and sexual harassment create an environment where sexual violence and abuse can exist and thrive. All behaviours, attitudes, thoughts and experiences in this culture are interconnected.’
At Fixers young people had been telling their stories about these issues for many years. The work on sex in schools amplified the issue and brought it to public attention. 5 years on, the story has appeared again, now being called a ‘scandal’. The headlines talk about the setting up of ‘a new abuse helpline’ and a review! No real action. How many more ‘scandal’ headlines do we need to see before we act. In the meantime, these young people and those that come after them are being made to feel as though their experiences and opinions don’t matter. There seems to be an accepted wisdom that institutions know best, but do they?
Unfettered testimony is probably something that none of us really want to hear. We would far prefer to believe that everything is OK, but it isn’t. Curiously we all know this, and that conflict of feelings is perhaps the thing that maintains the silence. But listening to this testimony, getting it out in the open is surely the thing that will create change; its authentic, it makes you ‘feel’ the issue, you can empathise and will them on for change to happen. It might provoke a discussion with those close to you. You may even join the march! But it must be in the public domain otherwise it remains behind closed doors. It’s certainly nothing to feel ashamed about; you have done nothing wrong. Feeling (or being made to feel) as though you’re in the wrong supports the conspiracy of silence. Break it!
What does this tell us about our relationship with institutions? You might ask why people don’t report issues, but simply asking that question makes the victim the problem. What if we pose a different question: why do the perpetrators do these things? How do organisations, settings and cultures enable these things to happen? What is it about an organisation that undermines trust between the people it serves and their staff or board? Why do people think they won’t be listened to? And why do their peers, and other close to them, maintain a conspiracy of silence?
From my experience we fear the consequences of asking to be listened to by an organisation. Organisations in turn don’t like surprises and this includes the consequences of listening and acknowledging what people say is that it may be happening in the open. In my experience, mechanisms in place to protect people who want to raise a concern or ‘whistle blow’ fall short, because the power still sits with the organisation. And yet it should be a joint responsibility, a shared ownership of the idea that everyone wants to be treated fairly. What’s so difficult about that? But it does seem to be beyond grasp.
Exactly how do these things happen, while organisations remain unaware? Are they truly unaware or simply choosing to dismiss the matter in the hope that a lone voice will go away? Organisations are run by people. Yet organisations as entities seem to take on a persona in their own right and, just like an individual, their sense and purpose is to survive. It’s understandable. However, organisations by their very nature have more power than any individual. How much is hidden behind closed doors in the quest to survive, the quest to take your place as an organisation in the ‘food chain’ of earning a buck, fundraising, ducking and diving, reinventing practice to sustain your organisation.
Let’s give a moment to think about the staff in organisations, they are the faces behind the entity, the people interacting with individuals every day to provide services. I think they may also feel that they’re not being properly listened to. They are the outward face of the organisation but it’s the boards that make the decisions. Make no mistake, not being listened to either from outside an organisation or working from within can be tremendously frustrating, devastating, disempowering… is that the point? Organisations have power manifested in their staff, though the time they can allocate and the funds they have, as compared with an individual whose time and resources are limited, not to mention how alone and disempowered they might be feeling. I have seen how agencies ‘shut down’ around ‘victims’ concerned about the risk to their organisations, even if they are simply the ones listening and supporting.
I once listened to the personal testimony of a young lady in front of an audience of
professionals from the police, social services and the NHS.
She described how she was arrested for having drugs on her and that her four children were about to be taken for adoption. Her heartfelt message was that the different agencies needed to understand her life story; abused since a very young age she found herself coerced into drugs and crime.
She was being seen as the problem and yet, really, she was the victim. This was challenging to listen to even by people who would hear bits of this kind of story every day. Reconciling this young person’s truth with the practices of their organisations created turmoil for the consciences of many.
Not being listened to, maintaining the conspiracy of silence will deny young people the support they need. If we don’t listen to their experience it will affect their well-being, their sense of self, their self-esteem. It’s real takes courage to break the silence.
So, whose responsibility is this? Each and everyone of us, as human beings, has the ability to listen and create trusting relationships. It’s what makes us thrive. Being framed as one of the parts in an organisation and losing your identity doesn’t negate your duty to other human beings to treat them fairly and to take their testimony seriously. If one person confides something to you, surely the next question is how many people are not confiding, rather than seeing it as an isolated incident and in so doing undermining the confidence and trust of those you are working with. It takes great courage to speak up on your own. Don’t encourage a conspiracy of silence.
The young people on the Everyone’s Invited website are, I suggest, just the tip of the iceberg.
Many are the confident connected young people. As we’ve read in the newspapers, they may have been to private schools or university. The question we should all be asking is ‘how many more?’; where are the stories from young people who survive on the margins, have low self-esteem, are not connected or indeed have the means to do so, and who lack in confidence because they expect not to be listened to? (As has happened all their lives?) I think this has to be the tip of the iceberg.
So here we are: now dressed as a scandal, this conspiracy of silence has a chance to be broken. Let’s search for the facts and ditch the fear of talking about these issues. Society has to get used to a new kind of truth and in my view, it has to be driven by those in power – by the way organisations treat us, the way our families and friends choose to listen.
We have known that this was happening in schools for many years. It’s not a new phenomenon, although perhaps exacerbated by our new ability to connect. Yes, social media has perhaps added to the mix, but we could have done something about this a long time ago and perhaps we wouldn’t be confronted by the horrible truth now.
It took courage for each one of these young people to write about their experiences of abuse. It’s very personal and no doubt for many brought back memories which are difficult to deal with. Another review and a repackaged helpline neither solve the problem nor change behaviours. What is the point in listening if there is no action taken! This isn’t the answer.
Yes, it’s a society-wide issue; the first step has to be the new sex education curriculum in schools and how it is delivered will determine its impact. That’s what the young people at Fixers said was necessary, and many more. But more than that, we all need to be able to discuss these matters with confidence, defining what is right from wrong. Getting these stories out in the open has to be part of the mix, in the public domain, because whilst the conspiracy of silence exists, we risk another generation being isolated and held back by the power of a few.