As a criminal defence solicitor specialising in defending allegations of sexual misconduct and representing children, the perfect storm that has erupted since the launch of Everyone’s Invited has made me privy to some of the saddest and most distraught children I have ever advised.
The testimonies posted on that website, supposedly on an anonymous basis, do not necessarily stay that way. Behind the scenes in a process of identification enabled by DM (direct messages), social media and school rumour, those accused – children let’s remember - are identified and then vilified. They are ostracised, either deliberately by their previously “solid besties” or by the fact they choose to isolate themselves so that their friends are not tainted by association with them. They face a harrowing time for allegations as yet untested.
I have seen boys as young as 14 doxxed online buckling under the weight of other children and unknown adults threatening to “come for you”, “rape you” (so you know how it feels), telling you that you are a “worthless piece of s***”.
I have seen boys subjected to an investigation process by their school which is not always fair, even handed and robust in the way it is conducted.
I have seen boys face questioning by the police for allegations that normally would not merit their attention but for the fact that schools in their panic, or need to manage their reputation, report issues directly or to their LADO who in turn involve the police.
Much has been written recently about the rape culture in schools and amongst young people. But not all of the incidents on Everyone’s Invited concern such. Some are more akin to the type of natural experimentation behaviour that we all got up to as youngsters – from determined flirting to drunken fondling. Granted the more modern problem of sexting is evident there too.
Yet a common thread in the situations my clients find themselves under scrutiny for is that those accused didn’t realise what they were doing was unwanted, thought the feeling was mutual or believed that the encounters were consensual. They are often surprised, shocked and saddened to hear experiences cast in a vastly different light.
I have received distressing phone calls from parents who had deliberately raised feminist sons and are equally shocked by the accounts as portrayed. Horrifying also is the prospect their son may be cut off from his studies whilst an investigation takes place and even have to leave his school, regardless of the outcome of that review process. For often, even if the allegations against him come to nothing, the boy’s position at his school becomes untenable and that school is no longer a safe environment for him to learn, thrive and grow.
Ofsted recently urged schools to do more to create a zero tolerance culture regarding sexual harassment which makes me fear that we are going to see more of the type of cases described above. Yet the Ofsted report also found that children felt that the relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) they received didn’t give them the information and advice they needed to navigate the reality of their lives and addressing this was a central recommendation.
With this I concur. But it is not only schools that bear this responsibility. Educating children about sex and consent is something we all need to take seriously, engage with and recognise the importance of.
Hand on heart, how many of us as parents have talked to our children about agency, choice or consent; how many of us as adults understand what it looks like in practice? We have a choice now about how we respond. We can choose to discuss and educate or we can condemn a whole generation of boys as rapists and sex pests. Those boys will as a consequence grow into broken men.
For the avoidance of doubt I absolutely encourage those children who feel that they have been wronged, treated badly or believe themselves to be the victims of crime to report this to their school and/or the police.
I hope that this results in an even handed and fair process that allows everybody to be heard; that the process takes place in a way that respects the rights and confidentiality of both parties at least until there is a determination by some competent person as to whether an offence has been committed and what is to be done about it.
But I also want them to tell their parents about it and be supported in working out what they would like to do about that experience. Involving the school and the police is not the only solution.
Some situations can be more effectively dealt with by alternative dispute resolution, words of advice and support, or even an apology.
I have spoken to several girls who raised issues over the last few months and the message from them is sometimes that they simply want the boy to know “it was not ok” and to “change their behaviour”. They don’t necessarily want to criminalise individuals or a cohort of young men either.
My fear is that this message is being lost in all the noise.
For further information on the issues raised in this blog post, please contact a member of our criminal litigation team.
About the author
Sandra Paul is a Partner in our Criminal Litigation team. She has a wealth of experience in criminal and related litigation. The majority of her work concerns defending allegations of sexual misconduct. She works with clients in the UK and abroad, including allegations following the #MeToo campaign.
She has a particular passion and aptitude for working with children and young adults, navigating them safely through the youth justice system. Youth crime is a specialist area in which Sandra is a leader in her field.
Drawing on her advocacy experience, Sandra is particularly accomplished in preparing witnesses to give an account or evidence in settings ranging from court proceedings through to internal and external investigations or inquiries. Sandra’s career has included discreet representation of high profile individuals including politicians, bankers, music, sports and media personalities.