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Teen girls seek out safe spaces online in their own #MeToo movement

Young women are turning to social media in search of nonjudgmental places to speak honestly about sexual violence in their daily lives.

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"This is 'put a finger down: sexual harassment edition,'" begins the audio that has now been duetted, or voiced-over, more than 10,000 times on TikTok. Teen girls, most of them stony-faced and looking tired, use the voiceover to soundtrack their own videos that all begin the same -- with them holding up 10 fingers, which then fall quick-fire like dominoes, as they document the various ways in which they've been harassed by boys and men.

"Received unsolicited dick pics." A finger falls. "Been begged for nudes." Another follows. "Been catcalled. Been followed. Been repeatedly asked out after you already said no." Before they know it, they've lost a hand.

Many of the girls using the sound caption their videos: "me thinking I was a part of the 3%." The 3% comes from a YouGov poll released in the UK in March revealing that 97% of young women surveyed said they can recall being sexually harassed.

Those stats and the reaction to those videos make it clear that sexual harassment and violence are common experiences for girls and women -- just look at the comments accusing them of lying, telling them "it's not that deep," even telling them they asked for it. It's an epidemic that starts young, that often happens for the first time when they're in school, that discourages speaking up for fear of being slut-shamed or not being taken seriously by adults.

But now they are speaking up, in ever greater numbers -- so much so that they may have become impossible to ignore. In the UK, this chorus of online voices led the Department for Education to announce last week, at the beginning of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, an urgent inquiry into sexual abuse in the country's schools, to be conducted by government watchdog Ofsted, or the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills. But the conversation has expanded beyond the the UK, with people from around the world offering their own testimony.

Sparking the inquiry are more than 10,000 anonymous testimonies published by Everyone's Invited, a website and Instagram page started by 22-year-old London university student Soma Sara last June to expose rape culture (the concept that sexual violence is prevalent and normalized in certain settings) in UK schools. The death of Sarah Everard in London last month -- a London Metropolitan police officer is charged with her abduction and murder -- has led to a spike in conversations about the safety of girls and women.

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Soma Sara founded Everyone's Invited last June.

Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty

When Everyone's Invited started up last summer, submissions named the schools attended by the alleged perpetrators. Many of the UK's elite private schools were thrust into the limelight and forced to offer public apologies and reassure parents that they would conduct inquiries into the allegations.

But since late March, Everyone's Invited has stopped publishing the names of schools along with testimonies. It was a decision, said Sara, based on unproductive finger-pointing that was emerging and distracting from a broader push toward solutions. 

Sara was also conscious of making it seem as though the problem was just one that primarily affected privileged, privately educated youths. While the early submissions to the site skewed toward London and private schools, the demographic of girls contributing stories has since shifted to all regions and educational backgrounds. It was important to Sara that the narrative not become too narrow, when the problem she is addressing is a global one.

A safe space for teen girls

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Emilee Grant's audio has been duetted over 10,000 times.

Screenshot/CNET

Four thousand miles away in Florida, the tragic death of Sarah Everard is having a ripple effect on conversations about women's safety. Soft-spoken and deeply earnest, 19-year-old Emilee Grant, who is the voice behind that viral TikTok audio about sexual harassment, told me how Everard's murder hit close to home for her, tapping into fears she'd had since she was a little girl.

Before mid-March when she made the original video, which has now been viewed over 10 million times, she had seen a number of videos on her "for you page" with women talking about their experiences of rape or sexual assault. Other women in the comments, she noticed, said they were glad their own experiences hadn't been that bad in comparison -- all they'd experienced was a little groping or catcalling.

"It made me feel bad for those women too, because for so long society has been gaslighting women, telling us that these things aren't bad," said Grant. "Just thinking about that alone in my room is what made me decide to make that video, because I know so many women who have no idea that they have been victims of assault, let alone victims of harassment."

Something that both Grant and Sara have been trying to convey through their work is that harassment, assault and rape aren't incidents that occur in isolation. They're part of a pattern of behavior that exists within a culture of misogyny that allows boys to do as they please and gives girls little recourse to challenge those behaviors. What's more, those seemingly small things can have a lasting impact on shaping women's experiences of existing in the world.

"It's really important to emphasize that the more seemingly-less-severe behaviors -- the small things -- can actually have a very traumatizing and enormously scarring effect on a person," said Sara. "One thing that always comes up is ... the long-term impact of delayed and repressed trauma and how these are manifesting in their relationships and with their mental health."

Giving women places where they can voice their experiences to help work through trauma is important, said Grant, who said she's been "overwhelmed" by the number of girls and women who, either in her comments section or Instagram DMs, tell her their own stories. One girl who had been raped by her boyfriend told Grant: "I hope that nobody I know ever sees this, but I just wanted to say it out loud." 

"It's so heavy," Grant said with a sigh. "I never realized how terrible it was until I started talking about it and started hearing other women's stories and creating spaces like that for myself, where we can share openly and honestly and without persecution."

Unfortunately, regardless of the platform, the policing of these spaces tends to fall to those who have created them. Bullying and harassment is against TikTok's guidelines, and the platform last month introduced new features designed to prompt users to be kinder to each other. But Grant said that largely she has been the one who has had to go through and delete the abusive comments on her posts.

Those who take aim at her and her opinions don't tend to bother her. "I see it as just ignorance, which I find laughable and sad more than anything else," she said. 

What she won't stand for is men in her comments invalidating the experiences of other women who have replied to her with their own stories of assault or harassment. She tries to be rigorous about going through and deleting these because she doesn't want the women to see them.

"The amount of comments that I've gotten of women saying, 'This is the first time I've ever mentioned this,'" said Grant. "And it breaks my heart that so many of the responses before I get to that comment are, 'Well, you should have kept your mouth shut.'"

It takes a lot for many women to speak up about their experiences at all, and this is why Everyone's Invited sees it as crucial to let people submit their stories anonymously. It empowers people to speak freely in a nonjudgmental environment that exists outside what Sara describes as the "shame culture," which stigmatizes women and stops them from coming forward.

"It's allowed them a sense of catharsis, solidarity and community where they can really read these testimonies, and submit their own and know that they are not alone in their experience," she said.

'Slap ass Friday' and sexual violence in schools

Many girls are turning to the internet in search of safety precisely because they have failed to find it in a place they hope to be protected: school. On TikTok, Americans have been talking widely about a phenomenon that they experienced in middle school hallways across the country known as "slap ass Friday" and, more specifically, why no one stopped it from happening. 

It's pretty self-explanatory, but for the uninitiated, it's the day of the week girls have to remember to try to wear their backpacks low to avoid being slapped on the buttocks by the boys.

Grant recalled her own transition to middle school as a "culture shock," precisely because she suddenly had to contend with this disturbing practice. "Over the summer, I've gone from little girl who can't walk to the bathroom by herself to young woman who has to protect her own body," she said.

In TikTok videos, girls express widespread frustration that their teachers had perpetuated the expectation that sexual bullying and inappropriate touching would occur, because of a "boys will be boys" mentality. Worse still, some recall being labeled troublemakers for calling out, challenging or even hitting back -- verbally or physically -- when they were subject to assault or harassment.

"If one teacher had said something, when I was just innocently walking through the halls and I was groped, if one teacher had spoken up, it would have made me feel so much better," said Grant.

It's clear that a long overdue shift needs to take place in the way schools in both the US and the UK handle sexual violence. Back in 1993, Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, was interviewed for a New York Times article in which she described how sexual harassment was "commonplace" and "part of the daily fabric of school life."

Almost 30 years later, she's still working to make schools safer for girls. In an interview with CNET, she described the work Everyone's Invited is doing as "very impressive," but found the conclusions "very troubling." 

Like Sara and Grant, she said that the focus on more dramatic incidences of sexual assault can get in the way of what she described as the more "mundane" acts of sexual harassment that all feed into shaping a school's culture. If you tolerate these behaviors, they're more likely to morph into something more extreme, she said.

As far back as 2005, Stein noticed that sexual harassment in school was trending toward becoming more physically violent and happening to younger and younger students. She followed what was happening based on the lawsuits that were filed against schools.

Anecdotal evidence from the girls duetting Grant's video also suggests it's not uncommon for this and other harassment to start young, sometimes before girls even hit puberty. Grant said she'd shared the video with her little sister who has already been on the receiving end of almost all the listed behaviors herself. "She's only in seventh grade," said Grant. "It makes me feel sick."

It's hard to get data on exactly what age sexual harassment starts, said Stein, because official government surveys tend to focus on children aged 12 and over. Plus, young girls can't stage press conferences to talk about their experiences in the way young women have done after being sexually assaulted on college campuses, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement, she said -- once again highlighting the importance of anonymous spaces for girls to share their stories.

Finding a solution to an age-old problem

The schools that were called out by early testimonies published on Everyone's Invited reacted with shock to the accusations. But if you ask anyone who has been working to end violence against women, they'll say this problem isn't new.

"We have known and made government aware for years that girls have been experiencing unacceptable levels and incidences of sexual violence in schools for years," said Deniz Uğur, deputy director for the UK's End Violence Against Women Coalition. 

She added that the government has taken limited action beyond publishing basic guidance in 2018, despite several research reports and legal cases filed against schools. "We have been asking the DfE [the Department for Education] to exercise leadership and meaningful action beyond mere words for too long now," she said.

The UK-based National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said that one third of sexual offenses against children were committed by other children, and described the work done by Everyone's Invited as a "watershed moment." Last week, the NSPCC launched a dedicated helpline for those affected by sexual violence in schools.

UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said in a statement last week that he was "determined to make sure the right resources and processes are in place across the education system to support any victims of abuse to come forward." Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman said she had been "deeply troubled" by the stories brought to light by Everyone's Invited, adding that she will set out the terms of the watchdog's review shortly.

In the UK, there's a sense of cautious optimism that change might be coming. But that doesn't yet seem to be reflected in the US. When I asked Stein why she thinks it's taking so long to acknowledge the scope of the problem in American schools, she pointed back to a key Supreme Court case, Davis v. Monroe, in May 1999. 

The decision, which established that schools are liable for student-on-student sexual harassment, coincided almost exactly with the Columbine High School massacre of April 1999. With an increased threat of school shootings, she said, sexual violence slipped off the agenda. The conversation also got caught up with the wider, more prevalent problem of bullying. Stein and her colleagues had to fight for them to be viewed as separate issues.

"More than half the battle is getting the adults to recognize it, getting policy in line with it," Stein said. "But we have to reach the kids in a way that they're not going to put their fingers in their ears."

Stein, who has spent her whole career trying to influence what teachers do in the classroom, shared a worksheet about establishing boundaries that was used as part of a study in New York City schools among 11- to 13-year-olds funded by the Justice Department. 

Among the exercises, children are asked to mark whether they believe certain behaviors to be a "Big Deal," "No Big Deal," "Against a School Rule" or "Against a Law." It challenges them to measure personal space (both their own and other people's) and includes a "Respecting Boundaries Agreement," for students to sign when they have overstepped, which encourages them to reflect and develop empathy for those they have hurt. It has since become a framework used all over the country and by rape crisis centers.

"We tried to not pound kids over the head with this notion of law, but rather for them to understand that you embody rights, and some of those rights are to declare your personal boundaries," said Stein.

Making the conversation inclusive

Mandatory consent classes are something Grant hopes will eventually be introduced in schools everywhere, sitting alongside comprehensive sex education. She said she feels encouraged by the fact that some of the men in her comments, rather than attacking her, have been thanking her for drawing attention to the subject, asking for educational resources and telling her about the conversations it's initiated in their own lives.

"There are some guys who do care, and that brings a spark of hope to me," she said. "That's been a really nice surprise to see -- guys that give a shit."

Meanwhile, Sara would like to see education start young and at home, including conversations around porn, which some children come across while still in elementary school. 

"It's so important that we are having those conversations, educating them, telling them that porn is not reality," she said. "I feel like it instills a sort of entitlement to female bodies, and I don't believe that consent is really existent in much of porn either."

Parents, in particular, can find this difficult to understand, or react defensively and be in denial, said Sara. But on the whole she's greatly encouraged to see so many people are now engaging in the conversation thanks to the overwhelming influx of submissions and national media attention Everyone's Invited has received in the past few weeks.

"It's extraordinary, especially considering how isolated I felt back in June when most people didn't know what rape culture meant, most people didn't even believe it existed," she said. "All you have to do is read those testimonies to understand the scale of the problem."

While it is primarily girls and women coming forward with stories in which the perpetrators are largely boys and men, Sara means it when she says everyone is invited into this discussion. It's important for everyone to examine their own role in silencing girls and protecting boys, she said.

Behaviors including victim blaming, not believing survivors, slut shaming, competition and jealousy between girls or even telling your children to cover up can all serve to perpetuate the status quo and allow sexual violence to occur, she said. These are things everyone can check themselves for.

Grant does still see the value in the idea of women- and girl-only spaces, although she can't imagine a social media platform that wouldn't somehow be infiltrated by men. From her experience, giving girls a safe space to speak where they know they'll be believed and not judged is invaluable. "I just wish that that was available for every little girl and every woman," she said. "I don't know a single woman who doesn't need it."

If you've been affected by any of the issues raised in this story and would like further support you can contact RAINN (US readers) or find a list of resources here (UK readers).