The world teenage girls navigate today is vastly different from the one their mothers experienced. And that is a problem.
I often think that some women in their 40s and 50s who were teenagers in the 1980s and 1990s don’t appreciate the magnitude of that difference or don’t want it.
We like to think that society is evolving and becoming more equal, so it’s hard to recognize the reality of a modern world that can harm our daughters as a matter of routine – casually and on a daily basis.
The truth is quite brutal. I grew up in a world where boys at school shared libraries with naked girls on Google Drives; a world of sex without dating, where the requirement that we engage in unwanted sexual acts felt like a foregone conclusion.
It’s a world where young girls are put under enormous pressure to ‘act hotness’ online for ‘likes’ from boys; where sexual abuse is not uncommon, even in school, and where pornography is the background to much of what they do.
Many parents grew up before the digital revolution and the mainstreaming of hardcore porn, and do not understand their children’s digital life – which is their real life, as there is no difference for them between the offline and online worlds. Parents exist in a state of naivety, a kind of comfortable bubble where they think their teenagers will remain unaffected by it all.
When I launched the Everyone’s Invited website in 2020, I wanted to provide a safe place for all survivors of all backgrounds, ages and genders to tell their stories. What I couldn’t have anticipated when I hit the button on the first story I shared — my own — was the explosion of interest and attention it caused, followed by backlash and backlash.
Sara Soma (pictured): ‘I grew up in a world where boys at school shared libraries with naked naked girls on Google Drives; a world of sex without dating, where the requirement that we engage in unwanted sexual acts felt like a pre-established fact’
At the time I was 21, fresh out of university and beginning to re-evaluate my teenage years with a more mature eye.
I went to girls’ schools but socialized with teenagers from all over London where I grew up. Looking back, the misogyny was insidious: endless sexual comments, slut-shaming, boys bragging about conquests; too many moments when something felt ‘weird’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘uncomfortable’.
As I got older, my friends and I identified dozens of incidents that now horrify me, but were then simply ‘part of life’, normalized and expected.
We remembered rape jokes, sexual harassment, unsolicited dick pics, being groped at parties, being ostracized and shamed and humiliated online.
Everyone’s Invited was about creating an anonymous space for those affected to achieve catharsis, relief 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 more than 50,000 submissions from young people across the UK.
Research shows that more than half of 11 to 13-year-olds and almost all 16-year-olds have been exposed to pornography on smartphones, likely given to them by parents
Newspaper headlines about the site multiplied and went global, prompting Ofsted to undertake a ground-breaking review of safeguarding policies related to sexual abuse in schools and the NSPCC to launch a helpline for abuse in education.
I expected a backlash; but I found its source surprising. The harshest critics, those who led the charge to discredit the validity of the testimonies, were not the boys or young men whose behavior we brought under the spotlight, but their mothers. Almost daily, mothers of boys—the middle-aged women who grew up in a world so different from mine—would call 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 had a bad influence on younger children.
The irony was not lost on us – 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, likely given to them by their parents. Yet sharing first-hand evidence of its harm was apparently a step too far.
The fact that posts to the website were anonymous particularly agitated these women, although it was only by remaining anonymous that 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 will 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 wider societal instinct to always protect the promise and future of boys over the promise and future of girls – simple sexism, internalized by women just as much much like men.
In my new book, I write about the first weeks and months of All Invited, and the unexpected first reaction to it.
Any account should include the rebuttal we also received from certain schools. First, we published the name of the school (or university) along with submissions. This was often where the incident took place – being beaten in corridors; sexual name-calling on the playground; a hand up a skirt in the classroom.
While we were generally impressed with how seriously schools took these stories, a minority were not so constructive. At times it felt as if some schools were focused, not on the rights of their students, but on their own reputations.
When security is sacrificed for the sake of a school’s name and income, it is hard to believe.
They don’t believe us, in part because they don’t believe that the world out there really is that shockingly different
Common to all these reactions, from mothers of boys to teachers at schools to commentators who have accused the site of defaming the entire male gender, is disbelief.
They don’t believe us, in part because they don’t believe that the world out there really is that shockingly different.
When I tell parents of teenagers that children can hardly go online without being bombarded by chat from sexbots – spam programs that often send explicit images – or messages from 40-year-old men, they are appalled.
Some parents, and those from older generations, blame 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 a form as an experimental one the fumble in the back. row of the cinema was for them.
The world has changed, and for many older generations, this is raising their views on 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 must be taken as seriously by schools as maths and English (file image)
But our work has never been about demonizing boys and men. I have never subscribed to the ‘cancellation culture’ that in some circles my generation embraces. On the contrary, both the website and the new book stand for empathy, compassion and forgiveness, although I recognize that it is a lot to ask of those who have suffered.
I truly believe that if we’re going to change a sexist, misogynistic culture that dehumanizes girls and women, we’re not going to do it by dehumanizing boys and men instead. This has never been a gender war.
It is my firm opinion that many of the boys responsible for the horrific harm to girls reported on Everyone’s Invited did not understand what they were doing or how harmful it was.
There is no single solution to such a big problem, but better education can help. I wrote my book partly to empower parents with understanding, knowledge and tools to support their child as they navigate 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 must be taken as seriously by schools as mathematics 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 to create meaningful change.
Everyone’s Invited by Soma Sara (£14.99, Gallery Books) is out now.