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24 June 2022

The problem in schools isn’t cancel culture – it’s rape culture

A New York magazine story has sparked a debate about mob justice among young people, but it misses the point.

By Sophie McBain

In “Cancelled at 17”, a New York magazine cover story that has ignited a Twitter and media storm, the features writer Elizabeth Weil profiles an “enormously appealing, but also very much cancelled” high school boy, Diego (all the names used were pseudonyms). While drunk at a party, Diego showed his friends nude photographs of his girlfriend, Fiona. After Fiona found out, Diego’s friends began ostracising him and later, as the school pupils launched a campaign against sexual harassment and abuse on campus, Diego was identified (along with around 20 others) as one of the worst offenders. On campus he became a pariah, known to all as an abuser and a rapist (even though no one had accused him of rape). Diego’s parents were powerless against what Weil depicts as high school mob justice. “How do we stop the bleeding?” the principal asks herself. “The students are acting as the judge, jury and executioner for other students.” At least one of the 20 outed students was the victim of mistaken identity. A “disturbingly high percentage” of the accused were students of colour.

In the aftermath of Everyone’s Invited a student-led movement against sexual harassment in British schools and universities that gathered momentum last spring, several UK newspapers published pieces expressing similar concerns to Weil: that the atmosphere had become hostile and punitive for young men, that teenage boys’ lives were being ruined over false rape allegations or misunderstandings that were blown out of all proportion. The prominent solicitor Sandra Paul, who has represented teenagers accused of sexual abuse and harassment, told me last year that “I wouldn’t want to be a boy right now, because whatever you do runs a risk”. But while Paul criticised schools for contributing to the hostile atmosphere, being so spooked by potential reputational damage that they were involving the police in minor issues, Weil’s piece places more blame on Diego’s fellow pupils, the relentless enforcers of “cancel culture”.

Many have criticised Weil on ideological grounds: they would rather she centred the story on a victim, such as Fiona, than on Diego. Good journalism, however, should embrace moral complexity, and the experiences of teenage boys are not irrelevant. The bigger, and unforgivable, problem with the piece is that it is so shoddily reported.

Weil reports that students rallied behind the slogan “we’re not safe here” and then quotes the principal again, who observes that students who had not felt this way before “suddenly had a compelling narrative to buy into”. “There was a lot of social capital and relational capital to be found suddenly – I don’t wanna say it was a lie – in understanding your own experience within the context of this narrative,” the principal continues. This all plays neatly into the cancel culture story, the idea that young people are obsessed with virtuous victimhood, that they are too quick to feel unsafe. Weil doesn’t appear to challenge this interpretation and fails to investigate what had actually been happening on campus.

It’s hard to imagine, for example, that Diego was the first kid in the school to share nude photographs of a classmate. In fact, you might wonder if seemingly sweet-natured, well-brought up teenagers who share nudes might do so only when such behaviour is normalised. To me, the most obvious next step for a reporter would be to ask around: have other girls experienced the same as Fiona? If a boy shared nude photos of you, or harassed you, would you tell a teacher?

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Last summer the British schools inspectorate Ofsted published an urgent report into sexual harassment in schools that noted that teachers appeared completely unaware of the scope of the problem. Diego’s school principal might have been able to provide some useful information – maybe she could have given Weil figures for how often students filed Title IX complaints over sexual harassment (Title IX prohibits sexual discrimination in US educational settings and includes protocols for reporting violations) – but if she did, Weil did not report it. What the principal isn’t a good source for is accurate information on the actual prevalence of peer-on-peer sexual abuse. She’s also probably not in a position to determine how many students were simply “buying into a compelling narrative”.

The Ofsted report, which was based on visits to 32 British schools and conversations with more than 900 young people, concluded that cases of sexual harassment were “so commonplace that [some children] see no point in reporting them”. Asked how often harmful sexual behaviour happened between people their age, 92 per cent of girls said sexist name-calling occurred “a lot” or “sometimes”; 73 per cent said having photos or videos of themselves shared without their consent was commonplace; and 79 per cent said sexual assault of all kinds happened “sometimes” or “a lot”. (Among boys these percentages were lower, but substantial.)

[See also: Cyber-flashing is sexual harassment and must be made illegal, demand MPs]

There has been no national review of sexual harassment in American schools, but Weil could easily have located research that suggests the picture there is not dissimilar. Doing so would have been more fruitful than digging up a handful of examples of other high school boys accused of sexual abuse. The American Association of University Women, a non-profit campaigning for gender equality, estimates that almost half of middle and high school students face sexual harassment. It also found that half of victims never report their abuse.

In fact, when I wrote about sexual abuse in UK schools last year – interviewing several rape victims and trawling through hundreds of written testimonies – one theme kept cropping up: it was victims, not perpetrators, who were at risk of being bullied, slut-shamed or ostracised by their peers. One teenage boy who was raped on school grounds told me he didn’t tell anyone what had happened because “snitches get stitches”. A girl who was gang raped at a school party told me she kept it completely secret for years, so deep was her sense of shame. It requires spectacularly blinkered and incurious reporting to step into a story about rape culture and return with a feature about cancel culture.

The funny thing about cancel culture is that people either see it everywhere or believe it doesn’t exist at all, which means now New York magazine readers are debating whether Diego was “cancelled” or simply “facing the consequences” when really they should be talking about how schools and our culture at large have failed young people. They should be talking about how in the US Title IX provisions are completely inadequate for protecting young victims of harassment and abuse (to her credit, Weil does make this much clear). They should be talking about why schools should be empowered (and required) to proactively identify and address problematic behaviour before it escalates, and why students deserve effective sex and relationship education, as well as safeguarding systems that enable victims to come forward and receive support.

They should be asking what we need to do to help the generations of young people whose sexual scripts have been shaped by early exposure to online pornography, and whose social lives are mostly conducted on internet platforms where cyber-bullying or nude-sharing can take place undetected by adults. They should be wondering how teenagers can ever explore their sexuality in a safe and healthy way if we don’t address the culture they are growing up in.

And once they’ve reached that point, they could start questioning why so many adults feel comfortable debating on Twitter the most appropriate way to punish a teenager they’ve read about in a magazine. It shouldn’t be too hard, surely, to understand that what Diego did was very wrong but that he, like Fiona, like every teenage victim of abuse, was also failed by the adults around him.

[See also: The reckoning: rape culture and the crisis in British schools]

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