#collegesafety | Soma Sara’s Instagram Story Helped Expose ‘Rape Culture’ in UK Schools

  • Soma Sara is the founder of Everyone’s Invited — a platform for survivors of sexual abuse.
  • There are over 15,000 testimonies on the website. Many are about elite British schools and universities.
  • Sara never expected to become the face of a global movement, she said in an interview with Insider.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The day 22-year-old Soma Sara shared her experience of rape culture on her Instagram story, she was unwittingly lighting a flame of hope for thousands of teenage girls and young women who had been silently enduring sexual abuse at school and university.

“I was not expecting anything,” she said in an interview with Insider. “It was very much a spontaneous, cathartic personal moment for me, and I was overwhelmed by the responses.”

Her June 2020 Instagram story about her experiences of “casual and severe forms of sexism” while attending the prestigious Wycombe Abbey, a Hogwarts-style English boarding school, resonated strongly with many friends, family members, as well as countless strangers.

After receiving hundreds of Instagram messages, Sara decided to set up a platform for survivors’ testimonies — Everyone’s Invited. Almost a year on, the website hosts over 15,000 testimonies.

Read more: Requests for sexual favors and unwanted touching: A survey finds women in tech still report high rates of harassment three years after the #metoo movement

Everyone’s Invited is for “survivors to amplify their voices and to share their testimonies, to raise awareness, and to work against the stigma and the shame that surrounds rape culture and sexual violence in society,” Sara told Insider.

The testimonies included on the website are wide-ranging, from harmful comments to others detailing horrific incidents of sexual assault. There’s a focus, Sara explained, on challenging and denormalizing problematic behaviors of all severity.

“When things like upskirting or the non-consensual sharing of intimate photos are normalized, this can actually act as a gateway to more extreme criminal acts, which is rape and sexual assault,” she said.

But it’s also about addressing “deeply entrenched attitudes and beliefs” that incrementally contribute to creating an environment that is hostile to women and some men, Sara added.

“Things like victim-blaming — when your first instinct or reaction to someone coming forward with a survivor testimony is to doubt or invalidate their experiences — are hugely common,” she said.

Inaction, the movement’s founder went on, also does great harm. “If you’re witnessing someone being mistreated, whether it’s misogynistic abuse, sexualized bullying, or harassment, and you don’t actively challenge this behavior, that is being complicit.”

A #MeToo movement in British schools

The majority of testimonies are about the chilling experiences of those at some of the UK’s top schools and universities. The sheer quantity of submissions has sparked a movement reminiscent of #MeToo within Britain’s most prestigious educational establishment.

Elite schools, such as Eton College (whose alumni include Prime Minister Boris Johnson), Harrow School, and St Paul’s, have received mentions in anonymous submissions. Similarly, the world-famous University of Oxford and Sara’s alma mater — University College London — have also been flagged by survivors.

The harrowing testimonies focus on specific incidents and are often accompanied by a note detailing which institution the perpetrator was from.

“I trusted a boy when I was young and he coerced me into sending him nudes, then he took screenshots and sent them around to his friends and people at school,” reads a submission from a student at a £40,000 ($55,390) per year school.

“I was groped at school by a group of three boys during a sports lesson,” says another testimony from a pupil at one of London’s top schools.

“I was in a relationship where I was raped and sexually assaulted multiple times on school grounds in a full, busy boarding house,” wrote a former student at one of the country’s leading boarding schools.

The troubling accounts shared on Everyone’s Invited have ignited a national conversation about whether educational institutions are doing enough to protect their pupils.

highgate school everyone's invited

Pupils stage a protest against rape culture at Highgate School in London, Britain, March 25, 2021

John Sibley/REUTERS

A string of testimonies about Highgate School in North London prompted a walkout by students. Several other schools have had to release statements promising to investigate incidents, The Daily Telegraph reported.

The movement’s popularity has also prompted the UK Government and the Metropolitan Police to announce a review into the allegations, the paper said.

These changes are welcomed but, Sara said, she doesn’t want people to get too bogged down in “finger-pointing” and holding specific institutions to account.

“I think what’s really important is to not narrow the focus on one school or one university, just because our message has always been that rape culture exists everywhere,” she said. “It’s in all schools and all universities, and it’s also beyond education. It’s a global and universal issue.”

Becoming a figurehead

Sara said that she and her volunteers are trying to help Everyone’s Invited “go global.” 

Having recently completed her degree at UCL, the English Literature graduate is working full-time on this goal. “It’s pretty constant every day, all day,” she said.

She has put applying for graduate jobs on hold to focus on Everyone’s Invited and also, to her surprise, managing her role as the figurehead of a rapidly-growing movement.

In recent weeks, Sara has been featured in British Vogue, The New York Times, and The Guardian. “It’s been extraordinary and I never thought I’d be in this position,” Sara commented.

But she’s not overwhelmed by it all. She finds the work “uplifting and affirming” work and is supported by a dedicated team of volunteers.

soma sara

Soma Sara, the 22-year-old who started the “Everyone’s Invited” website on which teenagers have been posting accounts of sexual harassment and abuse.

Dylan Martinez/REUTERS

They have a plan of action to defeat rape culture. The initial stages involve opening a dialogue between the heads of schools and pupils. “We’ve been really encouraged by the response so far,” the 22-year-old said.Sara and her volunteers are also determined to adopt a “survivor-centered approach,” she added. “It’s really important that we are actually listening to survivors, believing survivors, and making sure that we’re creating environments where they feel supported.”

This effort has been bolstered by the launch of a helpline in April run by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), offering support and guidance to those affected by sexual assault at schools.

Everyone’s Invited is also pushing schools and universities to focus on improving sex education. Sara said lessons need to be “engaging, robust” and include information on upskirting and revenge porn.

Everyone’s Invited has already made a substantial impact in less than a year, but Sara is aware that there lies a long road ahead.

“Even though we’ve made a lot of progress in a short time, we do feel that this really is only the beginning,” she said. “I think it could take decades to actually eradicate the culture.”

Source link