A piece in yesterday’s Times:
Until last week, my teenage son was just a schoolboy. His parents’ boringly familiar areas of concern were too much PlayStation and bed-time. Then, last weekend, in the eyes of many, he became a sexual predator who attends an all-male private school that breeds rapists. A school with a pervasive culture of entitlement which enables violence, misogyny, racism and homophobia. Now he is being held to account — in public — for the alleged crimes of his fellow pupils and his school.
On his way to school last week, still half asleep and with books falling out of his rucksack, he was confronted by a parent from a different school who demanded he answer for recent allegations against Dulwich College. He did his best to do so. The parent rolled his eyes and laughed at him. Loudly. The unspoken message was clear.
When I discovered what had happened, I was appalled. How had it come to this? I have absolutely no quarrel with those making any allegations based on facts. Perpetrators of sexual crimes must be brought to justice. About that there can be no argument. But I do have a quarrel with those who seek to smear hundreds of boys at different stages of their lives with a terrifying label, rapist, because of the school they attend.
Imagine being one of these teenage schoolboys (or a parent of one) today.
And it is not just Dulwich College. Many private schools across England have been caught up in this controversy. Suddenly, teenage boys everywhere are predators.
The mother of one boy told me she fears his mental health has declined over this public shaming. Other mothers report that their sons are terrified for their personal reputations and their inability to counter the perception that they prey on girls.
Dulwich College boys younger than my son are worried that the fallout from the allegations will follow them to university — years hence — and beyond.
Surely this cannot be right. I do not believe I am exaggerating when I say this risks damaging an entire generation of innocent boys. And I do not believe for one second that this is what the victims want.
My son, who is in his early teens, has never been to a teenage party, drunk alcohol or been out with a girl. And I do not believe that when he starts to do so he will behave as a sexual predator. I reject entirely the notion that he is at risk of doing so simply because he attends private school. And if he does behave badly, I will not blame his school. It will be his fault — and mine.
He has been brought up by loving parents to be respectful, polite, law-abiding and tolerant. Equality between the sexes is a given for him in a way it never was for my generation. I know that he has been taught the same by Dulwich College. Indeed, I also know first hand how swiftly the school deals with misdemeanours. Dulwich College, in my experience, does not mess around when it comes to bad behaviour.
Ultimately, before he comes of age, it is we, his parents, who must be held responsible for our son’s attitude and behaviour towards women, and his conduct in general. Surely there is a hierarchy of responsibility or blame if things go wrong. The schools and their “culture” are fairly low down that list, I would argue.
Much more influential are the parents themselves and our culture at large. And that culture includes easy access to pornography, social media platforms which turn a blind eye to bullying and harassment, and sexism pure and simple.
I am not naive. I am aware of what goes on out of school hours and away from school premises. And I know that parents often fall short of the standards we expect of our children. At a teenage party several years ago, the mother of the hostess was drunk and, to the horror of all present, staggered onto a table to toast her daughter. She then fell, injuring herself, in full view of everyone.
Teenage sexuality is complex. We all remember those difficult, scary years — whether we went to private schools or were educated, as I was, in the state sector. Parents stumble through, trying hard to help their boys and girls get it right. We do not want them to feel ashamed of sexual desire. We want them to be able to understand it and feel comfortable with it.
We must speak up for girls and against rape culture everywhere.
But everyone also needs to speak up for boys who have done nothing more than be teenagers; who are learning who they are and how they fit in. Who would want to be a teenage boy or girl growing up in our complicated world? I know I wouldn’t.
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