When I was a teenager, the Saturday night disco was a weekly ritual. The high point was when the slow dance tunes came on at the end of the evening.
The hope was that the boy you liked would ask you to dance to the plaintive melody of Careless Whisper. Even better, you might get the chance to sneak out into the cold night air and reach what Americans would call ‘second base’ — a passionate kiss.
I treasure those memories of youthful passion. The course of true love didn’t always run smoothly, but navigating the choppy waters of young romance taught me so much about boys, relationships, and what I did and didn’t like. Sadly, I have learned the hard way that this type of clumsy puppy love is a thing of the past.
For while the MeToo movement and Everyone’s Invited — a site that has hit the headlines for exposing ‘rape culture’ in schools and universities through anonymous testimonies, usually from girls — have undoubtedly helped unmask disturbing predatory male behaviour, they have also helped breed a generation of young women and girls who see all boys as predators.
Today, it seems that so many young women are primed to see every tiny misstep by their male peers as sexual assault, from an ill-judged kiss to an attempt to hold hands. Anything that makes them feel even a tad uncomfortable, often long after the fact, is deemed to be assault. It doesn’t matter if the boy involved is as clueless as they are about the nuances of relationships, or how to express new, burgeoning sexual feelings.
I have sons — I am too scared to say how many in case it helps identify my family — and throughout their young lives they have routinely been told by their young female friends that they ‘hate men’ and that ‘all men are rapists’. So fevered has the atmosphere among young women become that today something as innocent as a male tapping you on the shoulder can be construed as assault.
Let me be clear: I abhor the fact that violence against women is still such a problem in our society. It breaks my heart every time I read about the latest young woman who has been attacked, raped and even murdered on our streets. I’ve always taught my sons to respect women and make sure their female friends get home safe. I fervently believe girls have the right to call out bad behaviour and be listened to.
Yet I deplore the way this has created a chilling new double standard. When girls make mistakes and behave badly, it’s viewed as a forgivable rite of passage. But when inexperienced young boys do the same, they often face toxic accusations, which can quite literally destroy lives.
I should know. My son is one such inexperienced boy and, because of this, our lives have been a living hell for the past three years.
Aged 13, in 2019, my son was just starting to get interested in girls. He got involved in flirtations with a few girls and one sent him a topless photo by phone (this is a shockingly common practice among early teens). With another girl there was saucy texting and some mutual touching.
While I might not condone this behaviour, I also know this is pretty much par for the course for most teens in the 21st century. It’s also notable that the parties involved were the same age, there was zero question of full-blown sex taking place and all the behaviour was mutual and — as far my son was aware — consensual.
When one of the girls’ mothers confiscated her daughter’s phone and found the messages, all this came to the attention of the school and the stark difference between the treatment of girls and boys became evident — to my son’s lifelong cost.
The girls, who were equally culpable, as sending nude photographs is both an offence and against the school rules, were dealt with discreetly. A quiet word was had with them and their parents and that was an end to it.
Conversely, my son, who’d never been in trouble before, was suspended for two days — the final step before expulsion. The school’s rationale was that the other pupils would see this as ‘justice’.
I will never forgive myself for failing to fight the school’s decision to suspend him. I was naïve — I’d never even had a call about bad behaviour before, so suspension was beyond all my experience.
I believed the school knew best. It didn’t. Such a public and severe punishment persuaded his peers that there was ‘no smoke without fire’.
What followed was a merciless campaign of intimidation and bullying. My son was called a ‘rapist’, a ‘nonce’ and told he should be castrated. He was urged to kill himself on a daily basis. He was attacked by a mob in the playground and one boy threatened to stab him. We brought all this to the school’s attention, but it failed to act — too terrified to defend a boy who now had a reputation as a sexual predator.
Soon after, a friend’s young son came home and told her he’d heard my son had locked three girls in a cupboard at school and raped them, something that sickened me to hear. Yet not a single so-called friend stuck up for my innocent boy as no one wanted to be accused of consorting with a ‘rapist’.
I felt like we were trapped in a horror film. I had never brooked sexism in my house, yet found myself questioning my own mothering skills. Had I not hammered home the importance of treating girls respectfully?
I felt too ashamed and frightened to talk to friends and family, worried they would judge my son in the same way his school had. My husband was equally upset. A kind and gentle man, he’d brought up his sons with the same values.
We talked to my boy about what had happened, but he was as confused as we were. He said the girl had fancied him and he was under the impression that she was at least as keen as he was on their innocent experimentation.
Soon, my son became increasingly isolated and withdrawn, his friends distanced themselves and we were left alone, embarrassed and ashamed, trying to pick up the pieces. Things hit a new dramatic low just before the pandemic struck. I found my beautiful boy, by now 14, curled in a ball on the floor sobbing. He was rocking in agony — not physical, but emotional.
A solid year of being relentlessly bullied had destroyed his mental wellbeing. Nothing he said or did made any difference — he was a ‘rapist’ in the eyes of his entire school.
We took him to see a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with severe anxiety and depression, immediately prescribing antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. She also recommended therapy, but then we went into lockdown and the whole system fell apart.
I have blanked out much of that time as it saw us lurching from one mental health crisis to the next, begging for help from a system crippled by lockdown. So low did he become that we were petrified that he would take his own life.
It became routine for him to have meltdowns that would terrify his siblings; for him to walk out of the house and for us to have to beg him by phone to return.
Throughout all this we were locked away from family and friends and too ashamed to share why our family was being ripped apart.
But if we thought things would get better when schools reopened, we were wrong. In late 2021, one of the girls decided to call the police and accuse my son of sexual assault. I have no idea why, but my son was told by an acquaintance that it was because she was ‘feeling bored’. The police were called to his school and he was questioned without his parents present. No one thought to alert us, so we could be with our son.
I was away on business at the time and got a call from my husband, his voice betraying his terror, just before I boarded the plane home. That flight seemed endless as my mind cycled through ever more horrific scenarios.
By the time I landed, I was convinced my bright and kind son’s entire future would be forever blighted by a childish fumble.
Fortunately, the police were far more empathetic than the school. The detective who investigated the case told us that, quite rightly, every accusation was treated seriously. That said, he also relayed that, in the past few years, the police had been inundated with similar calls from teenage girls whipped into a frenzy by the MeToo movement.
During the investigation we spoke to several defence lawyers, preparing ourselves, just in case we might need their services. Each one told the same story of an exponential rise in allegations against young schoolboys in the past few years.
We were not alone.
As I finally began to speak to friends and family, two of my girlfriends admitted their sons had found themselves caught up in similar situations. One had been ostracised by all his friends and had to move away from the area after an ex accused him of rape after he started a new relationship.
Another had his picture plastered on a website with the smear of rapist next to it, for much the same reason. Both of these boys were young teenagers. Rather than comforting me, finding out that what my son was enduring was widespread only made me feel hopeless.
We were on the losing side of a culture war and any attempt to defend ourselves or our sons would just open us up to more vilification. Any parent will know that one of the worst feelings is being powerless to protect your child.
Finally, after two agonising weeks filled with unnerving conversations with lawyers, we got the call we had been waiting for. The police had dismissed the case as there was no evidence to suggest the contact had been anything but consensual.
However, our celebration was short-lived.
Just a month later, a girl who my son had been friends with since Year 7 accused him of sexual assault after he touched her on the back to get her attention.
Once again, his teachers reacted aggressively by hauling him out of his lesson, thereby cementing his reputation as a predator and destroying any scant chance he had to resume a normal life at school.
To be fair to his teachers, however, they were acting in response to government advice, published last September following a ‘rapid review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges’ by Ofsted earlier that year in the wake of the launch of Everyone’s Invited.
The advice describes anyone accused of any sexual misdemeanour as a ‘perpetrator’ and recommends that schools remove them from any classes or spaces they share with the ‘victim’.
As my son was approaching his GCSEs, we tried to send him back to school, but were told by the headteacher that some girls had threatened a protest unless he was excluded. The headteacher simply gave in to pressure.
While I do understand the girls’ fear — on the basis of rumour and supposition, they genuinely believed he was a predator and rapist, so of course they were terrified to be in the same school as him — where were the grown-ups in this?
Where was the balanced, rational response based on evidence not rumour? It felt like we were caught up in the Salem witch trials.
The next few months saw our boy endure a patchwork of education, some in another school where the windows were blacked out, making him feel like a prisoner; some that involved sneaking him in and out of school at times the other pupils wouldn’t see him.
It felt as if our son was like Hannibal Lecter from The Silence Of The Lambs, a highly dangerous criminal who could attack at any moment. In reality he is a vulnerable young man suffering from severe mental health issues as a result of his treatment.
An adult facing all this would have crumbled. Yet my son amazed me with his courage, and while it hurt him deeply to endure this cruel punishment for so long, he was determined not to allow his accusers to derail his education.
We were also immensely fortunate that the supervisors who watched his every move soon came to sympathise with his plight. Each one told us what a wonderful and polite young man he was and how much they enjoyed his company.
It was a crumb of comfort in a bleak situation. It also reassured me that I wasn’t going mad or was a deluded mother who couldn’t see her boy for who he really was.
My son sat his exams in isolation this summer and is now looking forward to a fresh start at a new school, where we pray no one will unearth his past.
Still, though, we all bear the scars of what has happened. I am terrified the malicious gossip will follow him. He, meanwhile, is petrified of girls. He often tells me he doesn’t think he will ever have a girlfriend and I wonder if he will ever have the courage to find love. Even if he does, surely we will all be frightened of the consequences if it again turns sour.
Of course, any girl should feel able to complain about physical contact that makes her feel uncomfortable, but I do wonder why there is an expectation that a 13-year-old boy should understand all the nuances of relationships that often confuse grown men.
Perhaps my son did make mistakes that made the girl who chose to call the police feel uncomfortable, and if that is the case I am genuinely sorry for her. But is the best response to destroy his life by branding him a rapist and bullying him out of school, or to support and educate him so that he doesn’t make the same mistakes again?
After all, if we were all held accountable for immature mistakes we made at a tender 13, very few of us would be blameless.