The media is flooded with #boislockerroom tales. The public is aghast. There are shrill calls for arrest and punishment for not just the boys who were part of the Instagram group, but also their families.
One cannot help but wonder, why people are taken aback. If this would have been a new phenomenon, ‘locker room talk’ would not have been a timeless adage. Yes, let’s face it, misogyny and sexist conversation is not new. It is an inter-generational malaise. The boys-locker-room has simply also travelled into the virtual space. And this too is not new. Just a few months ago a top-ranked IB school in Mumbai suspended eight of its students, aged 13 to 14 for making violent and sexually explicit remarks about their female classmates in a WhatsApp conversation. Much more exists out there.
We need to recognise that the children in the #boislockerroom or the WhatsApp group are only symptoms of an intergenerational rot: misogyny. Children are sponges – they absorb and mimic everything adults do. And what we see in the evolving story is just that. These children are once again playing out what they have picked up from adults around them, further reinforced by every image that is beamed to them through visual media. Male privilege reinforces a culture that expects boys to be strong, fearless, successful, naughty, vulgar, aggressive and puts pressure on them to outdo each other in their ‘macho ness’. And as we can see they start early.
Therefore, arresting and locking up some of the ‘symptoms’ will not rid society of misogyny. As long as boys, and the men they learn from, think it’s ‘cool’ to be sexist, and as long as they continue to assert their masculinity in their everyday life, this will continue unabated.
What is clear is that our attempts to break the malaise of patriarchy, misogyny and sexism have not had the same level of intergenerational impact as its continuation has had. Toxic masculinity is so systemic in our society, that it lives in different shades completely normalised in our thought and practices, to a point that boundaries between what is okay and what is not completely blurred. We do not notice it until it bursts open in this fashion. And for this, we have to applaud the girls who break the silence.
Also, of course, there are those who will tell us, ‘boys will be boys’! Indeed, even while expressing shock at the sudden outburst of sexuality and violent sexual messages from the boys, we can see misogyny and voyeurism unfolding. Jarring terminology such as ‘slut shaming’, references to girls from ‘South Delhi’ feeding popular stereotypes of affluent young girls and giving unverified details of gory conversations. The links on several stories take you to the pages of the girls, exposing them to more danger!
The findings of the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) study by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) that found that nearly one quarter (24.5%) of the respondents in India report perpetrating sexual violence at some point, the vast majority against an intimate partner (wife or girlfriend), should be a wakeup call.
This study tried to answer the question- why do boys grow up to commit rape based on evidence that has been gathered across five lower-income countries Chile, Croatia, Mexico, India and Rwanda). While India reported the highest incidence, all others reported less than half of that.
Even more important, men who reported sexually aggressive behaviours during boyhood and youth (including sexual harassment or teasing and group sex) were significantly more likely to report perpetrating rape as adults than those did not report sexual aggression during boyhood.
This is exactly the space where the boys in the #boislockerroom or the WhatsApp group and all those unreported offline and online aggressors occupy. The choice is ours. Do we arrest each one them as they show ugly heads up, or arrest the misogyny?
For any long-term change, half-hearted attempts to address misogyny and sexism in society and in policy, needs to stop. It needs a push back in every home, every day and in every other space- online and offline. When someone sends a seemingly harmless message in jest – “tell my wife that work from home is not ‘work at home’” on a WhatsApp group, instead of sharing it with everyone, push back to stop the barrage of ‘husband’ and wife’ jokes with the ‘poor man stuck at home’ and patronisingly mocking of the women. And stop reading it out to your children! Yes, this is not ‘dangerous’, but here begins a slippery slope that leads to hardcore misogyny as it gets passed on. Remember this is a deep-rooted cancer. The cells simply grow if not stemmed.
A day ago, a 16-year-old boy in Gurugram jumped to his death from his eleventh storey apartment after being accused of molestation on Instagram by a girl, his peer. Tragic and unnecessary. But there is a reason why children find social media platforms preferable for expression of violence as well as to cry out for help. As care-givers parents, family, neighbours, and educators, we are failing them by not creating safe spaces to educate children and for them to share.
Violent behaviour exists everywhere – even in privileged homes. We tend to hide from acknowledging this by creating an ‘other’ –them – those who live in slums and shanties. And when it happens with the privileged, then they are treated as aberrations and also – othered.
We must address the proverbial elephant in the room of Indian society as a whole: sexuality and responsible sexual behaviour. It is only when we can talk about sex, consent and boundaries with our children – at home, in schools and wherever else they go to ‘learn’ – sports academy (after all that is where the original ‘locker room’ came from); dance and music schools; hobby centres and the myriad other places we send our privileged children to.
This means working proactively with parents and families to be able to have these conversations. Training teachers, coaches and other adults children are influenced by. Demonising or victimising children takes us nowhere. What we need is safe spaces for healing and reparation. Those who perpetuate misogyny need to realise the implications and change their thought and behaviour. Girls and boys who have been harmed need to be restored their sense of justice through dialogue, conversations, and other restorative practices.
All this will only happen when sex stops being a taboo word and everyone is ready to talk about it.
Enakshi Ganguly is a human rights activist and co-founder of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights and Nicole Rangel is the co-founder of Leher. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own.