#BoysLockerRoom: old story, new outrage

Every once in a while, there is an eruption. We saw it in December 2019 when a bunch of 14-year-old boys at a ‘top-ranked IB school’ in Mumbai went on a WhatsApp rant. Transcripts of the chat ran into hundreds of pages and included ‘locker room banter’ about rape and gang-rape. Eight boys were reportedly suspended and the school was never named in the press.

A year earlier, in February 2018 there was another ‘shocking’ incident involving two students at another ‘top’ school. The boy aged 12 threatened to have his teacher and her daughter raped. The other, 13, emailed two of his ‘hot’ teachers, “I feel like f****** you right now.” I spoke to the school authorities and was told that they were taking the incident ‘very seriously’. It was later reported that both the teacher and her daughter left the school.

And, of course, there’s the MMS scandal so infamous that has its own Wikipedia page. That story was broken by my former colleague Anupam Thapa back in 2004, before the brave new era of social media gave your garden-variety misogynist the gift of anonymity. An online platform tried to sell the clip of a schoolgirl performing fellatio on her boyfriend leading to the usual outrage and even some arrests but in the end everyone got on with their lives, nobody kept track of what happened to the schoolgirl. Bollywood cashed in with a movie on the event.

The current outrage in India over #BoisLockerRoom tells you only one thing: the medium may change, but the abuse remains the same. Arrests have been made but nobody is counting on systemic change.

Two questions come to mind. The first is the role of peer pressure. Surely, at least one individual in this tribal group was uncomfortable but played along for fear of appearing ‘uncool’.

Don’t forget, it took a brave whistle-blower to bring #BoisLockerRoom down, which leads to the second question: Just how many such groups are there, the ones that slip under the radar and carry on business as usual? These aren’t boys saying they want some girl to be their girlfriend. These aren’t boys saying they want to have sex with someone. These are kids saying they want to rape someone, someone they know, perhaps study with. This is not a bunch of errant kids. This is a bunch of kids who need help. The suicide of one of them tells you how much and how urgently. Locker room victims aren’t only girls and women. The ‘banter’ can singe all.

Sure, it’s tempting to pick on the ones who get caught and point fingers at their upbringing, values, family backgrounds, schools. But are they the only ones? “We have to figure out a way to resist pointing at individuals who behave badly and shouting ‘monster’,” points out journalist Rega Jha on Twitter. What is needed is the “less thrilling, more urgent, year-round work of dismantling structures that create and reward monstrous behavior.”

Or what women’s groups have been arguing for decades: mindset change.

Toxic ideas of masculinity and what it means to be a ‘man’ come frothing from media, from mainstream cinema, from ads, from popular music, from parents, elder siblings, peers. We are all complicit. Social media only makes the messaging faster and more efficient.

Where is the counter-narrative? Who will provide it? Or should we just resign ourselves to more depravity and wait for the next incident before we begin our 24-hour-outrage-cycle again.

The custodians of our culture insist that sex education has no place in a civilization as great as ours. They need to get their heads out of the sand. Kids are having sex and fantasizing about sex. Let’s stop pretending.  

What’s absent are ideas of consent and women’s autonomy. What’s missing is the conversation between parents and kids, schools and students. “Schools are just not willing to talk about this,” says Mini Saxena, lawyer and founder of The Consent Project that seeks to break the silence around consent. In the workshops she has held, students have opened up about their experiences. In semi-urban areas, for instance, children speak about abuse at the hands of a parent or a neighbor. At Delhi university colleges, the anxieties tend to centre around online harassment, revenge porn and sexting, she says.

The kids are confused about consent and Saxena has to spell it out. She is not asking for it because of what she’s wearing. A smile is not an invitation to something else. Please ask. Please wait for a verbal yes. When they hear her, she says, they get the message.

If there is a problem with the term ‘sex education’, call it something else, consent education, or respect building. Delhi government schools won acclaim for their happiness curriculum, it’s time to come up with another innovative curriculum, this time on consent. A curriculum that begins in the first grade — no, you may not grab your friend’s pencil and, yes, teacher, it’s a good idea to begin your class by asking: shall we learn something new today?

In 2007 a government survey found that 53% of children have experienced sexual abuse. We did nothing. That must end now.

We are in a crisis. And even as individuals we can play a role. Tell WhatsApp Uncle that his ‘joke’ about wives is not funny; leave family and school groups that continue to share them. Understand we cannot be selective in our outrage. When you invite a man accused of sexual harassment by multiple women to your conference or give him space in your edit pages, you are allowing misogyny to thrive.

There is no piecemeal solution. If you want to get out of the boys locker room, you will have to burn it down.

Published in FirstPost on May 9, 2020

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