I write to all of you today in anguish and fear in the wake of the “Bois locker room” incident. I am scared as a mother of a six-year-old boy. I am scared for children irrespective of gender. I am afraid that if we don’t act now, a few years later, my son, any of our sons, could be in such a group degrading their female peers.
Parents and teachers need to wake up to two deeply disturbing yet pervasive truths. One is cyberbullying, which is recognised to cause depression, anxiety and extreme stress very similar to real-life stressful events. In the locker room incident, cyberbullying intersects with violence against women, unfortunately also quite familiar in India.
India does a splendid job of telling its women to cover themselves up and make themselves invisible outside their homes. We routinely shame survivors of violence while perpetrators go free. Women are binarised to good women, who don’t cross boundaries thrust upon them, and bad women, who don’t conform, and violence against them is legitimised by framing it as a punishment for their transgressions.
This is also reflected in cyberspace. Outspoken women are natural targets of sexually-charged threats online. Most women can testify to personal experiences of online sexual harassment, sometimes serially. Despite the perpetrators being repeat offenders, the usual recourse left to the victims is to remove themselves from the groups and communities. The perpetrators are seldom held accountable for their actions after harassing multiple women, instead are enabled by benevolent community members, who somehow seem to consider rape threats and jokes to women as affable and harmless fun.
Unless one experiences it first-hand, it is hard to understand the extent of damage relentless virtual harassment can inflict. Women who have irked the religious/nationalist right have suffered sustained violent threats of lynching, rape and death. Trolls usually outcompete each other trying to describe innovative ways deviant women should be mutilated and violated for the opinions they dare to express. By and large, Indians on social media have adapted and learned to take this in their stride. Despite increasing media coverage, actual actions taken against perpetrators are few and far in between. The onus is on women to steer clear of trouble or face the music.
The public outrage in this instance is probably because no one expected educated boys from the best city schools to act like internet trolls. Whether it is a rational assumption will probably stay unasked. There is also some effort to explain away such behaviour as displays of teenage desire. Since sociobiology became fashionable in the 1960s, a lot of research effort was directed to explain violent behaviour by biological determinism. Testosterone, the warrior gene, the super male, all received disproportionate media attention and most were later disproved, either partially or fully, by more careful, controlled research. But in popular consciousness, testosterone became one with violent male aggression, especially if it was sexually fuelled.
Let us explore a few popular myths, and weigh them against factual evidence.
First, educated boys from good families do not abuse women.
All the boys so far connected to the group are from four or five elite schools of Delhi NCR and Noida and purportedly hail from educated, socioeconomically well-to-do families. Contrarily, a large body of evidence suggests social privilege and power confers entitlement and impunity in Indian social structures. The brazen casualness with which sexual violence is bandied around is likely a product of these.
Second, boys will be boys. Or, blame it on testosterone.
Yes, testosterone has been linked with male aggression. Male aggression is a hallmark of primate societies like chimpanzees, our closest ancestors whose social interactions are rife with violence against females by males and alpha dominance. However, genetically speaking, we are equally similar to another group of primates — the bonobos, who have a feminist and egalitarian society. So, the idea that violence is hard-wired in human males is deeply flawed.
Behaviour is determined by an interaction of biology and environment. About 12,000 years of cultural and cognitive evolution has to be accounted for when it comes to social behaviour.
Adolescence alone cannot explain the callousness that is evident in the screenshots. These adolescents could not have been insulated from the media coverage around high-profile rape cases or violent crimes committed against Indian women. That they converse so casually about sexual violence and express such rabid misogyny, when conversations are exploding all around about gender and consent is even more alarming.
Third, what is the problem with a bit of good harmless fun?
Wrong question. Here are a few better ones. How is brutal violence supposed to elicit fun, and how exactly is it harmless? Has anyone tried to assess the trauma of the women whose pictures have been used? Where does this sort of entitlement on female bodies come from? What makes one so utterly and wilfully ignorant of consent? How can someone imagine brutally violating a peer he might have known for months and derive pleasure out of it? Have we normalised violence against women to this extent that we now add planning of gangrapes on women to acceptable discussion topics in Boys’ Locker Rooms? Is this how we plan to foster fraternities and coming of age rituals?
As parents, how do we halt this toxic masculinity that is devouring our boys, and through them causing irreparable damage to girls? We cannot simply mark the boys involved as deviants, mark them for punishment, and move on. Every major rape case in India is followed by a public outcry to hang the rapist. And hung they have. Rape accused been killed in police encounters. Yet data has consistently shown that the death penalty does nothing to reduce violence against women anywhere, anytime. Since India allowed the death penalty in case of rapes/gang rapes involving minors, they have been rather liberally doled out in lower courts.
However, the recent incident is yet another demonstration, the problem does not end with hanging the “othered” rapist, because rape lives within us. Our society enables it and permits it, and passive silence strengthens rape culture. This is rape culture, full and frontal.
Two approaches are urgently needed. Gender and sex education should be made part of the primary school curriculum. Schools need to urgently conduct cyber-bullying, gender sensitisation and gendered-abuse workshops with parents, teachers and students regularly. I entreat especially the parents of boys to abolish the sense of entitlement which is common to every Indian male child. Rather than telling our girls to stay home and cover themselves up, tell our boys not to rape. We should teach children the meaning of consent. All of the above will still fail if parents do not lead by example. Indian men have largely not grown up witnessing any form of gender equity, rather the opposite. Children learn by imprinting and modelling behaviours they see in adults around them. It is crucial to break gender stereotypes if respect across genders is to be fostered in children. Stereotyping creates precisely the hierarchy in the family, where the position of one gender subsumes the other.
My sincere hope, as a university educator, citizen and parent is that we will take our share of responsibility for this collective failure. We need to act now, nudge policymakers, and schools, to ensure that our children receive gender education from early on. Unless we acknowledge the flourishing rape culture all around, safety and dignity will be a long way off for Indian women.
This article appeared in the print edition of May 13, 2020, under the title ‘Dear fellow parents and teachers’. The writer is assistant professor of psychology, Ashoka University
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