The outed Instagram “locker room”, where hundreds of teenage boys from Delhi-NCR’s most accomplished schools allegedly shared pictures of girls their age or less, objectifying their bodies through lewd, demeaning talk, and casually discussed sexual violence, offers a disturbing glimpse into their minds. But this is not the first inkling society or elite schools have had of how brutally young people practice misogyny and shame culture as they grow into sexual awareness, nor will it be the last. For the most part, it is something that is looked away from — perhaps, because even in the “real, grown-up” world, men get away with more serious transgressions, as the #MeToo movement recently uncovered. In this case, too, social media has exposed how talk is not just talk. Language — even if it is below-the-radar gossip, chatter, mockery — can be used to belittle and reduce women to sexualised things, setting them up as targets of “real” violence.
For the ecosystem that surrounds the boys, the challenge is to convince them of the consequences of their behaviour. Parents, schools and other institutions can start by opening a conversation about consent and empathy, about drawing a line between desire and entitlement, and about thinking hard about ways to enforce accountability. This is a hard ask — simply because young people model themselves on behaviour much more than they do on language and sermons.
It might be especially hard to come to terms with the insensitivity of a generation that has grown up with privilege, and that is far more relaxed in terms of sexual mores than any other preceding generation. But a look at this economy of desire and permissiveness reveals an old problem: Without empathy, curiosity and a respect for the other, what seems like sexual exploration and discovery falls into the old rut of power play. Boys continue to make invisible locker rooms, and girls make lists of predators to share anonymously.
Finally, it is best to remember that the internet in India is an overwhelmingly male preserve, and that offensive sexual behaviour is likely to push more women off it. For parents of many girls, pragmatism might dictate that they give up their smartphones or go off social media. But this is also a time for the same ecosystem to stand by them, to act as circuit-breakers between their self-expression and the jolts of shame, sexism and humiliation that the internet can inflict.
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