Over the past two days, Twitter in India has been buzzing about an unsettling incident regarding a private chat group called "bois locker room" on the social media platform Instagram. The group was being used to share morphed pictures of their minor female classmates; along with lewd comments body shaming them and discussing gang-rape.
The #boyslockerroom incident is an example of an endemic societal issue - 'rape culture'. Such a culture normalizes and even justifies sexual violence, including rape, in our societies. It is underpinned and perpetuated by harmful myths and gender stereotypes. Groups like "bois locker room" (and there are many!) perpetuate a misogynistic culture of apathy, impunity and victim-blaming and shaming.
After #boyslockerroom trended for a whole day on Twitter and the story began to get noticed by media and state authorities, a rebuttal began to form online under the trend #girlslockerroom where screenshots were shared of similar groups in which girls had shared photos, body-shaming and objectifying boys and girls.
Some of the #girlslockerroom screenshots had the names of the girls who had first exposed the "bois locker room" chat, most likely in an attempt to show that these girls were 'not all innocent'. While it is true that irrespective of gender, any individual can be objectified, face sexual harassment and violence, the reality is that it is often an uneven scale, tipping unfavourably towards womxn.
Moreover, this mutual objectification that has been made public on social media over the past few days reflects the immediate need for comprehensive sex education, to raise awareness about consent, and address the problematic normalization of supposed 'locker room talk'.
Rape culture is deeply entrenched in our society. It is present in the way we think, speak, and act. While contextually situations may vary, rape culture is always rooted in patriarchal beliefs, power, and control. It creates the social environment that allows sexual violence to be justified, and continues the cycle of gender inequalities and constricting attitudes about gender and sexuality.
As mentioned above, one of the initial tweets on #girlslockerroom used the screenshots of girls objectifying men to justify the comments made in the "bois locker room" chat group, claiming that 'the girls weren't very pure and thus deserved what happened to them'.
Unsurprisingly, this is not an uncommon response to those who speak up about sexual harassment or violence in any form anywhere in the world. This form of character assassination of women is often a common tactic used by perpetrators and enablers to silence and intimidate women, leading to self-censorship and eventually preventing them from reporting and taking legal measures. In fact, the last central government survey in 2015-16 indicated that 76 per cent of the women who faced physical or sexual violence never informed anybody, let alone reporting it.
Another troubling aspect of the #girlslockeroom trend is its 'trolling' nature. With 15,000+ tweets formulated within a day, this appears to be a coordinated and targeted attack against the young girls who have spoken up. This form of online violence against women who speak out is not unprecedented.
In January this year, Amnesty International India released a report which indicated that while one in five tweets sent to renowned Indian women politicians were sexist or misogynistic, one in seven was abusive or problematic. If women in power have to face such abuse, what are the implications for young girls who have grown up in the era of #MeToo?
While reducing any individual to the sum of their body, both sides of the conversation demonstrate regressive notions of gender and sexuality and show us the failings of the societal structure under which boys and girls are raised. The conversation of #girlslockerroom alludes to shame and archaic conceptions of culture and gender expression, the screenshots posted in #boyslockerroom show the casual discussion of sexual violence. Both are troubling to varying degrees (where one side has alluded to a grave crime) and both need to be addressed.
It was not long ago that three men were executed for their role in the horrific Nirbhaya gang-rape that happened in Delhi in 2012. It is in this very same city that high schoolers have casually discussed gang-raping a fellow student without fearing the consequences. This is indicative of a need to address sexual violence and the normalization of rape culture through preventive mechanisms rather than retributive ones.
The road to addressing the issue of violence against women is riddled with obstacles. Survivors have taken matters into their own hands and seek justice by publicly stepping forward to speak out against these abuses of their human rights; this has often resulted in backlash and suppression of their voices. The path is particularly murky in this digital age, where media and information are instantly shareable - leading to a rise in gendered abuse in unprecedented ways. The rapidly changing nature of digital platforms makes it difficult to address these situations without pointed and meaningful intervention.
In this case, what is most promising is that young women decided to speak up for themselves, breaking centuries of systemic taboo and stigma that has accompanied discussions of sexual violence. It is also promising that authorities are paying attention to the issues raised in the case of #boyslockerroom. However, this is not just a matter of justice, but a conversation that we as a society need to have.
This incident has given us something to reflect on how we discuss sex, sexuality and bodies. Now more than ever, the ambit of sex education needs to be expanded, there is a need to prioritize the social and emotional aspects of sex, sexuality and consent through comprehensive sex education in schools. It is only through open and honest conversation about these topics that the toxic culture that encourages men to view women as passive objects can be addressed. We also need to do everything in our individual and collective power to foster an environment where all survivors are not afraid of speaking up and are taken seriously when they report.
We, as a society, have several choices before us, do we continue to propagate old-fashioned gendered views on the next generation or do we take a stand against it? Do we choose to believe the victim, or blame them? Do we participate in a rape culture or do we challenge it?
The choice is ours.
By Soumya Bhat, a digital campaign strategist at Amnesty International India.
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