Bois Locker Room: Look deeper, don’t point fingers, there are bigger issues at hand
What used to happen in the physical premises of locker rooms is now getting a social-media reiteration. Hundreds of boys, based out of New Delhi, have been exchanging messages about girls their own age, sharing pictures and plans of harassment, rape and victimisation in an Instagram group. The cases are widely reported but most of the reports aren’t asking some important and critical questions. The question is not what can be done to stop such conversations among the teenagers but how are we addressing the root of the problem. I have to point out with some sadness that as a society we are terribly ill-equipped to address this in the depth and the scope that is required.
Apart from ensuring that these boys are taken to task in the way that is right for them, it is also very important to support these children to be able to confront their own limitations and limiting beliefs about gendered roles.
As an Organisational Consultant, I have worked with schools on the culture of pastoral care. This has given me a textured understanding of the kind of masculinities and stereotyping that are condoned as normal in schools. In schools that are for girls and those that are for boys, there is a culture that is homophobic and sexist. And this culture is drawn from a wider network of such practices that are relevant at home and in the society as a whole. Why am I drawing our attention to homophobia here? I am doing this with a great deal of thought and a deep appreciation for what goes on under the radar of our consciousness, in creating the culture where the worst aspects of masculinity and heterosexism are paraded with pride.
In schools that are for girls and those that are for boys, there is a culture that is homophobic and sexist. And this culture is drawn from a wider network of such practices that are relevant at home and in the society as a whole.
Cultures that are homophobic are also ridden by the need to demonstrate their heterosexuality, often in ways that are demeaning to women too, ways that are heterosexist. This might mean for girls’ school that they treat themselves as objects to be groomed for boys and for boys’ school that they consider it alright to be aggressive in their demonstration of virility targeted at girls. In addition, those that cannot demonstrate their heterosexuality are threatened with being ostracised in a myriad of painful ways – their friends may be labelled homosexuals, their affections may be tarnished as only sexual, their capabilities may be overshadowed by their unacceptability. In this context, being homophobic and being sexist can be two sides of the same coin. And so when we address homophobia, we allow ourselves to embrace a better world where everyone is acceptable.
The kind of bravado and virility demonstrated by both girls and boys in schools often ensure that they will not be termed homosexuals.
Denying desires and replacing it with bravado are a classic case of ‘reaction formation’, a sophisticated way in which we express our repressed desires by enacting their exact opposite. It means that young people may negate their own desires for homosexual encounters by being virulently opposed to it and demonstrating their hyper-masculinity, as if to prove to themselves that they are not homosexuals. A country and culture that opposes homosexuality creates the kind of environment needed for this kind of acting out. It is the symptom of a sick society that is unable to accept the real experiences of being human.
A country and culture that opposes homosexuality creates the kind of environment needed for this kind of acting out. It is the symptom of a sick society that is unable to accept the real experiences of being human.
A great example of this is in the recent depiction of a boy’s locker room that has been haunting me since I first watched ‘Made In Heaven’. This is a Netflix series that is now sufficiently old enough for me to extrapolate from the story without spoiling it for others who have not watched it. In the locker room, Karan betrays Nawab because of the disgust with which Karan’s mother responds to his love for Nawab, having caught them red-handed. Not only does Karan betray him, he also bullies him publicly in front of other school boys. In this act, he disconnects himself from his friend Nawab but significantly, also disconnects himself from his emotional truth that he loves Karan. Karan then goes through life, unable to have a committed relationship and finally vocalises that he has only ever truly loved his childhood sweetheart Nawab. There is a loss of love and a loss of self-connection, in exchange for bravado.
I am here not implying that everyone is homophobic or that everyone is sexist. I am not interested in creating a homogenous picture of reality. In fact, my intention is to accept and celebrate the heterogenous ways in which we are all human. It is a well-grounded assertion that homophobia informs sexism and vice versa. We cannot address one without addressing the other. Both homophobia and sexism are inherent in the creation of toxic masculinity and hyper-masculinity. Scenes like the ones between Karan and Nawab are repeated every day in our world where people are not accepted to be who they are and are instead expected to fit some norms. These norms are put forward by home, school, workplaces, legal frameworks and society as a whole. These norms of heterosexism are anti-wellbeing.
I am not interested in creating a homogenous picture of reality. In fact, my intention is to accept and celebrate the heterogenous ways in which we are all human.
Heterosexism is especially bad for boys who are heterosexual. It impacts greatly the capacity of boys and men from truly being comfortable in their own skin, with the range of softness and hardness, with their desire for all kinds of love, touch and affirmations, whatever these might be. When young boys suddenly do not want hugs, or see toughness as requiring emotional ruggedness, unfeelingness, these are things we must notice as these are the ways that the norms of roughness change the shape of our interactions.
Homophobia and sexism create a context for young boys and men where they need to actively disconnect from their feelings. This prevents them for feeling anything for the others that they victimise but significantly, it also prevents them from feeling their own pain and vulnerability. This is a grave loss and one that we do not mourn enough.
In the lockdown, we have had instances of violence against women escalate in different ways. Just last night I had a call from a woman who shared that she was at the verge of taking her own life as a result of the implosion happening at home and the severe criticism she has been facing from her husband. She explained that she was being told that her milk was not good enough as their child was not becoming fat and also that she is a lazy mother. I had to work with her for nearly an hour to ensure that her suicidal ideation was not linked to an actual plan and had to alert relevant parties. I also realised that this may be linked also to post-partum depression, which again I see as linked also to patriarchal arrangements after childbirth. It was difficult to sleep after that call but I had done what I could.
This locker room expose is another example of the same underbelly of our normal social world. Apart from being disgusted, appalled and stuck in disbelief, we need to clear together the foundational interstices of exclusions and lack of ethics in recognising others as fully human. Only through this may we proceed to address this and other horrors of being human.
Author is a leadership consultant with a PhD in Emotion in Organisations