Shock and horror are the primary emotions being felt by parents and educators alike in light of the chain of recent events set off by the now infamous Bois Locker Room controversy. Understandably so, but this is neither the first such occurrence, nor will it be the last—for the simple reason that society’s response is, as always, a classic example of missing the forest for the trees. It has raised many ethical concerns, relating to gender violence, rape culture, cyberbullying, juvenile justice, and privacy. What should have been handled by the law has, however, turned into a media trial of children whose lives and self-concepts may be forever tainted by this incident. The central question on the minds of parents is, “How do I protect my child?”
It is critical that we realise the answer lies not in ignoring, but in very seriously engaging with the issues raised.
In the first place, this entails comprehensive self-reflection. The most fundamental social and behavioural lessons that children internalise are learned at home, watching, listening to and emulating family members—their first role models. We’re all aware of this, and our eagerness to remember it when our children ‘succeed’ is matched only by the alacrity with which we forget it when they ‘fail’. If a child exhibits violent tendencies, whether in general or towards members of the opposite sex, then the values we expect the child to carry have not been instilled. Why is that? What kinds of discussions are being had about violence, power, gender, respect, consent, etc at home? What kind of language are we using in these discussions? What kind of language are we ignoring?
Are these discussions being had at all?
The likely answer is no, and that isn’t surprising. Traditionally, our culture has not promoted discussions of this nature, at least not openly. The eternal irony is that, while topics like sex, sexuality, crime and violence are treated as off-limits in most households, you’d have to be sleepwalking through life to avoid them in any other context!
Every day, in every way, we are bombarded with sexual imagery and objectification. The realms of film, television, entertainment and advertising can be trusted to sexualise literally anything – I grew up confused by the erotic values of mango juice (“Aam Sutra”), and am now a grown woman confused by the seductive qualities of vanilla ice cream (“Shamelessly Vanilla – Put anything on me”). It seems absurd that this most pervasive of visual themes in the world that we all share is one that we refuse to acknowledge or broach in discussions with our children. And the same applies to the language we use on a daily basis and the content of our jokes—this stuff is real and pretending it doesn’t exist will only push children to reach their own conclusions about it, without any guidance.
The danger, of course, stems from the fact that 99% of these jokes, and casual language, and media content, is latently problematic. Misogyny is the language of our patriarchal reality, and leaving it unaddressed is the best way of propagating that reality. A simple exercise conducted with students, in which they were asked to list all the abusive words they knew (in any language) and sort them according to whether they pertained to a male body, a female body, or both, led to the discovery that most of the words were associated with the female. The unavoidable conclusion is that our everyday language treats women disrespectfully—internalising this everyday language translates to internalising violence against women. This violence is often found hidden in the jokes we think are ‘harmless fun’. How much homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, casteism, classism and ableism is excused because it wears the garb of humour?
Freud said that jokes are expressions of unconscious desires that are unacceptable to society. The solution isn’t to police and penalise. The solution is to talk. Unless we start talking about these things, we will continue to produce groups like Bois Locker Room, born of repression, entitlement, and a severe lack of understanding. The solution is to reflect on how we are talking, what we are talking about, and what kinds of role models our society is providing its children with. The solution is not to create a world of restrictions, negations and prescriptions, but to create a safe and non-judgemental environment in which children are able to bring their natural curiosities and concerns to us and we can grow with them.
Bottom line: sex has to be discussed. Not just the act but the complications and the nuances that come with it, of consent, of slut-shaming, of unhealthy relationships, of pleasure and pain and their interconnectedness. There is a plethora of information and guides available for age appropriate discussions around this. If you leave it all to the children, don’t blame them when they get it wrong, especially in the age of social media.
Also pertinent in the age of social media is the question of privacy, now enshrined as a fundamental right in this country. Rigorously monitoring the content that your child is exposed to is only feasible until puberty hits—teenagers require privacy to inform their sense of self as separate from the parents’, which is an important part of identity development. But in a time when more personal information is being shared publicly than ever before, privacy is also a more complicated idea than ever before. A discussion on the fine line between private and public becomes paramount. You don’t need to become tech savvy overnight to protect your children from the dark side of social media. All you need to understand is that anything sent out of a device is no longer private. Although privacy is now constitutionally protected, we do not have a framework for safeguarding our personal information; the law is murky at best and still in the process of being formed. Technology develops faster than the regulations that keep it in check.
What we can do is help our children understand this. It’s important to convey that just because social media allows a modicum of anonymity, it does not mean that what we say and do on a public platform can not come back to us. A discussion and understanding of what’s legal and what is not would also be helpful. For instance, the POCSO Act makes it illegal to share images of children that are sexual in nature, ergo, any child doing so is committing a juvenile offence that is punishable by law.
We, the adults, need to accept that we too are handicapped—after all, we didn’t get to have these discussions growing up. How can those who have never been taught…teach? How can we provide safety and stability in a world that is constantly changing? Well, by embracing the uncertainty that comes with it and by being clear about our priorities going forward. Homes are meant to be safe spaces but they can only be so when there is an understanding that the environment is designed to protect, not punish. Safety lies in knowing you are seen, heard, and valued – a difficult task as not everyone has had the luxury of experiencing this. Yet we must find a way to provide it for our children.
The author is a child psychologist