What does it mean to be a man, say to a teen boy? Or to a young man in his early twenties, out to prove his worth and earn peer respect? The recent Bois Locker Room has put this subject back into focus :  that of toxic masculinity and how it impacts young men. And how stereotyping of male behaviour triggers a different male attitude towards women. Shannon Philip who has studied the ground-level realities in the lives of many young men in Indian society, talks to SheThePeople about sexism inherent in our everyday spaces, from digital timelines to the drawing room.

Philip is an urban sociologist and ethnographer based at the University of Cambridge. He is currently writing a book on Masculinities, Gender Relations and Youth in Urban India based on the PhD research he completed at the University of Oxford.

Why is Indian society so reluctant, when it comes to addressing toxic masculinity?

Indian society, like many societies in the world, is deeply patriarchal with many privileges and power for men and masculinities. In fact, India is so patriarchal, that even Indian women often support and bolster a lot of patriarchal power. Many of the things that define us as ‘Indian’ be it Bollywood, or arranged marriages, or caste or our festivals etc – all of these things often have unequal gender relations weaved through them. So in this context, it is actually very difficult to address masculine power and privilege because it is so normalised around us, it is just a part of our ‘culture’ rather than a problem.

Also Read: Bois Locker Room Has Its Roots In Our Family WhatsApp Groups

Is digital sexism any different from the drawing-room sexism that we are used to seeing in our homes when men interact with each other?

Digital sexism is an extension of drawing-room sexism. Our digital world reflects the many social forms of sexism that go on in our society already. However digital sexism is unique in that it is often anonymous and can amplify sexism of men towards women or other groups. Also, digital sexism introduces new risks and violence to women like cyber-bullying or online abuse. In our more and more digitalising India, I think the violence women will experience online will keep increasing because gendered violence and sexism in our society are not really reducing, but they are changing forms.

Many of the things that define us as ‘Indian’ be it Bollywood, or arranged marriages, or caste or our festivals etc – all of these things often have unequal gender relations weaved through them.

You have done research on young men and their sexist attitude towards women and girls. How common is it for young men to share rape jokes and instigate gang rape, and to try and pass it as casual banter?

Amongst young Indian men, most kinds of sex and sexual acts are ‘secret’ discussions because there is little sexual freedom or sexual equality that young men enjoy in India. For most of them, sex itself is a dirty word and thing, which happens in private and is not talked about. There is no sex positivity or a sense of sex and sexual desire as healthy, normal, or even as something that can bring people close. So in that context, rape jokes and even gang rape are not seen as violence at all, they are examples of what men do to women. Amongst my research participants for example, it was really worrying that they thought women could never ‘enjoy’ sex, and that it was always them as men who had to initiate sex and somehow convince women to have sex with them without family or friends finding out. And these are not poor or uneducated men, my informants are middle-class men going to colleges and working in banks and call centres in Delhi. So sex itself was an unequal thing for most men I talked to and that meant that using some amount of force or coercion on women was normal for them because women apparently always ‘say no’.

bois locker room
Bois locker Room is toxic, but then are our family WhatsApp group chats any better?

What is the understanding of consent among such young men?

Several of my informants who were middle class and fairly well to do and living in Delhi explained to me that ‘na karne ke tarike hote hain ladkiyon ke (girls have ways of saying no).’. By this they thought that when a woman says no to sex, it is not really a no, and that there are some forms of ‘no’ which are actually yes. This becomes extremely dangerous and young men have all kinds of problematic ways of thinking about if a woman is consenting to sex or not, which are extremely worrying.

Also Read: We Need To Stand Up To Casual Sexism For Our Children

Why do so many men feel entitled to access to women and their bodies on the internet?

Amongst young middle-class Indian men in particular, there is so much social, class, caste and gendered privilege, that young men are trained to be entitled and claim their ‘rights’ over so many aspects of our social life. Men are trained and their masculinities are constructed by their families, son preference, dowry practices, caste privilege etc to control women both online and offline. Many of my informants would talk about ‘protecting’ women, which was just another word for really ‘controlling’ women both online and offline which is perfectly normalised for most of them.

Last month, social media raised a fury over the Bois Locker Room incident, when chats of boys allegedly instigating gang rape and sharing lewd pictures, making lewd comments came to light. What’s the trigger, according to you, to such behaviour?

The Bois Locker Room was a one-off incident that came to media attention, but this was not the first nor is it the last. I have been studying such men’s groups for a few years now and even today if you were to enter some of these chat spaces, there are lots of discussions on rape, violence and general sexism. So I think of the Bois Locker Room as only one symptom of the deeper problems we have in India and the way its gender relations are shaping up.

Men are trained and their masculinities are constructed by their families, son preference, dowry practices, caste privilege etc to control women both online and offline – Shannon Philip

A lot of parents are wondering in light of the Bois Locker Room incident, what is it that they are doing wrong when it comes to raising their boys. What are your thoughts?

A lot of parents give different freedoms to their sons and their daughters. Sometimes these are about their ideas of ‘care’ and ‘protection’, but what this ends up doing is creating and maintaining a skewed gender balance. What is also deeply problematic is that parents in India often suppress the sexualities of their children, not allowing men and women to interact freely and have healthy consensual sexual relations with other men or women. Unfortunately, the control of parents does not really stop their children experimenting or developing sexually, but this excessive control does stifle and force sexual growth underground and makes it a taboo activity for young people, both boys and girls. This I think is a deep disservice to their children and their sexual and social development according to me.

Another prominent incident these past few days has been that of a famous YouTuber who said “mithai ki dukan mein le jaunga toh 200 mein bik jaega” to a TikToker while roasting him in a video. When we discuss toxic masculinity, why is homophobia /transphobia absent from the discourse?

I don’t like the idea of ‘toxic masculinity’ because it creates men and their identities in static forms I think. I think men’s identities keep changing and that there are many plural masculinities and not a single ‘toxic masculinity’. In India today, both homophobia and transphobia are a big way in which youth cultures and masculinities are constructed for many men. It is seen as an insult to be a ‘soft man’ or a ‘sweet man’ because ideas of a ‘hard’ and ‘tough’ macho masculine man are normalised for us. So any man who is seen to not be ‘normal’ has to be ridiculed and put down.

In fact, effeminate men or trans persons often challenge our gender ideas and assumptions of ‘man’ and ‘woman’, so many times women too are deeply uncomfortable with transwomen because it challenges their ideas of ‘real women’. Sometimes mothers also dislike ‘effeminate sons’ because they think their sons are not ‘real men’ and need to ‘butch up’ to fulfill their patriarchal roles.

A lot of men tend to let inappropriate remarks and pictures pass, because they fear being shut down, pulled up or outcast by their peers. How crucial is it that men take a stand from within the WhatsApp groups and chatrooms? Or is it a futile exercise that’ll only cause their removal from friends groups?

In India today, we do have more and more men calling out misogyny and sexism both online and offline. I am very encouraged by that. In fact, it was a young Muslim man called Haris Khan who called out the Bois Locker Room case. However for more men to take a stand, we need to make it socially and culturally acceptable for men and women to call out inappropriate, sexist remarks, pictures and acts. In order for something like that, we need more education, media sensitisation and a deeper shift in the way we bring up our boys and girls.

Also Read: TikTok Vs YouTube: How Misogyny Is Repackaged On Social Media

What can be done to change the perception of gender, masculinity and feminity in both women and men?

First and foremost I think we need to call out male privilege and power in India to make it clear that there is an imbalance of power in our society right now. Acknowledging and giving that imbalance a face and an identity – male power and privilege – is the first step in doing something about it. We need a more honest critique of men, all male groups and male culture in organisations, our workplaces, schools, etc so that we can start transforming gender relations and can address some of the deep-rooted biases that women and girls experience. This means power has to be taken away from some men and redistributed to women, girls and other marginalised men in Indian society today and that is not an easy task, but is certainly possible.

Image Credit: Shannon Philip

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