The Bois Locker room case is just one of many such or more heinous offences online. This article explores the gendered and gender-neutral laws of India; the worrisome trends of cyber-crimes on digital domains and the proactive and innovative approach to finding solutions by India’s Supreme Court, in such cases of offences against women and children. The primary thrust of the article is to spotlight victim rights. It sets out methodologies to deter such crimes and the role of Courts going forward, in ensuring sensitive, speedy, effective and true justice to victims.
There was sad awakening with the Bois Locker Room case – a coming of age for parents! – For them to get a reality check through a peek into the lives of teenagers. Apart from the morality or propriety angles, the legality and consequences of such acts; the commencement of criminal proceedings; the arrests – all of these must have certainly shaken them out of ignorance or complacency. Subsequent events including the news report that the heinous messages were just a test for character does not dilute the seriousness of the expose. What was more surprising before this development was the narrative about the Girls’ Locker Room versus the Bois Locker room. These narratives be they articles, discussions or tweets tend to play down the seriousness of cases such as the Bois Locker Room incident and more disturbing trends in offences against women and children on digital platforms.  

Gender parity has been the call to arms for women globally on many counts and this continues with targets still remaining a distant dream. Parity from birth to education, work, right to livelihood / earnings, equal living conditions and opportunities are still a struggle for women, whether the purportedly beleaguered male contingent wishes to accept reality or not. 

Objectification of women also is a reality and that it continues on screen or even by women themselves does not dilute criminality of acts. To claim that such objectification on screen lends itself to acts such as those on ‘Bois Locker Rooms’ is untenable and akin to the misconceived ‘revealing clothes’ lead to rape argument.

Law & Parity    

Gendered demarcations making a “man” clearly liable, permeates various offences, including of Sexual Harassment, rape, gang rape, outraging modesty (of a woman), disrobing (a woman), voyeurism or stalking in the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (“IPC”).

Law meanders into gender neutrality making all liable, under special enactments such as The Information Technology Act, 2000 (as amended) (“IT Act”) and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (“POCSO”), for offences of violation of privacy, publishing or transmission of obscene, sexually explicit or child sexual abuse material or sexual harassment of children.

Under extant laws, even creating text messages or images to depict children in an indecent or obscene manner amounts to an offence. It is therefore not just objectification when rape or gang rape is encouraged. Obscenity on the other hand is subjective, with community standards being the threshold now and not Victorian standards of the Hicklin test. 

Increasingly Gory Crimes on Digital Platforms

Exploration of sexuality, including through sexting or recording sexual engagements are par for the course with today’s digitally enabled locker rooms. It is when such exploration crosses clear boundaries of legality that law kicks in. 

The Bois locker room incident is merely indicative of more sleaze and criminal content lying submerged in the murky unreported and suppressed world including revenge porn or use of recordings / pictures, either consensually or surreptitiously captured, to threaten victims to accede to illegal demands; circulating rape and gang rape imagery / child abuse content; using innocent pictures of children on dedicated child abuse groups for lecherous comments; and sharing morphed imagery. The myth of digital anonymity seems to have added to depravity. 

Victims’ fear of stigma and trust deficit – be it lack of sensitive or careful handling of such content or in questioning victims by police or the reality of lengthy investigations or court proceedings, lead to denial of justice on one hand, as victims hesitate to seek redress and thereby embolden criminals.

Awareness – Of Crimes & Punishments, As Deterrents

Despite studies pointing to peer bullying of children, their roles, as perpetrators is ignored. Even the shock expressed upon the Bois locker case hitting headlines appears naive. 

Youngsters own digital domains – their dexterity in handling technology has made adults divest their authority roles. With this, the right to regulate or dictate usage of technology also stands divested. 

Parental responsibility however does not stand diluted merely because their authority is. Inculcating moral and legal hygiene in youngsters, still vests with them. Educational institutions also play a key role. Blocking use of devices within premises is not the answer. Ensuring better understanding of the digital domain, awareness of crimes and punishments and consequences of criminal acts on the future of children and youngsters will be a more effective method to deter wrongful or criminal actions.  

Social media and content hosting platforms and chat apps have their legal, ethical and moral responsibilities cut out and responsible technology and encouraging responsible usage are one small step in the right direction. 

Whilst ‘objectification’ does not stand on par with threats or encouragement of rape or gang rape, both reflect moral depravity and, in some cases, can be offences in themselves. For instance, sexting by a person of their own sexually explicit imagery could also be a crime. Morphing of pictures with nude or sexually explicit content is a crime.  A preventive methodology, which I have espoused, through my initiative cybersaathi.org, is to empower and ensure awareness of laws and consequences amongst youngsters so that they may be peer mentors. Apart from peer mentoring working better than lectures from adults, the menace of peer-pressure and need to appear ‘cool’ resulting in child offenders or victims may also reduce with such awareness. Finally knowing that jail terms may follow criminal acts and there is no anonymity online would certainly deter youngsters from indulging in criminal actions.

Pro – active Courts & Victim Rights

Responsible technology and its usage are just protective methodologies. The need of the hour is for revival of confidence and trust in systems – for with such trust will come courage to seek remedies available to victims in law. The trend till now however has been for victims to feel more victimized through the legal processes and for accused to believe they can take advantage of the highly lopsided laws favouring them.

It is imperative that law now demonstrates itself to be effective and speedy on one hand and sensitive to victims, their needs, issues and concerns and address them to strengthen trust. This is imperative, as law is expected to act both as a deterrent and as the enforcer. 

Let us take a couple of illustrative cases to demonstrate how the justice delivery system can retrieve trust.

In Re: Prajwala Letter dt.18.2.2015. ((2018) 15 SCC 583) the Supreme Court initiated consensual process inter alia for use of AI technology to alleviate the travails of victims of child sexual abuse content and rape / gang rape imagery being uploaded or shared online. A lot of proactive developments came out of this case including an online site for filing of cybercrimes cases (cybercrime.gov.in).

Similarly, in the case of Nipun Saxena v. UOI ((2018 SCC OnLine SC 2772), the Supreme Court set out guidelines on handling of the sensitive content that will form part of case records in cases of rape and of offences against children being registered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO). This is a huge step forward in understanding victim rights and perspectives. Cases, such as these, have turned the spotlight on victim rights – a much needed and welcome move.

Sensitivity amongst police and judiciary when handling victims; speedy disposals of investigations and trials; giving assurance to victims and their families that their rights will not be violated further and that justice will indeed be done and seen to be done, are all trust factors, which our justice delivery systems have to encourage to ensure true justice. These will go a long way in encouraging reporting of crimes and in securing justice. For victims to regain trust and to receive justice, it is imperative that the justice delivery mechanism is demonstrably active, speedy, sensitive and effective. 

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The Writer is an Advocate, Supreme Court and Founder – Cyber Saathi (www.cybersaathi.org)

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