Teenage Wasteland: How Boys Locker Rooms form the bottom tier of rape culture
As the Boys Locker Room trend blows up on social media, it dredged up an afternoon that was seared into my memory and formed the cornerstone of a lot of my intimacy issues with some of the boys I dated as a teenager. I was 13ish, reading Eragon I think, when my elder sister – an alum of my school – called me into our room to discuss “something very concerning.” I trotted in, completely unsuspecting of the fact that my whole life as a cheery and boisterous teen – and my self-image – was about to be tainted by what I later discovered was a phenomenon called being slut-shamed.
“It’s been brought to my attention that you are the new ‘school slut’? Some boys you made out with decided to kiss and tell,” she told me, partly disapproving, partly disappointed. I told her that I hadn’t so much as locked pinkies with the classmate I was having a stormy MTNL-sponsored relationship with at the time, but that was besides the point. Being slut-shamed for kissing a boy is out of line, but what was equally infuriating was featuring in the lust-filled fever dreams of teenage boys.
12 years on when I fired up my twitter and probed into the Boys Locker Room trend, I was crestfallen that all the social media-led interventions, capital punishment awarded to rape convicts and the knee-jerk encounter-killings of undertrial rapists have not been consequential enough in cleaning up these cesspools and creating a single safe space for women – not even young girls, not even in their schools.
A flawed but necessary MeToo for the teenage soul: How Boys Locker Rooms form the bottom tier of rape culture
For those of you who missed the expose that could potentially bring about the MeToo of the teenage world – a few instagram influencers like Aashna Sharma and @Anuvaa posted screenshots from from a group titled “Bois locker room,” sent to them by a whistleblower. The group’s members are said to be belonging to prominent schools in Delhi. The conversation was initially swapping pictures of mostly underage girls saved from their Facebook and Instagram, accompanied by explicit lewd comments on the girls’ bodies and graphic descriptions of what the boys would like to do to them.
As this gained traction, mass panic spread through the group of boys who were named and their social circles – which also constituted girls – and invoked frenzied reactions that were even more problematic than their actions. The fiery teens, rather than being remorseful, started threatening violence. One going to the extent of trying to orchestrate a kidnapping and gang-rape – and belting out ideas like morphing more pictures, directed at the influencers who posted the stories and anyone who shared them. But to their horror, screenshots of that conversation were leaked as well. Some of the boys immediately changed their handles or deleted their accounts, some apologised, but most of them were too busy trying to find ways to skirt the consequences and exact revenge. Over the span of the day, several more such groups sprang up as if to register their protest against being held accountable for their actions – symptomatic yet again of the raw toxic masculinity that pervades this demographic.
The screenshot doing the rounds where a teenaged boy from Delhi is trying to orchestrate a sexual assault is unconnected to the Bois Locker Room chats. It has further come to light that the handle in the chat doing all the planning belonged to a girl who was deliberately trying to do a “character test” on her other male friends on the group, but the boys, thankfully, did not indulge the idea. Someone, however, released the screenshots and they got bundled up with the other screengrabs of the conversation on the Bois Locker Room group chat and the clarification came from the parties involved days later. However, adolescent boys have been pulled up for such activities in the past – in December last year, eight boys were suspended from an IB school in Mumbai for being part of a similar group that spoke of their female classmates using sexually explicit and often violent language.
‘Manning Up’ Really?
Teen boys bond over talking about girl classmates – and women in general – in disgusting terms that dehumanise them and reduce them to a sum of their genitals and breasts all too often. This ‘locker room talk’ – a euphemistic, reductive term gifted to us with condescension and impunity by the führer of the free world – pervades every academic and co-curricular space where teenage boys get together. It’s viewed as a rite of passage into manhood and is dismissed as a manifestation of puberty and hormones all too quickly. The way they violate these women in their imaginations comes to be trivialised.
Radhika Chandrasekaran, a clinical psychologist and arts-based therapist at The Gateway School of Mumbai, a school for students with learning challenges, says that adolescent boys make such problematic sexual expressions owing to a host of factors, like home environment, long-term film and media exposure, socio-economic environments, past experiences (more so if those are sexual or violent). “All of these also inspire the derogatory terminology. The general suppression of sexuality in most Indian societies can lead to repressed feelings. Biological factors like higher testosterone can cause more aggressive behaviours in adolescent boys especially. It doesn’t often start like this though, it can be quite innocent and there’s usually a positive feedback loop that contributes to escalation. When adolescents find mutual validation for their thoughts and actions within their peers, these subcultures thrive. Besides, one normally goes on to social media subconsciously seeking peer approval so while one is already in that mind-space, the positive affirmations they receive on these chats for sharing content that members end up appreciating also contributes to the sustenance of these subcultures. Social disapproval plays a huge role in inhibiting inappropriate behaviours. But more the privacy, lesser the inhibition- hence the privacy afforded by these forums also make it feel like a safe space to make these aggressive assertions of their sexuality,” she states.
Therefore, while I did expect the MeToo wave to sweep other industries beyond media, academia and the arts before it reaches Indian teens, this is where the reckoning ought to begin. But it will take many more sensitive and sensitised young whistleblowers to muster the chops to do the right thing rather than wanting to be “one of the bros,” for it to amount to any actual attitudinal change amongst their peers.
However, Aanchal Narang, a Mumbai-based therapist who works with several young adults and has also been a QACP (Queer Affirmative Counselling Practice) trainer at Mariwala Health Initiative, says that naming and shaming may not be the best modus operandi to carry out this intervention, especially with respect to the younger boys in the group that were outed. “After this social media ambush, the backlash they will receive is disproportionate. MeToo was a movement as a final resort to take down powerful men who are otherwise extremely protected by societal hierarchical structures, but was the legal route explored first to tackle these young miscreants? Our reactions tend to be punitive rather than reformative. If our goal was to turn these kids into an example but not to change their mindsets – we’ve succeeded. But who will take responsibility for the repercussions on the mental health of the boys who have been outed?” she opines.
Schools And Skirt Length
Having said that, she does state that letting these behaviours continue unabated is simply not an option, given the prevalence of this toxicity. Every girlfriend I rang up when I read about this concurred that there was some manifestation of the Boys Locker Room within their schools as well. Another recurring revelation was that the authorities either looked the other way or abetted it by participating in the sexualisation of young school girls themselves – asking young girls to wear “slacks” underneath their school uniforms, slut-shaming them for the length of their skirts – all of it implying that the onus was on girls to cover up in order to not be sexualised.
My school teachers constantly pulled me up for the length of my uniform and even revelled in making snarky remarks about it every so often when they saw how it gained them social currency and validation in the classroom. This chastising only served to fan the rumours and exacerbate the “school slut” legacy, modelled in its entirety on boys being gross with their imaginations and teachers appeasing them. While I chose not to be fazed by the objectification and managed to have a fulfilling stint in school despite the toxicity, it did have one insidious consequence – I internalised that shame. The year after, it led to intimacy issues and I wouldn’t kiss my boyfriend as much as a year into dating, because at a subconscious level, I was trying to overcompensate for the impression that I am too sexual, or sexually available. However, I found an articulation for these instincts I had invariably cultivated much, much later.
A lot of young girls live with the trauma of being bullied in this manner for years, and it spills on to their lives in far-reaching ways. “What the boys don’t realise is that they might laugh about something momentarily and move on, but the girls they target would live with the psychological implications of being violated for much, much longer. Many girls would later hesitate in expressing themselves and their sexuality openly, many could develop intimacy issues, many may lose major counts of body-confidence and body-positivity and even develop trust issues. The trauma could chase them for years,” says Narang.
We tend to dismiss these patterns of objectification, writing it off as ‘just a phase’ – except that most of the boys don’t quite end up growing out of it.
They could grow up to find themselves anywhere on the spectrum with Mukesh Singh (one of the rapists of Nirbhaya) on one end and internet trolls who call outspoken, opinionated women “randis” on the other.
You cannot solve for rape without solving for rape culture first – and as is evidenced heavily through this debacle, young boys who could have been saved from themselves, unfortunately, constitute the bottom tier of this pyramid held up by several types of patriarchies. Interventions need to happen at school, in the house, on television and in popular culture simultaneously. Young boys are obviously going to act out and hyper-sexualise women because those are the cues they receive from every quarter – be it porn, popular culture, oftentimes education and religion as well.
A sex-positive upbringing is a must. Gender-sensitisation needs to start young as well. For example, a friend says she compels her ten-year-old son to help out around the house with chores – and when it comes to doing the laundry, she lets him handle the lingerie of the women of the family as well, “to make it seem like it’s normal clothing for his developing brain, with the hope that looking at a damn bra or a girl’s breast won’t give him a hormone-rush later,” she informs me.
Sex education needs to be mandated, and should certainly not be of the abstinence-only kind, which is what most schools invariably default to. “I went to a posh Bombay school and for our sex-ed, we had a 50-year-old doctor who delivered a sermon – it was ‘waiting is good’ and ‘abortion is dangerous’ in equal parts,” says Narang.
When students are finally ready to have the ominous lecture on menstruation, the boys should be allowed to stay in the room and be included in it as though it’s a biology class, so that women’s puberty is not seen as elusive and mysterious and further sexualised.
Narang also adds that parents and school authorities need to come out of denial that young adults are sexually active, and start having open, direct and technical conversations with their tweens and teens about how to channel their sexual desires in a healthy manner. “Boys also need to be taught to humanise the girls they sexualise – they need to be taught that their delinquencies can have far-reaching implications on a girl’s life, and the damage they will inflict on a human being for the sake of a few cheap thrills is simply not worth it.”
12 years on, I have healed and grown into a sex-positive kisses and cuddles crusader who can write about these traumas without flinching, so I want to tell the girls who have been victimised by this brand of violation – me too. And it gets better. But to all the Boys Locker Rooms (and staff rooms) that continue to thrive – your time is up.