“Boys will be boys”. We’ve all heard these words growing up. The girls are informed of this as a part of their training into womanhood (after all, “girls mature faster”), while boys are never questioned for their actions because this is just the way they are. And, as children grow older, the seeds of misogyny are slowly sowed until it turns into an incident like the one of the ‘Bois Locker Room’. Frankly, is it really surprising that this happened at all?
We live in a society where various institutes and expectations govern our behaviour and contribute to our socialisation. How did these conversations of abuse start?
Firstly, when parents say that their daughter is like a son, it’s not a compliment. It implies that a girl is finally good enough to be a son, and puts them as second-class citizens. When teachers ask only the girls to get indoors when it’s raining outside because their white shirt would get soaked, they’re telling us that our body isn’t ours, and that it’s an object for male pleasure. When, before a school trip, the teacher gets the girls together to tell them to shave their underarms if they wear a sleeveless T-shirt, because "it doesn’t look good", she implies that we must look presentable to the eyes of a man or a teenage boy. Women have constantly been told that we have no agency over their bodies. And it’s terrible that society shapes them into actually believing it.
These accounts are not fiction. They are my own experiences while growing up, and the words cut so deep that I still remember them despite the years gone by.
When young boys and girls grow up, the environments they have been nurtured in come back to bite. If you talk to young women, most of them will have a ‘Bois Locker Room’ story. And if you talk to young men, most of them will share the experience of having to conform to a certain kind of masculinity that restricts them from feeling emotionally safe and forces them to put on a tough face. As a result, gendered notions continue to grow deeper and often take violent turns.
Incidents like this tend to create a deep impact on the mental health of young people as well. Suvrita, a Mumbai-based psychologist, tells VICE how men often lack positive role models to look up to. In Indian families, there aren’t enough fathers who express their love and emotions, something that young boys also pick up. “After all, how will boys learn empathy if they are constantly told not to cry?” she asks.
Suvrita often gets clients who speak about domestic violence, but she has observed that they’re often not joined in by their male partners during the sessions, simply because they didn’t want to or because they didn’t know that their wives were seeing a therapist. While she emphasises on the need to create safe spaces for both men and women, Suvrita tells VICE that men have always found it especially hard to be vulnerable within that space, which makes it difficult for them to seek help.
This is symptomatic of the fact that patriarchy has created a set of expectations for men too, as a result of which boys are often forced to embrace traditional ideas of masculinity that they have been exposed to. To be any other way would make them a lesser man.
Saswati Chatterjee, a New Delhi-based development professional, tells VICE, “It’s easy to boil it down to saying, this is the ‘cool’ or ‘trendy’ way of speaking, but I think for many boys, it’s how they see themselves as ‘belonging’. What we need to examine is, why does this sense of ‘belonging’ require misogyny and violence against women?”
On women, incidents like the ‘Bois Locker Room’ and the implications of being subjected to violence can definitely have a long-lasting impact. “It has a strong effect on the relationship with their own bodies, and with pleasure,” says Suvrita. “As a result, it affects interpersonal relationships. It’s very common to block out certain memories, freeze or have panic attacks. Even though we may think we’ve moved on, sometimes even the smallest things can be triggering.”
And this where the rallying call to bring a change within our own homes and schools come in. My school never had a sexuality education class, neither did we have access to information on sex and sexuality other than porn websites, which would honestly just make us feel utterly confused about sex. Some of us landed onto some helpful links—like YouTubers such as John and Hank Green, Tyler Oakly, and many more who aren’t direct sources of education but make young people feel safe and comfortable with themselves. The internet is a huge void where you never know what you’ll find.
One of the methods to make this transition on an educational level comes with comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), a programme supported by the United Nations Population Fund, in which young adolescents are not only imparted knowledge of sex, but are treated as equals and spoken to in a rights-affirming manner about various intersecting topics like consent, gender stereotypes, pleasure, violence, relationships, and diversity. This helps create a safe space for them to share their thoughts and questions in a non-judgemental environment and gives them tools to use language in a respectful way.
Taking into account the ‘Bois Locker Room’ messages being leaked, there are countless conversations around holding the boys accountable. While accountability is important, we need to understand that there is a deeper crack in the system that makes young boys believe that demeaning words and rape threats are okay in private conversations. Similarly, even the response to these comments by the girls were in a queerphobic, anti-disability tone, while some other girls defended the boys’ actions.
What we can see here is how power functions. The boys perpetuated violent behaviour on the girls, considering how women are still seen as 'the second sex' by some. Similarly, by using derogatory slurs about marginalised communities, some girls, too, became oppressors. This way, even though some girls are able to recognise the wrongs being done to them, they don’t realise the wrongs they are doing to others. This continuous chain of violence and oppression is a result of the lack of intersectional conversations. CSE is one way to encourage these questions and discussions in a non-threatening manner. It makes one aware of their actions, and understand each other's boundaries.
Manak Matiyani—a feminist queer activist and the executive director at the Delhi-based YP Foundation, a youth-run organisation that supports and develops youth leadership—tells VICE why such things happen. “Young people who do not have exposure or interaction with others who are different will not have opportunities to expand their own knowledge and change their attitudes and behaviours,” he says.
Chatterjee, at the same time, notes that the larger issue is a culture that encourages violence against marginalised communities. But there are solutions to this, too. “We first need to ‘see’ the student, which, in a system built around standardisation, could just mean the solution of something like this would be to take away mobile phones (which doesn’t solve anything), rather than actually working with empathy and kindness,” she says.
It’s essential to be able to impart information and speak of accountability. And comprehensive sexuality education is a step in that direction. It’s paramount to create a space where young people feel comfortable talking about their emotions. “I think this needs to be done with young people in their own language,” adds Matiyani. “It should happen in a way that is relatable and also encourages diversity of young people to interact with each other in institutional spaces so that the implications of words on real people are clearer.”
Patriarchy runs so deep in our upbringing that it requires lots of unlearning and a stigma-free environment to tackle its effects. And for that, we do not need moralising and policing, especially on young girls. We do not need parallel #NotAllMen trends taking up space when it’s not about them. Instead, we need to talk about these underlying issues that affect people across the gender spectrum, so that there are no violent locker room conversations. And more importantly, we need kindness and empathy to do this.