Boys talk. We all have a memory of when we realised this, regardless of our age or gender. Maybe it was when your close male friend called you a slut for the length of your school skirt; maybe you and your ‘boiz’ or bros were just hanging out, playing soccer in the evening when someone made a comment about the new girl’s boobs; maybe your close friend called you late one night to tell you your ex-boyfriend had been sharing details of your sexual exploits with all his friends.
#BoisLockerRoom — a now-doxxed Instagram group chat where 15 and 16-year-old boys from Delhi shared pictures of girls they knew and made sexually explicit and violent comments about them — is not as ‘shocking’ as it is an unwelcome reminder that we’re still struggling to draw a straight line between misogyny/rape culture and ‘boy talk’, despite how universal the experience is.
For a certain generation of Indians, the incident is a reminder of the 2004 MMS scandal, which also involved Delhi teens from an elite school and made the country reckon with the fact that teenagers think about – and have – sex, often with nothing but a misogynistic body of cultural products as their guide. I was just 10 years old in 2004, so that incident has always been recycled knowledge of the things boys, even the ones we love, can do. But we don’t have to go back 16 years to realise that there has been little change since then.
Since 2016, the phrase ‘locker room talk’ has been synonymous with the infamous recording of US President Donald Trump talking about “grabbing women by the pussy”. Then, the phrase was used to trivialise the weight of Trump’s words — it wasn’t a boast about assaulting women, it was just the way men talk to other men when they think women can’t hear them, went the flimsy defence. In this #BoisLockerRoom, teens discussed how easy it would be to rape one of the girls they knew. Just months after Harvey Weinstein was convicted for assault and four men were hung to death for raping a woman in Delhi, it’s sobering to realise that even rape is not an abhorrent crime when it comes to ‘boys being boys’.
Is it possible to think of ‘boys’ doing ‘boy things’ without picturing the contorted, livid face of US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh defending his teen self’s right to drink beer and dismissing accusations of assaulting Christine Blasey Ford when they were teenagers?
If it’s hard to think of commonalities between these two middle-aged white American men and a group of 17-year-olds in Delhi, think of the consequences – for them and the women at the receiving end of their actions and yes, words.
The boy who inspired a whole genre of MMS porn and Bollywood movies never showed us his face. The girl had to leave the country and her trauma remains immortalised on the internet. Trump is now President of the United States. His many accusers have been shamed into silence. As a Supreme Court Justice, Kavanaugh is one of the most influential men in the US. Ford had to go into hiding, retraumatised by the public hate and barrage of death threats she received for speaking up.
The Delhi ‘boiz’ have left their locker room, deleting their accounts or wiping them clean after their plans to post their critics’ nudes were leaked online as well. What was their first reaction to this invasion of their privacy and unwelcome outside judgement? Retaliation. They wanted to show ‘feminist’ types who was boss. It’s sickeningly easy to see why these upper-class, upper-caste boys could threaten rape so easily – there’s nothing out there to show there’d be consequences for them.
You may say that’s not true – that surely we’ve seen enough examples of men being punished. Even rich and famous ones such as Weinstein.
On Tuesday, Delhi’s cyber crime cell said they’re launching an investigation into this situation. But just focusing on legal consequences for these locker room boys makes it seem like they are an aberration whereas their form of communication is actually the norm. The ‘locker room’ boys aren’t the only ones who talk like this — they were just unlucky enough to get caught.
Telling boys and men to call out their friends is a step in the right direction but it should be the first of many. We need to reform our institutions and social spaces. These boys are our boys. They’ve been raised by generations of men and women – yes, women – who’ve turned a blind eye to their wards whether as parents, older relatives or teachers. And as psychologists and therapists have repeatedly pointed out, the kind of objectification visible in this group chat doesn’t emerge from a vacuum.
Schools are often spaces where gendered notions of responsibility and irresponsibility are enforced— teachers often shame girls for wearing black bras under white school shirts or yell at them if they happen to get wet in the rain during lunch but let the boys off without comment; while girls are pulled aside to be given a talking-to about their public displays of affection with their boyfriends or male friends, accompanied by threats to tell their parents, boys are often only told to rein it in or treat their irrepressible sexual energy as an inevitability that girls should train to bear.
Homes, of course, are no different but they are harder to change from the outside.
One of the most disheartening realisations to emerge from the #MeToo movement is that laying bare our trauma to make others understand the long and damaging effects sexual assault, harassment and bullying have on us doesn’t have the effect we hoped it would. Yes, it brings invaluable catharsis but somehow, institutions have turned this validation into an end goal instead of taking responsibility for changing the conditions that bring on such trauma in the first place. Validating spaces for girls and women’s experiences should be a given, not a gift and certainly not compensation for boys’ actions.
One of the most obvious consequences of this ‘locker room chat’ will be less online space for girls as their parents pull them off IG and restrict their access to the internet. Teachers will likely do the same, finding ways to demonise the medium, Instagram, and burdening female students with guidelines for ‘how to be’ on the internet. It’s important to remember these interactions didn’t start on the internet even if their ultimate expression was on Instagram. We don’t need to shrink the already small spaces for surveillance-free interaction, we need to expand them.
The other thing that’s bound to happen is that the locker room will morph into some other space. The very name ‘locker room’ tells the story of the resilience of misogyny and patriarchy – generations of boys and men across countries and cultures know what it means even if they’ve never actually been in a physical one.
If misogynistic all-male spaces are boys’ inheritance, learning to grin and bear it is the legacy girls inherit. Whether these boys will face legal consequences or not, the subjects of their chats will bear the scars of such vilification for years to come and this betrayal by boys they know will complicate their ability to trust. Increasingly, women and girls are forced to navigate a world where we can’t trust our partners or our friends because they speak one way with us and another in ‘locker rooms’ — why should we have to go through our lives nursing such mistrust?
In this case it’s schools and teachers who have the power to create spaces where boys can unlearn these callous ways of looking at their peers. If you’re a teacher, don’t humiliate girls for their bodies, but do call out a boy if you see him staring at a fellow student’s chest or commenting on her boobs or butt – you know the social dynamics that flow through your classrooms best. Don’t pin girls’ bad grades on flimsy reasons like being in a relationship or ‘too into boys’. Tell boys’ parents when they’re bullying girls in class. Stick up for your girls in the moments when it matters most, not when the Delhi cyber crime cell comes calling to understand what happened. Don’t deal with pubescent teens by segregating them by gender, but take the time to foster social interactions where everyone can interact on equal footing.
Last year, the current student body of the US college I studied in achieved the seemingly impossible. They successfully protested against the campus fraternities and the college administration was left with no option but to ban the frats. What prompted this? A set of leaked emails where fraternity brothers were doing much the same thing the locker room boys just got caught doing. Frats are the epitome of locker room-esque spaces and foster exactly the kind of disparaging dialogue about women that we’re now all too familiar with, but banning them or even questioning their value to campus social life was a seven-year-long process.
One of the things that makes frats and their members so socially powerful is their function as social nodes for student life — that’s where the biggest parties happen, where students get to meet new people, have fun, just be young. It’s also where trauma like sexual assault is enacted but that’s not the part proponents focus on, obviously.
Socialising is important and essential but it doesn’t have to come at the cost of women’s dignity and health. Our society often paints life as a trade-off between hanging out with boys and being safe and sound. That’s not fair to boys because we’re essentially saying they are incapable of non-violent and meaningful social interactions. But the absence of frats doesn’t mean the death of social life, it simply means there’s space for healthier, more equal interactions.
The reason my college’s new crop of students is so inspiring is because they went past the immediate perpetrators and pinned responsibility on the administration that tacitly supported the frats’ presence on campus. These students didn’t budge from their sit-in, not even when intimidated by security and demanded what they were owed – a safe environment to flourish as full human beings, not just academically.
It’s impossible to extract ourselves from the culture we live in. That’s why we create little islands of identification for ourselves on social media platforms and group chats. But outside of those islands, we are forced to interact with offenders as well as their supporters, whether tacit or outspoken. Out in the wilderness of the internet, we can’t control who we see and who sees us beyond a point. In our workspaces too, it’s hard to go up against perpetrators who have tonnes of social and economic capital because opposing them necessarily means hurting ourselves in those aspects of life. And as anyone who has struggled watching a friend or family member remain on good terms with their perpetrator knows – it can often feel unfair to ask our loved ones to give up something for us even though their actions invalidate our experiences.
But schools and colleges owe each and every single member of their communities safety and validation — and we can demand it because they rely on our presence and capital as much as we do theirs. Let’s not stop at these boys or abstractly say that we need to address the root causes of this patriarchy and misogyny. Let’s instead organise to demand from our schools and teachers what they’ve owed us for a very long time.