After the Bois Locker Room (an instagram group of South Delhi school boys that engaged in objectification and harassment of young girls via the medium) was outed, an acquaintance shared a video on their instagram story that was an apology-of-sorts from all-men (I presume it meant all cis-het-men) which was partly an indictment of men that indulge in such harassment of women, lamenting how ashamed it must’ve made their parents and siblings feel, and partly advice to women about how they should never trust men, any men, and therefore not “bare their bodies”, that last bit echoing what we’ve been telling victims of sexual assault for generations: just be more careful.
Both of these are rather convenient stances, part of our continuing rhetoric regarding sexual assault, the former creating the myth of the aberrant sexual assaulter, so different from all of society, absolving the rest of us of any responsibility in creating a space in which such forms of harassment can exist, and the latter transferring that responsibility of somehow escaping or avoiding assault onto the victims.
It’s easy to see why this form of indictment is so appealing: it lets the rest of us off the hook. We’re required to take no responsibility for the crime that we’ve been complicit in.
It should come as no surprise that the said acquaintance has, in the past, laughingly indulged in the casual sexualization of young female bodies, and then laughingly dismissed any opposition to this sexualization since it was just meant as a passing comment and it’s not like they were going to do anything. I wonder if, when posting this video on their story, they were able to make the connections between what they were indicting and their own behaviours and attitudes.
The bois locker room was made possible by a culture that routinely objectifies women (as passing comments, as casual banter, as entertainment or even humour) and roots masculinity in dangerous narratives of dominance and an insatiable sexual desire, among other things.
In erupting in selective outrage over particularly violent and explicit forms of sexual assault or harassment with a refusal to situate it within the context and culture that makes it possible to exist, we only treat symptoms or lone cases of a much larger social disorder. Pretending that such acts exist in isolation, that they’re aberrant in their horridness, perpetuates existing structures of oppression and discrimination because it allows them to continue to exist unchecked. Treating these as lone cases means we don’t examine our roles in making these possible.
That is not to say that these cases aren’t horrid, that they ought to be neglected or played-down, or that individuals should go unpunished, but to stress the importance of not treating them as isolated cases but as issues that are part of a complex web of interconnected acts of discrimination.
Sexual assault doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Systems of oppression and discrimination reinforce one another, each seemingly trivial form making possible, even legitimizing, others forms of violence. Implicit acts of discrimination that we consistently invisible, either in the name of humour, tradition or triviality, support a structure in which some of the violent and more explicit forms get called out, and we can’t pretend to root out the latter unless we’re also willing to root out the former.
A large part of this problem is also our response to gender-based violence. Returning to the case of the aforementioned acquaintance and the video-as-apology that they shared, it’s easy to see that our responses or “solutions” are overwhelmingly victim-centric ( just don’t share your photos na). They all involve appeals to women, essentially solutions aimed at changing the behaviours of the victims of a crime, as opposed to changing the circumstances under which perpetrators feel entitled to committing crimes and certain that they will get away with them. Rape culture creates victim-centric solutions and manifests as victim blaming.
We infantilize adult autonomous individuals in the bid to protect them from sexual assault (oh, just don’t go out na? or oh, just have someone accompany you na?) or blame them for not being sufficiently prepared for the assault that is to be their lot (oh, why don’t you learn self defense? or oh, why don’t you carry a pepper spray?) condemning them to a lifetime of perpetual paranoia. In other cases, we either downright refuse to believe them (they must be lying!) or simply deflect the conversation onto other matters (don’t tarnish the country’s reputation by talking about negative things! or do you know so-and-so also get assaulted?).
It isn’t possible to adequately address or eradicate gender-based violence until we’re able to grapple with the social structures that make it possible and shift the conversation about the solutions away from the victims of assault.
The bois locker room, and the other cases that came to light after it, reproduce in the virtual space the problematic gender norms getting played out offline and the forms of harassment individuals routinely face within a patriarchal society. We’re woefully in need of conversations, at an institutional level, surrounding consent and a healthy expression of desire and sexuality as opposed to the repression that we constantly engage in, particularly as parents and educators.
Such cases make it abundantly clear that with our interactions becoming increasingly digital, unless we radically rethink our conversations about virtual bodies and digital consent, we will continue to reproduce toxic gender norms and power structures in these spaces. Creating safe digital spaces for all individuals will require a conscious restructuring and challenging of the existing hetero-patriarchal norms.