The year 2020 was intended to be ground-breaking for gender equality. In 2011, the then-UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet even proclaimed that “the 21st century will be the century of girls and women.” With gigantic leaps being taken in every possible field, including women's movements, surely everyone was a bit too optimistic then.
Even though movements like Time’s Up and #MeToo succeeded in creating a stir around the world, things have mostly returned to the way it was before.
One such ongoing practice that helps patriarchy take strong roots is “locker room talk”. This phrase has its origins in the ’20s and ’30s, and, in the beginning, it mostly seemed to be about golf. It wasn’t until the ’80s that locker room talk came to be associated, publicly at least, with sex and the objectification of women. Decades later, it still persists.
When Donald Trump was elected as the president of the U.S. in 2016, many were surprised. However, not as much as when the Washington Post published a 2005 video of him engaging in an extremely lewd conversation about women with television host Billy Bush. Social media exploded with rage, as this recording captured Trump bragging about groping women in vulgar terms. Trump, however, shrugged it off by saying, “This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place years ago.”
Shortly after, in 2018, a documentary by the BBC uncovered a group chat of Warwick University male students, who had made thousands of statements like “Sometimes it’s fun to go wild and rape 100 girls”. The revelation was horrifying for both institutions and individuals alike.
One would expect that this would immediately start a chain-reaction, leading to a rise in feminist-oriented education in schools and colleges to highlight the importance of gender equality as a step towards curbing the sexist attitude that has been ingrained in us. But these issues continue to linger, unaddressed until the next big story breaks and then this cycle repeats itself all over again.
Closer home, one can recall the infamous 2004 MMS scandal, which involved two teenagers from an elite school in Delhi. The incident forced the nation to look at a topic that perhaps no one was prepared to shed light on yet. The then 17-year-old boy involved in leaking the clip has kept his identity hidden till date, while the girl had to leave the country due to the nightmare that still lives on in the darker areas of the internet. Fast forward sixteen years later, one can tell that there is but little change.
On May 4, 2020, screenshots of a horrifying group chat surfaced on social media. It revealed not just the mindset of a few teenage boys in Delhi, aged between 15 and 17, but also a problem that has been, and is persistent, in more phones, platforms and countries than one can begin to fathom. More teenagers than we know of are growing up being a part of such locker rooms, whilst others are guilty of not speaking up despite the knowledge of such groups.
These screenshots from the Instagram group “Bois Locker Room” revealed 30-35 boys indulging in conversations where they had discussed women in the most degrading manner, shared obscene messages, morphed images of underage girls and even planned to rape a woman. It is clear these boys thought that such conversations were acceptable under the garb of “locker room talk”.
Soon after ‘Bois Locker Room’ went viral, screenshots of an alleged ‘Girls Locker Room’ were leaked which showed a similar group chat between teenage girls. It showed them sexualising and objectifying men in a similar fashion.
Merely days after this, similar allegations were levelled against a group of men from Kolkata who are former students of a well-known university there. A Twitter user, in a series of tweets, alleged that private pictures of women, some sent in confidence and others out of manipulation, were stored in a Google Drive by a group of men, who have been using and circulating it among their friends. According to her, the Drive has been in existence since 2016 now.
Only a few months back, a few students, including the son of a well-known female politician, from an elite school in Mumbai were caught running a group similar to the ‘Bois Locker Room’.
One of the saddest and most obvious consequences of this ‘locker room chat’ and other such moments of revelation on the internet is that there is almost automatically a reduction in the space taken by females. While parents and guardians tend to pull the plug on girls’ social media activities for a bit and restrict their access to the internet, everyone else gets busy in finding ways to blame the platforms, be it Instagram, Snapchat and so on, and girls’ conduct there. It is important to remember that this objectification did not start on the internet and there is no point in blaming/punishing the victims by restraining their already limited access.
The girls and their families, who were able to muster up the courage to speak up against the “Bois Locker Room” members on social media were further harassed, demeaned and threatened with rape. One of the victims of this chat even said that her account had been hacked and she was facing threats, while others simply mocked her and said she was doing it for fame.
She then countered all those claims and spoke about how she had to go against her parents’ advice to post these and how scared she and her family are at this point. As a college student during such a time, it is baffling to me how a victim must fear attacks from the perpetrator, even during a strict lockdown.
One would call it wishful thinking if we were to believe that these are just a series of events that is out of the ordinary, an anomaly in an otherwise prim and proper society. However, as much as we all do hope, that is far from the truth. These are just some scattered instances of what is, otherwise, a myriad of conversations that have not seen the light of the day.
As a college student and a feminist, it is very disheartening to see that most of us think of this as the norm now. Another never-ending struggle that you can witness daily is pointing out the sexist, racist and homophobic statements that have been a casual part of most of my peers’ lives for years now. By labelling it as “banter”, many of them consider it to be entirely harmless. However, that is far from the reality. Comments like, “Dude, that’s so gay” or “Bro, we can totally rape her”, or even dialled down versions of the same, are an unwelcome yet loud reminders of the patriarchal power structure that continues to exist in society.
No matter what the justification, the reality is that these “jokes” and “banter” are a cursory glance into the minds of those who make these statements. Simply because we do not understand why something is damaging, it does not give us a reason to mock the person who does or to shrug it off. Common things one hears include “It was just a joke, lighten up!” and “No offence ya, please do not be a feminist about this!”
It is high time that we understand these internalised misogynistic and sexist thoughts and their enabling, justified under the cloak of sanctimonious concepts such as “brotherhood” and “the bro-code,” are a problem. Even though shared with the most private, trusted and familial of connections, these conversations are a part of something much bigger. And believe it or not, it is as important as public conversations are. These “locker rooms” aren’t “locked rooms” and soon it will see the light of the day – if not in the form of screenshots, then as a physical manifestation of those months and years of “casual conversations”. We do not have to wait for someone else’s voice. We must talk now, we must educate now, we must understand now. The time is now, and it is not waiting for anyone. And if you do not voice your dissent or put an end to this now, you are as much a part of the problem as the active perpetrators.
When asked about his foul language in the footage, Donald Trump later said, “Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course - not even close. I apologise if anyone was offended.” What anyone can gather from this so-called apology is that Mr. Trump was anything but sorry. He believes that the conversation was behind closed doors, and therefore okay.
The point, however, is that it is not. This kind of misogynistic attitude that is covered with a veil in public is absolutely not okay. Homophobic talks, as well as the objectification and reduction of women to their private parts, whether said in public or behind closed doors, is indeed not okay. It is not okay when the president of the United States does it, it is not okay when “bois” do it and it is not okay when girls do it. It is never okay.
George Orwell once said, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Today, we find his words ring louder than ever before. Locker room talks are redundant and must go. It is time to take action and hold ourselves and others accountable. A conversation must start, especially one initiated by parents, teachers and mentors. The danger in maintaining these comfortable silences looms large. It is time to break them and exchange these “uncomfortable” words instead. The time to step out and lock these rooms is here, and the key is in your hands.(Published on 11th May 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 20)