In 2016, a clip of the then US presidential candidate Donald Trump went viral. In it, he was heard bragging about forcibly kissing and groping women. Following the cascade of censure, rage and shock across the world, Trump dismissed the swaggering braggadocio as nothing but “locker-room talk”.
The internet exploded with explanations on what this phrase that had now sprung into our living rooms meant. Urban Dictionary defines locker-room talk as “any manner of conversation that polite society dictates be held privately — with small groups of like-minded, similarly gendered peers — due to its sexually charged language, situations or innuendos”.
The term has, since, so seamlessly permeated into our lives that when the “bois locker room” scandal broke out last week, we knew instinctively what it might have entailed even without knowing the details. In December last year, a WhatsApp group made by boys from an IB school in Mumbai came to light. This group, too, was littered with demeaning and denigrating language about girls. The two incidents have, once again, highlighted one question:
What is the place of technology in the universe of patriarchy and rape culture?
We have long been sitting on a powder keg of a deeply misogynistic society that predates social media. Technology may have democratised gender-based violence but has certainly not created it.
“The content of what people are saying is not new. People spoke like this even before the internet,” said filmmaker and writer Paromita Vohra, who created Agents of Ishq, a website that aims to give sex a good name. “Technology and society have a dynamic relationship. Human beings bring all good and bad qualities while using it,” she said.
What we’re seeing enhanced today, is a kind of language that has been the fulcrum of misogynistic media, both in India and abroad, and which is freely available. This is what makes us react with shock and sadness when we see children engage in what we think is unimaginable. “You’re seeing a profanity that is a mixture of misogyny in Indian and western media. We know children can be cruel. We know about bullying and so on. But now, these are dimensions that are dystopic. We need to focus on the violence, not the sexual content in the group chats,” said Vohra.
Even though technology is not responsible per se for these attitudes, social media platforms do play an insidious role in perpetuating them. Social media websites currently claim that they are nothing but platforms, without control on the content posted by users. But they routinely monitor and delete photos they deem inappropriate. These include photos of fat women, queer people, people with disabilities.
“This only reflects the systemic beliefs of misogyny held by the people in power who make company policies,” said Richa Kaul Padte, author of Cyber Sexy, a book that rethinks pornography.
There is a scene in Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People where Connell, the charming, intelligent high schooler, is sitting with his two buddies, Rob and Eric. Rob whisks out his phone and shows photos of his naked girlfriend to the other two. Eric taps parts of her body on the screen with his fingers. Connell takes one look at the phone and says: “Bit fucked up showing these to people, isn’t it?”
Women recognise in this betrayal a certain kind of violence that curdles any idea of intimacy or consent. This violence is everywhere — on television, in films, on pornography sites.
“Consent is an ongoing conversation that needs to happen. But we are just not talking about it,” said Kaul Padte. “Porn is just one type of media which is being consumed with fewer restrictions. Mainstream porn is teaching young people things that are not representative of sex or consent. But we’re not creating a healthy context in which kids are accessing porn,” she added.
And the context is sex education, an acceptance of the fact that kids will be curious about sexuality and will watch porn. “This doesn’t mean that all of this would ensure that violence against women would not occur. But at least, we will provide a context in which we could hope that it would not occur,” said Kaul Padte.
Dr Avinash De Sousa, a visiting psychiatrist in three Mumbai schools highlighted the importance of this. He said it was imperative to start sex education, which includes cyber bullying, stalking, rational digital usage, as early as classes five and six.
“Thanks to the internet and easy access to information, kids know everything about sexuality at the ages of 10,11 or 12. Children are far ahead in these matters than we were,” said De Sousa.
Cyber experts said that cyber crime was a tricky territory, all things considered. “Crime is a product of victim, opportunity and offender. Now the triad has moved online. While the victim and offender dynamics remain the same, the opportunity provided by technology leads to the perception that it is okay to do certain things. Anonymity, end-to-end encryption, safety about a closed group give a false sense of superiority and invincibility. But in reality, you’re leaving breadcrumbs everywhere,” said Brijesh Singh, former cybersecurity head of Maharashtra. “Boundaries get blurred and children often don’t even know they are venturing into cyber-crime,” he added.
But criminal jurisprudence has an abiding, underlying doctrine — ignorantia juris non excusat, or ignorance of the law is not an excuse. Groups such as “bois locker room” then, could be a collective failure of society, of teachers and parents, in not making safe spaces for discussing cyber hygiene or netiquette.
In the absence of these spaces and nebulous boundaries, young victims don’t even know how and whether to report a crime. “In the Delhi case, the girls spoke out. But often, they don’t come forward because there is some amount of shame attached to it. Also, they are afraid that their internet freedoms would be curtailed,” said De Sousa.
These discussions, he said, can be had without intruding upon children’s privacy. “When you give your child a phone, you should at least be aware of what is on it. Parents should sit with their kids and ask them to show the apps that are on their phone, without asking to read the chats or messages.”
Supreme court advocate Khushbu Jain regularly gets cases — many sexual in nature — where conversations or photos shared between friend in private make their way through screenshots to others. She has mediated between kids, in front of their families, police and NGOs where the victim and offender were made to delete things on their phones.
Jain, who specialises in criminal and cyber law, said that the Delhi incident was a wake-up call for bringing about awareness of laws and safety measures around the internet and social media platforms. “Think of it this way,” she said, “From the moment you learn to drive, you have to also learn what happens when you drive wrongly, what the road and traffic safety laws are and what the punishment is when you break the law. This is required at a nascent age,” she said.
Both Singh and Jain highlighted a problem that makes evidence gathering in cyber crime a tardy process. “Companies have privacy policies which stops them from sharing data and content. So, law enforcement doesn’t move in real time. When you examine anything post facto, there are barriers. Stuff is deleted. A pseudonym comes up. Device address are changed and so on,” Singh said. “What has happened is, a country’s sovereignty has become subordinate to the privacy policies of these companies,” he added.
To curtail such incidents, platforms too, need to be held accountable. Jain had another analogy to elucidate this point: Imagine a bar that has served alcohol to those under 21 years of age, she said. “If the police find a bunch of teenagers drinking, who do you think will be arrested?”
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