By: Farishta Anjirbag
On 3rd May, 2020, India woke up to another controversy. A group of boys -- mostly schoolboys -- had been exchanging photos of their female classmates on an Instagram group chat called “Bois Locker Room”, to objectify and sexualize them. One of their classmates, having acquired screenshots of this chat, exposed the group on Twitter. Among the screenshots was a picture of a snapchat conversation between two boys, wherein one was instigating the other to gangrape a female peer. For obvious reasons, this conversation was the most controversial, and contributed immensely to the vast reach of the post.
We’re living in a world where it has become very easy to yell. Every day, we can log onto our social media, and talk passionately; about racism, misogyny, poverty, religious discrimination, rape, environmental degradation, education, violence, feminism, and all sorts of other issues that make us feel strongly. We can put our opinions out there for other people to see, hear, and yell back at us. That is precisely what happened with the Boys Locker Room (BLR) exposé.
One part of the internet broke out into news, opinions, videos, and long rants about the atrocity of the situation. In turn, another part thought it wasn’t a very big deal. They rationalized the situation with: “Yeah, they said all those awful things, but they didn’t do them, so what’s the problem?” and “Everyone has groups where they say stuff like this, why should this be such a big deal?”. The first side then reinstated their points to retaliate, and the debate went on in this fashion.
Today, as a society, we have attached a tremendous amount of importance to having opinions and taking sides. We revel in the prospect of speaking our minds to create social change. However, while it is essential that we make our voices heard and say what we think is right, I’m afraid somewhere in the mix of talking and yelling and attacking and defending, we’re forgetting to listen.
Whenever I hear of a controversy that makes me feel strongly, I tend to look for posts and articles on it, by people I already know I’m going to profusely agree with. Then, if I happen upon a counter-argument that makes a defending case, I absolutely and instantly disagree. More than just disagreeing, I get angry and choose to ignore the comment altogether.
And it’s not just me. This is something that happens with several other people I know personally. We’ll have discussions -- invigorating, spirited discussions -- but only with the people who share our opinions. When we do explore the other side, it’s solely to calculate how truly far gone those poor ignorant narrow-minded people are. We all cultivate positive opinions of the people who agree with us, and shun the people who don’t. We’ve developed a culture of talking without listening, and it is harming every aspect of our lives as a society.
According to me, the word “listening” may be defined as intaking information (through any medium), making an honest effort to understand, questioning, and trying to see beyond what is obvious, without any assumptions or judgements.
Sexual offenses of every degree, including those like the BLR controversy, have long pervaded the society I live in; and I believe the tendency to not listen -- to not empathise, not question, and not engage deeply with the information we take in -- is a huge part of the problem. The reaction to the BLR controversy, for example, is a classic case of yelling without listening. People from all sides of the issue were expressing their beliefs -- and that they have the freedom to do so is great news in itself -- but expressing without listening to those who challenge you, means that they aren’t going to listen to you, either. The understanding we are hoping to create with our words is only giving way to more shouting, without any resolution in sight.
It is understandable that in these situations, it becomes increasingly hard to listen to somebody who advocates misogyny and engages in victim-blaming. Therefore, it must be noted that even though listening includes understanding where someone is coming from, it does not mean condoning views that are ethically unsound or cause harm to others. However, if a person’s opposing view makes you uncomfortable, then it is worth remembering that your opposing view makes them uncomfortable, too. Unless one person involved in this mix doesn’t cast their inhibitions aside and listen to the other, a culture of listening and understanding will never develop. Cultivating this culture is important, because in listening, we understand the reason for someone’s opposing belief, and learn to treat it objectively, without hate. When both sides in a situation are able to do this, we as a society become more respectful towards each other.
Nikhil Taneja does a great job at explaining the importance of listening, especially today, when it is so easy for our generation to go online and join the yelling. He says a process in which one person speaks and the other doesn’t listen, comes from pain on both sides. The person speaking is in pain; and the person who is stopping them from speaking up by not listening, is also in pain, from not having been heard themselves. Consequently, no one ends up listening to anyone: “no story gets heard, and no story gets told, and nothing ever changes, and everything remains the same.”
In dealing with conversations about rape culture, feminism, and misogyny, it becomes more important than ever to listen. Using the BLR controversy as an example, let’s analyze why.
Most of the boys involved this scenario are minors, some of them as young as thirteen years old. This, to a large extent, means that their world views are not entirely their own yet. Generally, in cases of child sexual abuse where the perpetrators are minors, counselling specialists lay plenty of emphasis on making therapy available to them; because it is assumed, as it should be, that a minor’s actions are a direct consequence of the beliefs and principles that the society around them functions on. If a minor lives in an environment where one person can abuse another without any negative consequences, they won’t hesitate to inflict the same abuse on their peers. Of course, adults who commit crimes of this nature also deserve therapy, but they have the added benefit of mature and independent thought. So, the crime of an adult is a result of societal values, as well as their own failure to cultivate respect for others; but the crime of a minor is primarily the fault of their surroundings. Considering this, the boys in the Locker Room scenario deserve to face negative consequences for their actions, which actively harmed the people they involved, but they also deserve to be taught to know better.
However, when we don’t listen and question a situation such as this, we can think only to blame the perpetrators and feel sorry for the victims. Once due punishment is levied, we forget about it and go on with our lives until the next case comes along and restarts the outrage. However, something as deep-rooted as a society’s culture of rape cannot be terminated from fear of punishment alone. If that were to happen, we would all end up resenting each other. Punishment usually serves to weed out perpetrators as situations arise. Instead, energies must be diverted to inculcating in people a culture of mutual respect, which would help nip the problem in the bud. Developing this culture requires us to listen to both sides: that of the victim, as well as the perpetrator. Gaining an understanding of the consequences and effects of a sexual offense is obviously important, but hearing from the perpetrator about the cause and the history of an offense enables us to gauge what led them to commit it. Once we know why someone did something, we can work better towards discouraging behaviour of that nature.
Moreover, a large proportion of people in our society perceive feminism as an anti-men movement which uses the garb of gender equality to reinforce the superiority and entitlement of women to more privileges. When sexual offenses against women bring feminist discussions into the mainstream, an opposing group of people begins a tangential “What if the roles were reversed?” discussion. This happened with the Boys Locker Room scenario, too. People claimed that if the locker room had been a group of women making lewd comments on men, they would not have been met with the same outrage and prosecution as the boys -- men, too, are objectified and assaulted, but their problems do not gain much traction. While this is an equally important issue in dire need of discussion, the fact that it is often brought up only as a point of retaliation during discussions about rape culture and the oppression of women, serves as proof that we aren’t really listening to each other, but constantly yelling on the defensive.
So, the people who were talking about the oppression and disrespect towards women weren’t being listened to, and neither were the people who were talking about the hypocrisy of today’s feminist movement. For one side to stop and listen would have actually been a step forward in the debate. Yes, it is unnecessary to raise the “What if the roles were reversed?” argument; but the argument, for many, came from a place of real emotion. Extending the discussion on rape culture to include sexual offenses against men, would not have been impossible. In turn, being listened to would have enabled this side to be more understanding of issues specific to women.
As it turns out, the situation unravelled to the credit of the Role Reversal debaters, when another (unrelated) Instagram group chat was exposed. This was a group of girls sharing photos of young men and women and objectifying and body-shaming them. Contrary to to the Boys Locker Room, this group of girls did not face any legal consequences. This controversy, which came to be called the “Girls Locker Room”, caused its own bout of outrage.
Soon after, another reveal added fuel to the fire. A police investigation found that the boy in the aforementioned Snapchat screenshot, who had instigated gangrape on a female peer, was in fact that same female peer using a fake account to test the character of the boy she was talking to.
The case had become fairly convoluted at this point, and opinions started to flood social media. Several people demanded that the girl face prosecution for her actions, just as the members of the “Bois Locker Room” had. However, no legal action was taken against her.
More people were yelling than ever, some about how the lack of action against the girl was a manifestation of feminist hypocrisy, others about how the Girls Locker Room controversy and the actions of the girl with the fake account had different implications from the Boys Locker Room, and still others about how the boys and the girls involved in these incidents must face equal consequences for their actions.
However, because we weren’t listening -- to each other, to the problem -- we were still neglecting to acknowledge the real issue at hand. It is a ramification of an innate inability to listen that incidents such as this are automatically treated as being girls versus boys; when in reality, they are crimes against humanity that take place because of a deep-rooted patriarchal culture of sexual repression. This culture affects different types of people differently, but reaches everyone nonetheless. On account of it being such a taboo topic in India, our country has no open dialogue on sex and sexuality. Our education system warrants sex education in the form of one chapter on reproduction, which covers the biological foundations of sex, but neglects the concepts of sexual identity, consent, respect, or pleasure. Most parents don’t talk to their children about sex, leaving it up to them to figure it out for themselves. Our society deprives us of a chance to learn about sex in a healthy, safe way, and feeds us with romantic notions, half-information, and a distaste for open discussion.
We don’t even talk about sex when we hear about rape. We don’t talk about how the rapist should have known better, or about what might have caused them to commit this crime; we talk about what a sleazebag the perpetrator is: “Doesn’t he have a mother or sister in his house? Isn’t the thought of them enough to make him stop?” or “This sort of man deserves to be hanged.”
Imposing death upon the rapist, in my opinion, is more evidence of our unwillingness to listen and understand. It gives us the feeling of being heard as protestants against rape, and temporarily gratifies us, but doesn’t really solve any problems. We’re convinced that killing the perpetrator is the effective and right thing to do. Last year, the Union Cabinet of India approved capital punishment for extreme cases of child sexual abuse. There was also a recent case of gangrape in state of Telangana, where the rapists set fire to the victim after raping her. The suspects were caught and later shot to death in a police encounter, without a trial. This event was cheered on by the public.
In complete honesty, as somebody who is vulnerable to being a victim of our rape culture, hearing that someone had to pay with their life for the unimaginable amount of pain and suffering they inflicted on an innocent woman, seemed justifiable to me. However, as noble and fair the objective of killing the rapist might seem on first thought, it is problematic. Imposing stricter punishment for rape doesn’t necessarily mean that the fear it instills will dramatically reduce cases, but alternatively that perpetrators, in fear of being found out, will likely act more fatally towards their victims. Further, by outrightly sentencing someone to death for their crime, we absolutely refuse to listen to them. This takes us farther away from becoming an empathetic society. We still aren’t listening.
Perpetrators are regularly cursed at, demonized, prosecuted, and sometimes hanged to death. It is difficult to acknowledge a sex offender as a human being; but in making monsters out of them, we forget that their actions, as mentioned above, are partially a result of the society that has shaped them. When we forget that, we forget to work towards creating a better society for ourselves. We forget to teach and model respect to our children, who could potentially grow into perpetrators, when they are still young and impressionable.
Meanwhile, the class of potential victims is protected in a paranoid frenzy. From first and second-hand experience, I can say that when we hear about sex crimes, we forbid women from wearing revealing clothes, we demand that they come home before it gets dark, we don’t let them sleep over at other people’s houses, and we ask their male friends to escort them home if it gets too late. We say, “You don’t want to deal with being raped, so you might as well do your best to prevent it.”
When we don’t listen to all the sides of a story, we look at sexual offenses as inevitable and isolated events, and offenders as crazy, evil demons with a general mal-intent towards the victim class. Our strategy to eliminate rape then becomes restricting women from exposing themselves or their sexuality to men. The girl who exposed the Bois Locker Room group chat was asked by her mother to stop using Instagram because of the incident. Anjana Menon also exemplifies this tendency as writes about the effects of the gangrape in Telangana:
Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao told transport workers to keep women workers away from night-shift roles — reinforcing that the onus on staying safe is on women.
However, cutting off access to those vulnerable to sex crimes is not going to solve the problem. Instead, in disallowing the women in our families from freely exercising their rights -- even in order to protect them -- we contribute to the notion that a woman’s honour is attached to her body: a body that she must cover up and hide away in order to safeguard her dignity. When a woman’s body gets too deeply intertwined with her honour, it becomes even more of a target for anyone seeking to furiously inflict disrespect on her. The more this notion of bodily honour spreads, the more a woman who has been violated feels ashamed, like she could have done something to prevent this but didn’t; the more rapes are hushed and go unreported, and their mental, physical, and emotional consequences neglected; the more we suppress discussion; the less we listen.
When we don’t understand our need for discussion in a patriarchal society, we continue to repress potential sex offenders from discovering their sexuality in a safe and informed manner. We continue to teach them, through our own behavior, that women need not be treated with respect. When a lifetime of imitating modelled behavior teaches a person this, then movements seeking women’s equality enrage them, and they want more than ever to exercise their power over a woman to “show her her place”. How would they do this? By sexually abusing her. Why? Because we have attached a godly honour to a woman’s body, and so disrespect is equated to bodily violation. It’s an endless cycle.
A ridiculously large number of people in my country still validate sex crimes with: “boys will be boys”; “she shouldn’t have been wearing that”; or “she shouldn’t have been out at that time”. And, of course, no progressive, feminist individual (and it is important to be both of those things) would or should agree with those views; but it is important to listen to them?
Yes; because unless you listen, how will you understand the opposition? Without gaining such an understanding, what will you use as a foundation to build your actions for social change? Moreover, when someone with what they think is a reasonable opinion doesn’t feel heard, why would they ever try to listen to you?
The awful truth is that listening often means we can’t bring ourselves to hate the speaker. It requires us to leave our preconceived notions behind and acknowledge that no one is absolutely good or bad, but we all have our own complexities. Listening adds a dimension of humanity that we desperately need in times when our first instinct on hearing about a controversy is to demonize and target those involved. Listening is tough, it calls for introspection and self-awareness. It warrants asking questions and accepting that we won’t always have the answers. Good listening is increasingly hard in a world where it is so easy to keep yelling. But isn’t good listening what we all really, really need right now?