With #BoysLockerRoom and #GirlsLockerRoom as top trends in India’s Twitterverse, it is highly likely that your smartphone-savvy children are following the issue as much as, or perhaps more than, you are. Schoolboys and girls from a few South Delhi schools were allegedly found to be sharing photos of their peers — underage women, without their consent, and when caught, threatening to rape and leak nudes of the girls who had exposed them.
Soon, screenshots of some of these girls’ group messages, allegedly indulging in similar ‘locker room’ talk also went viral. And the blame game began — people called out parents, teachers, and schools; some were sanctimonious about not allowing smartphones, while others called for the children to be booked.
With the overload of chatter, how do parents begin to have a conversation with their children? “Honestly to me, Boys Locker Room has only come up because these are prominent South Delhi schools, but this kind of thing happens all the time with anyone who has access to social media,” says Vidya Reddy, executive director of Tulir Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse.
“We live in a highly sexualised world; there is no escaping it. Sexuality is naturally an important part of a teenager’s life, but we don’t address these issues in a healthy way. When you don’t talk about empathy, consent and respect offline, the conversation will take different colours online,” she adds.
The news about the locker room talk, she says, is a “teachable moment handed on a platter” — as long as parents stop playing ostrich.
The conversation is not just biological talk, or a moral lecture on being a ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl’. We must address the nuances of privacy — both ours and other people’s, how to respect consent, the feeling of belonging to a group, while also acknowledging the child’s wants, needs, and deepest feelings — not just about sex, but about life itself.
Talking to teenagers about sexual desires and what constitutes crossing a line, is a different skill set altogether, accepts child psychologist Aarti Rajaratnam. “No teenager is happy with an adult telling them what to do, when they are going through an identity crisis themselves. If you talk to any teenager about this, the typical answer you may get is, ‘I know all this, I have already spoken to my friends about it’.” She reminds us that it is necessary at the time to model calmness. “Tell them that you are glad he has discussed this with his friends, but your discussion may give him some more insight.”
Rather than surprising children into a conversation, she finds it more effective, to notify them beforehand that this is something you would like to talk about later, giving them time to process their views about the news. “Most teens are owls; they are more alert in the evenings, so that is the optimal time to talk.”
Also notice your body language while having the talk. “Sit beside them and don’t maintain eye contact. They don’t want their parents looking into their eyes and thinking, ‘They know I masturbate!’”
In her curriculum, she employs different methods of talking to girls and boys. “Boys are spatial processors, and they engage in conversation better when throwing a ball around or walking. Girls on the other hand, prefer to sit down and talk,” she says.
She also encourages parents to stick to facts and ideological debates, rather than expounding on history and giving personal examples. Your childhoods cannot be compared; there was no Instagram or Snapchat back then, and it is not reasonable to suddenly confiscate a phone because you did not have one when you were their age or because there have been a few incidents that violate the law. It is a different ball game now.
Remember this is not a one-time conversation. Allow your child to counter, and keep having these talks again and again, even after the news has died down.
But they’re my friends
When parents find out that somebody from their child’s school was involved in such group chats, the immediate reaction is to put down that person, afraid that they would be bad company. “They shame their children’s friends, and override their objections,” says Aarti, pointing out that aggression is not the solution.
More and more on social media now, teenage boys and girls are encouraged to stand up to their peers who are making misogynistic comments. This advice, coming from an adult, is easier said than done.
Given the stage of development they are at, exclusion by their peer group is one of the most traumatic experiences a teenager can have, she explains. “Parents may give this moral argument, that no child of mine could say things like this. He may be your child, but developmentally, they need to belong to a gang, be part of a clique with its own lingo, dressing sense, mutual friends and enemies.”
Despite the possibly misogynistic nature of such groups, many girls too stay in them for various reasons. “Maybe they feel that if they are considered one of them, they won’t be targeted. Maybe they are just curious to know what boys talk about, maybe the guys seem cooler and more powerful than the male role models they have had so far.”
Parents advise their children to leave their current ‘bad influence’ peer group, and assure them they are there for them. The gesture is sweet but in vain. “Give me a break, no teenager wants a 45-year-old to be their friend!” exclaims Aarti.
So calling out someone from their friend group needs a teen willing to bear the brunt of being excluded. “This is possible if they are raised in a way to be rooted in their sense of self, a trait rarely nurtured in India,” she says. “Since childhood, we are appreciated for our actions (like topping a class), rather than who we are as individuals. So naturally we feel more affinity for our peer group who appreciates us for us.”
Start at the beginning
Which is why, it all boils down to the kind of behaviour we have been modelling in front of the child, since the age of two. What kind of behaviour are we normalising at home? If we have always been body shaming someone on the TV screen, using the ‘might is right’ method to show our power as adults, and don’t acknowledge our children when they say ‘no’ to us, we cannot turn around and act surprised when they show similar behaviour at 14.
“We have to ask ourselves: Is it easy accessibility to material online that is fuelling an offline interest? Or is it the offline world giving young people the impetus to be risky online?” says Vidya.
“Kids today know that rape, murder, molestation by themselves are wrong. But what they may not know is that normalising it in language is wrong too; it creates an unconscious bias,” says Aarti.
Such ‘locker room’ groups are common enough among boys, agrees Dr Roshan Jain, a psychiatrist at Apollo Hospital, Bengaluru. He explains to pre-teens, teens, and young adults in college, that “Your thoughts, words, and actions are all interrelated. Being ‘politically correct’ is not something you do when you are in front of someone. The way you speak in private is bound to reflect in your behaviour in public; it becomes a part of your personality.”
In fact, the biggest challenge of being a parent comes when your child does something that violates another person or even a system (like cheating). “You have to let them know that they might not be bad people, but have done bad things. And understand why they have done this.”
Adds Aarti, “It’s neither about putting them down, nor indulging the behaviour by saying I will get you out of it. It is about acknowledging that they made a mistake, finding out where they come from, and helping them make a change.”