Crux of 'bois locker room' case lies in unpacking link between performance of masculinity and sexual violence

As the criminal justice system is set in motion in the #boislockerroom case, it is important that we keenly focus on how notions of masculinity — especially amongst adolescents — contribute to sexual violence, and how societal responses, including legal action against the accused, need to account for these factors

Megha Mehta and Akshat Agarwal May 09, 2020 09:45:57 IST
Crux of 'bois locker room' case lies in unpacking link between performance of masculinity and sexual violence

The outing of ‘bois locker room’, an Instagram group allegedly consisting of boys from Delhi’s prominent schools, who reportedly used the platform to sexually objectify young women (including minor girls and classmates of the boys), recently sparked off a row.

The police have since registered an FIR, confiscated the mobile devices of the offenders and have even taken one of the boys into custody. As the criminal justice system is set in motion, it is important that we keenly focus on how notions of masculinity — especially amongst adolescents — contribute to sexual violence, and how societal responses, including legal action against the accused, need to account for these factors.

#MeToo and the inadequate attention to masculinity

The bois locker room incident brings to mind the reverberations from India’s #MeToo movement, which brought widespread attention to the systemic violence that women face on a regular basis. The movement highlighted how entrenched structures of power perpetuate inequality and condone dehumanising treatment. The #MeToo movement thus established that violence against women is not spontaneous or the result of individual aberrations, but is often a result of the deeply internalised inequalities in gender relations.

The movement also brought to attention the need for fixing legal responses. For instance, it highlighted how problems with “due process” make the course of seeking justice a punishment in itself. It also emphasised the need for greater empathy and belief in survivors due to the entrenched constraints which women face in talking about their experiences. What perhaps did not get enough attention in the discourse were questions about the causal factors which sustain the systemic violence that women face. Societal notions of masculinity which impose high behavioural expectations on men constitute one such factor.

Crux of bois locker room case lies in unpacking link between performance of masculinity and sexual violence

The bois locker room incident brings to mind the reverberations from India’s #MeToo movement, which brought widespread attention to the systemic violence that women face on a regular basis. Illustration courtesy Namaah K for Firstpost

The link between the performance of masculinity and sexual violence

Violence against women is widely understood by scholars as not being about sexual desire but as being an expression of patriarchal power. The need to express such power however may often come from the need to express one’s masculinity. An alternative branch of scholarship suggests that sexual violence is used for maintaining power hierarchies between men as much as it is used for reinforcing hierarchies between men and women. Masculinity scholars thus draw links between the performance of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ and sexual violence/harassment.

The terms ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ refer to the set of patterns and practices through which gender norms (i.e. what it means to be a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’) are reinforced in society. There can be multiple masculinities, depending upon the specific cultural setting and socio-economic background of individuals therein. Socialisation into norms of masculinity begins from childhood and leads to the imposition of behavioural codes that many men spend their lives trying to conform to. To use a film-based example, men may simultaneously aspire to be like Amitabh Bachchan from Deewaar (angry working class man) or Rishi Kapoor from Bobby (romantic hero). However, some notions of masculinity are more associated with social authority and status than others. Scholars use the term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ to refer to the most culturally honoured conception of ‘being a man’ at a given point of time. In a patriarchal society, the ‘hegemonic masculinity’ is inevitably one which legitimises the subordination of women to men (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005).

Common behavioural tropes associated with hegemonic masculinity include the need to be aggressive, unemotional, and hyper-sexual. This is reinforced by the glorification of such traits by one’s family, literature, media, movies, etc. Of course, an important caveat is that hegemonic masculinity refers to a system of ordering gender relations, not to maleness per se, and hence does not reflect the universal experience of all men. Rather, women may also imitate ideals of hegemonic masculinity in order to assert power (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005) — which explains #girlslockerroom.

However the fact remains that it is disproportionately men who perceive that the best way of proving themselves as ‘real men’/‘asli mard’ is to assert their dominance over women through acts of sexual violence. Particularly in the context of #boislockerroom the reason adolescent boys often derive pleasure in talking in derogatory ways about women’s bodies or fantasising about raping them is because it serves as a device for grappling with their anxieties about ‘manhood’ and their performance of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ (i.e. proving they are not ‘gay/feminine’) (Pascoe, 2007). This explains why parents and schools rarely take such behaviour seriously, as they believe that this is ‘naturally’ expected from heterosexual young men who are just gaining awareness of the opposite sex (Robinson, 2006). Hegemonic masculinity also explains sexual and verbal violence against the LGBT community, as homosexual and transgender persons are perceived as threats to the hegemonic status quo of gender relations.

This behaviour gets exacerbated in the company of male peers because men rely upon other men to judge whether they are performing masculinity ‘correctly’. In fact, men often lie about being sexually experienced or attracted to women not because they actually desire such experiences but to avoid judgement by their peers. Many men are compelled into joining locker-room talk out of fear of harassment and accusations of being ‘womanly/queer’ if they do not participate. This explains why some men are willing to acknowledge sexist behaviour by their friends in private, but are hesitant to call out such behaviour when it actually occurs in a group setting (Pascoe, 2007; Robinson, 2006).

Rethinking responses

The existence of hegemonic ideals of ‘manhood’ certainly does not exonerate culpability for the crimes committed by the #boislockerroom group and others. However, mere retributive punishment cannot completely reform the offenders or deter similar crimes until and unless we promote alternative ideals of masculinity. Unfortunately, current criminal justice solutions for crimes against girls and women, particularly those committed by adolescents, do not factor in methods for remodeling the performance of hegemonic masculinity by offenders. In the #boislockerroom case, it is mostly probable that the offenders, if tried and convicted, will be sentenced under juvenile justice law. There is no legal framework for specifically dealing with children accused of committing sexual offences. The offenders may be released on probation, directed to perform ‘community service’ or attend general ‘therapeutic services’ which may not include gender sensitisation therapy. Even if they are imprisoned or committed to observation homes (which often resemble jails) they will most likely be made to undergo ‘vocational training’ which does nothing to address the factors motivating them to commit violence against women.

It is necessary that the State evolves multi-systemic methods for treating juvenile sex offenders, particularly those which encourage the exploration and construction of alternate masculine identities. Outside of the legal framework, it is necessary to have conversations about deconstructing gender norms at homes, schools and workplaces. Sex education programmes should not be limited to explaining themes of safe sex and consent, but should also involve discussing stereotypes and anxieties about the impact of gender roles on sexual interactions. We often condone misogyny in films and literature on the ground that these do not influence people, but the fact that these serve as reference points for idealised notions of masculinity and femininity, particularly for adolescents, can no longer be denied. It is only when the culture around us changes that a new hegemony of equity between genders can be achieved.

Megha Mehta is a judicial clerk at the Supreme Court of India and Akshat Agarwal is a research fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views expressed are personal.

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