Trigger warning: sexual abuse
By Mousomi Panda, a KYBKYR Campaign Fellow at The YP Foundation
In May 2020, the Bois Locker Room incident surfaced over the internet. It involved a private Instagram group where minor boys shared private and morphed pictures of girls, talked about sexually assaulting them, and posted messages objectifying them. Soon, the story was picked up by national and international media and evoked diverse reactions from the community. Some parents expressed their anger and shock at the incident and talked about the hazards of digital spaces, while some citizens advocated for the digital safety of adolescents and youth. This incident was not a unique one.
In 2015, two Facebook pages in regional languages openly posted pictures of minor girls with explicit captions like “What would you like to do with her?.” In 2016, 47 minors were found watching porn and other explicit content in cyber cafes in Hyderabad after skipping school.
In the Bois Locker Room incident, the parents of minors expressed their shock, the teachers took the incident as a warning to be more vigilant, and unfortunately for the minors, the case ended with the police parading them in front of the media as a moral lesson.
According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, of the 451 million monthly active internet users in India, 66 million are in the age bracket of 5-11 years and two-thirds are in the age group of 12-29 years. 28.4% of social media conversations are between people aged 13 to 23.
With the pandemic-enforced lockdown, schools, tuitions, and colleges have moved online. This has pushed even younger kids deeper into the digital world. But, as this shift takes place, most parents and teachers remain ill-equipped with skills and tools to help adolescents navigate digital spaces safely and respectfully.
As we look for answers to when and why our digital spaces become locker rooms, we need to ask ourselves a few questions. What are safe spaces for adolescents to only talk about their bodies, sexuality, and desires? What are safe spaces for adolescents to explore pleasure? Are these spaces cognisant of mutual consent? How can adolescents express their sexuality without violating the rights of other individuals and, knowingly or unknowingly, indulging in cyber or other forms of abuse?
Adolescents need safe and non-judgmental spaces to openly discuss their bodies, sexuality, and desires. The culture of monitoring, control, and silence around these issues deprives adolescents of a healthy understanding of boundaries in and outside relationships. They seek a forum to navigate the inevitable physical, emotional, and hormonal changes taking place and often look for answers online. With the world fastly moving from physical to digital interaction, young people are taking their relationships online.
To a certain extent, online spaces provide agency and anonymity to adolescents to explore their curiosity around sexual interest and express their sexual desires. But, at the same time, there is no escape from unfiltered violent and sexually explicit content in the digital world.
Adolescents’ exposure to sexually explicit content like porn, which is heavily proliferated with violent and non-consensual porn and often includes child sexual abuse material, lead to skewed understandings of sex and desire.
Consequently, adolescents end up taking refuge in digital spaces and use social media as an outlet to express their sexuality without much consideration for the dignity, privacy, and consent of others.
Demographically, India has the largest youth population in the world with 27% of the population under the age of 15 and 26% within the age bracket of 15-29. The number of adolescents and young people accessing and exploring the digital space is only going to grow. But, if they go on to do so without an understanding of comprehensive sexuality education, they are likely to overstep the boundaries of other individuals.
Comprehensive sexuality education is “a rights-based and gender-focused approach to sexuality education, whether in school or out of school. The curriculum-based education of CSE aims to equip children and young people with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values that will enable them to develop a positive view of their sexuality, in the context of their emotional and social development.”
CSE includes key components like gender, sexual rights, pleasure, consent, violence, and relationships. It is an important tool for young people in many ways. It equips them with information and skills to question the rigid stereotypes on gender, sex, masculinity, and femininity which are integral to address gender inequality. It also introduces them to communication tools which they can use to express their sexual desires in a healthy manner. CSE also builds young people’s understanding of various forms of violence, its impact on victims, and sensitises them for building healthy relationships free from violence.
In the absence of rights-bearing and sex-positive language to talk about bodies and desire, adolescents assume that actions exhibited in online content are the norm. Oftentimes, these actions are reflective of masculine privilege and gender inequalities. This can lead adolescents to accept misogynistic and sexist norms and exhibit similar behaviour online.
If we try to identify CSE principles in the Bois Locker room case, we find a complete absence of consent, privacy, autonomy, and mutually respectful relationships. As much as it reveals some teenage boys’ toxic attitudes and violent behaviours towards women, it also points to the gaping need to equip young people with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values they need to enjoy both their sexuality and the autonomy of other individuals, in or outside relationships.
For a brief guide on what CSE is all about and how to talk to young people about sexuality, check out The YP Foundation’s resource kits. To understand more about why and how to talk to young people about sexuality and bodies, have a look at TARSHI’Sresource kits.
As society still maintains a conservative attitude towards sex and refuses to provide young people with open and much-needed information about bodies and relationships, young people resort to digital spaces to find answers.
Sexting is the act of “sending and receiving sexually explicit or suggestive images, messages, or video clips using electronic devices or the internet.”
With early access to gadgets and the internet, sexting has become a preferred tool for young people to explore their sexuality and engage in intimacy as it provides them with space without moral censure and excessive supervision of adults. When done consensually and with respect for the privacy and digital safety of all participants, sexting can create a healthy understanding of bodies, pleasure, and relationships.
Young people are likely to explore their bodies, sexuality, and sexual desires at some point in their life and adults can no longer fail young people in giving them appropriate information that is crucial for their well-being. One cannot control the physical, emotional, and psychological changes that young people experience.
Parents and other trusted adults need to understand that silence around sex and sexting makes young people vulnerable to peer pressure, cyberbullying, and other forms of violence. In such cases, parents are more likely to find out about young people engaging in sexting when their privacy and safety have been compromised. There is a need for parents to participate with the kids in the discussion around consent, sex, bodily autonomy, privacy and digital safety.
Sexting can also get young people in legal trouble for circulation of pornographic material, violation of privacy, objectionable behaviour online, and cyber abuse. Such incidents can fall on a wide spectrum as the adolescent can be at the receiving end of abuse, the perpetrator of abuse, or can participate passively and actively in the process without realising legal and other implications of their actions.
If young people are not sensitised to make informed choices for themselves, it is likely that they can also be booked for various offences. This means they can be covered under penal provisions of various statutes like the Information Technology Act 2000 (IT Act), the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 (POCSO Act).
The minors in such cases are said to be in “conflict with law” and can be penalised under the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015. The juveniles can be sentenced to a maximum punishment of three years apart from being fined and subjected to other corrective measures. In the case of severe offences, minors between the age of 16-18 years can also be tried as adults and subjected to more stringent punishments.
Resorting to shaming, moral censure, judgment, punishment, and failure to deal sensitively with such incidents can be even more detrimental. It is time for adults not to turn a blind eye and instead to develop a non-judgmental communication bridge with young people.
Contrary to popular myths and belief that imparting information on sexuality will morally corrupt young people, CSE has a positive role to play by helping them make better-informed choices. It is long due that the potential of comprehensive sexuality education is acknowledged in order to address recurring instances like Bois Locker Room.
Parents can make sure that young people get access to proper information on comprehensive sexuality education that is age-appropriate, sensitive, and rights-based. Here are some resources that parents can utilise while initiating the talk with young people:
Image credits: The YP Foundation
References: BBC, The Quint, Indian Express, Internet and Mobile Association of India, UNFPA India, Duhaime