In seventh grade in an all-girls’ boarding school, during our strictly limited post-dinner free time, my friend told me she had heard something about a girl several years our senior. A part of my 12-year-old brain could anticipate a tragedy, but the morbid curiosity was more powerful. “She was drunk in a car with some of her friends (from an all-boys school), and apparently they took turns fingering her.” I was embarrassed I didn’t fully understand what that meant, so I didn’t ask. I also didn’t understand, at the time, the full weight of the implications of this event, that this thing that happened and all its other variations would become a leitmotif of my life, of my friend’s life, of the lives of countless people, based on a single fact. We were not men.
Since Bois Locker Room was exposed, several remedies have floated in and out of conversations—the boys need counselling, parents, relatives and schools need to take responsibility and develop a firmer hand, boys like them need to be called out by their more conscientious friends and partners. This bulk of advice is balanced by a more conventional pity for these ‘high school children’, a disdain for girls who wore what they wore on Instagram, and the golden paradoxical banality, “girls need to stop objectifying themselves”.
A small technical detail that has been glossed over in the midst of this moral quagmire is that objectification is not a phenomenon that materialises in a vacuum. Object implies subject, gaze and audience. This advice doesn’t mean anything because it fails to interrogate the crux of the issue—who do womxn objectify themselves for?
Self-objectification is not the result of crop tops. It is the consequence of an internalisation of the male gaze, of the perspective that womxn are only as good as their bodies. Self-objectification doesn’t obviate the fact that there is a consumer, that there are two ends to this economy. Men realise objectification is a problem only when it ceases to be a transaction of women between men and instead becomes a dynamic that women also benefit from in some way. Sex work is accepted only if men can control both ends of the transaction, but if a womxn has an OnlyFans account and regulates the supply end of the market by putting a self-determined price tag on her sex work, then ‘women shouldn’t objectify themselves’. If make-up and skirts cater to womxn’s pleasure instead of male demands, then ‘girls shouldn’t objectify themselves’.
The other problem with this insipidly self-righteous platitude is that it places the onus of generating solutions on the objectified person. As a society of apologists, we are always concerned with the implications of men being punished for their assaultive ways.
We protect and coddle predatory uncles, handsy friends, lecherous bosses and wife-beating sons, and enable men to assume authority over womxn’s bodies. We worry about how reporting men will hurt their career prospects, how legal action will destroy their delicate and endlessly bright futures, how punitive measures will cordon off conversation instead of helping foster a learning moment for these boys. If they are schoolchildren effectively planning a gangrape, they are too young; if they are adult men, everyone deserves a second chance.
How touchingly considerate, except survivors are perennially absent from these considerations. The futures of men, their privacy, their mental health, their personal growth have always been encouraged on the backs of the womxn they have broken. People have noted that the nature of this chat was not surprising. After all, womxn are never too young for the infliction of any manner of brutality; there is no lower age limit for when we can be socialised as second-class citizens. We are raised with the unspoken understanding that our bodies exist to bear witness to the material consequences of ‘locker room banter’.
Petulantly emphasising ‘not all men’, all men are feeling deeply attacked having been painted in the broad stroke of being potential aggressors. The din over ‘not all men’ is so deafening that nobody asks, ‘why all womxn’, why a disproportionately large number of non-male persons face physical and emotional violence, and how fear became the rubric underlying our collective experiences. It is 2020 and nobody seems to have realised that womxn’s lives are not up for negotiation.
These boys are sentient enough to know what they were talking about in their ‘locker room’. They issue rape threats, speculate on bra sizes, circulate photos of girls as young as fourteen without consent, shred the humanity associated with the human body, and this deserves legal action. Psychoanalysis, therapy and counselling are supplementary aids to address the material distributaries of a larger structural problem, so that significant steps in improving parenting and pedagogic methods can be taken. They are not devices of justice.
For too long the theory has focused on deliberating and discussing structural violence in lieu of concrete redressal measures, and the praxis has focused on nothing. For too long, womxn and girls have been shamed for the facets of their existence by their own families, friends and partners, everyone involved in varying levels of policing, shaming and betrayal. These schoolgirls, who will now spend years resisting the inevitable shaming and humiliation from acquaintances, deserve justice.
It is not simply particular individuals who are locker room bois; when parents protect predatory relatives while punishing sexual curiosity in children, they are the locker room. When institutions shield exploitative individuals, often in powerful positions, they are the locker room. When we defend our friends, siblings and significant others despite knowing what they have done, we are the locker room.
What womxn increasingly need is unbridled compassion in the midst of multifaceted cruelties. We need to generate cultures of restitutive justice and drill home the fact that actions have consequences; men especially need to stop walking away from their ‘problematic’ friends and their perspectives as if that would exonerate them. We need to stop betraying young girls and womxn by invalidating their traumas and experiences, especially when the assailant is someone we know or admire or live with.
It doesn’t take any courage or thought to say womxn shouldn’t objectify themselves; it takes a little more to admit that the socially instituted male gaze creates uninhabitable realities for every single womxn. It takes the most however to accept that all men may not be culpable, but all men are complicit.
Ashmita is an MPhil graduate in English Literature from University of Cambridge. She is currently a writer for Proactive, working with women’s sexual and reproductive health in India. She eats disproportionate amounts of ice-cream and her academic work focuses on narratives of state-sponsored sexual violence in areas of conflict, and decolonisation and gender. You can find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Featured Image Source: Makers India