When the Indian media early in May began reporting about “Bois Locker Room”, an Instagram chat group in which members from elite Delhi schools allegedly shared photos of underage girls with brutally misogynistic comments, I was disturbed – but not surprised. As an urban sociologist and ethnographer, I recently spent 18 months participating in secretive, masculine worlds as I researched young men and their social worlds in Delhi.

The remarks allegedly made by members of the Bois Locker Room echoed the talk I had often heard on a Whatsapp group that I am part of for my research. These boys and men exemplify masculinities of a new digital India and their comments give us an unsettling glimpse into their digital worlds whilst amplifying their new forms of misogyny.

As a young British-Indian man myself, I got unique access to the clandestine all-male worlds where men openly expressed their sexist views and actions, while also talking about their anxieties and problems with other “brothers”. From my research, I know that the Bois Locker Room is just the tip of the iceberg.

Living a paradox

Among the group of men I worked with, their Whatsapp conversations routinely hosted jokes about rape, violence and the objectification of women. On several occasions, groups shared rape videos, child pornography as well as secretly filmed clips of young couples having sex in parks or abandoned buildings in Delhi. Alongside these was also the regular sharing of contact details and telephone numbers of young women, along with their photos and comments about their “assets” or “charges” (suggesting that they were sex workers) or “sexual skills”.

This masculine sexism amongst Indian men is not new of course, but the forms it takes today in our digital age are – and are being transmitted and amplified at an unparalleled scale.

Young Indian men are living a paradox. On the one hand, with improved digital connectivity, they have access to high levels of sexual content online. Yet, the strict patriarchal control over women means that “sex” continues to remain mystical and a “dirty” word for young men. This contradictory process is further complicated by a lack of sex education in Indian schools and an absence of frank public discussions about youth, sexualities, gender and sexual desires amongst the middle classes in India.

While working with young middle class men in Delhi, I witnessed first-hand their easy and constant access to women’s online profiles through social media and messaging services. Young men would regularly send Facebook friend requests to unknown women and frequently send messages saying, “Hi Dear” or “Looking good”. Sometimes women would accept these messages from men they found attractive and start online romances and late night texting. In some cases, this even led to offline relationships. In this way, a new digital economy of desire and sexuality has emerged.

However, these online relationships are clandestine and are forbidden by the families of both men and women which exert strict control over young peoples’ sexualities. At home, young people have to hide their messages and chats from parents and have to partake in swiping, texting and consuming pornography or online chats in secret without getting caught. Such secretive relations become easily exploitative in the unequal gender context, often with dire and complex consequences for women, whose sexualities are most controlled and policed.

Male entitlement

Young men’s entitlement often means that they exploit these inequitable gender relations for their own pleasure. For example, one young man called Raj from a college in Delhi, who I met during my research, explained to me how he would record the video calls and online dates with women without their knowledge. Then these recordings were shared among his male “brothers” as proof that let him boast about having a girlfriend and evidence of his macho heterosexual masculinity.

In this way, the strict policing of young women and their sexualities means that for young men like Raj, making such online contact with women is in itself a badge of honor. Likewise Raj would often blackmail women online to continue sending photos or face getting exposed. Hence, the misogyny of young men then takes on new forms and is reproduced in new ways.

A protest in Bangalore in 2014 against the alleged rape of a schoolgirl. Credit: AFP

But it isn’t as if the battle is lost. Sociologists such as Sanjay Srivastava have argued, cultures of masculinities keep changing. So there is great possibility in new articulations and forms that the lives of young men and boys can take in the digital age. Indeed, it is heartening to me that a young Muslim man, Haris Khan, was the whistleblower against the Bois Locker Room.

Young men like him represent and give hope that in India we also have other cultures of young men and masculinities with a different set of values, ideas and practices that need to also be highlighted and encouraged. However we also need to urgently address the deeper inequalities around gender and sexualities in India, as well as the forms of masculine privilege that dominate our society, which are at the heart of what we are witnessing in novel digitally mediated forms right now.

These are worrying trends that, to my mind, will keep increasing and becoming more prominent as India’s digital world keeps expanding, without an equal growth in our social and cultural attitudes towards sex, sexuality or gender.

Shannon Philip is an urban sociologist and ethnographer based at the University of Cambridge. He is writing a book titled A City of Men? Masculinities, Gender Relations and Youth in Urban India based on his PhD research completed at the University of Oxford.