It’s time… to talk about it!

Neerja Singh

The repeated headlines about rape talk over group chat, most recently, in a Mumbai private school should come as no surprise. The manner in which the affected parties handled it was also to be expected given our record as a hide-bound society. The psychiatrists are upon the scene with their talk of “nipping it in the bud”, the parents are in a state of silent shock and the authorities have washed their hands of the mess by suspending the students. Perhaps we should have talked to the boys instead, both before as well as after.

Why do we make a religion of bolting the stable door after the horse has made off? As a culture, we do not anticipate the curves ahead. Our ears are cocked at the neighbours or the screaming news anchors but not to the ground as they should be. It ought to be our mandate as the nurturers of the next generation to plot the dots and run ahead of catastrophe. It is not a skill we have learnt to value – yet. Do several more young lives need to be lost before we sit up and get our act together?

The unfortunate truth is that our children are keenly aware of the nature and pervasiveness of sexual assault in our culture. We should have begun discussing it openly with them along with sex and sexual identity a long time ago. Even though not only girls, but boys and young men are also sexually assaulted, the perpetrator is invariably a boy or a man. At the core is the idea of consent. This discussion around what constitutes consent ought to be followed by a game plan to face the reality. What should a young person do should they ever fall into a situation that feels unsafe or compromising? And can they come to us, to you and me, in the wake of sexual assault?

But is it enough to simply begin talking and practicing prevention? There has to be talk of consent, respect and behaviour of course, but it is crucial also to gauge what teenage boys think about the cause and effect of assault. Do they know what the boundaries are? Do they understand what defines sexual assault? Do they appreciate its impact on the victim? Do they have suggestions on how to prevent it?

With new definitions of sexuality and masculinity, there is a sense of insecurity, shame and confusion amongst many boys. Movements such as those of women empowerment and #MeToo have blurred the notions of what it is to be male in these times. There is a lot out there in the public domain about ‘toxic masculinity’ but who is outlining ‘positive masculinity’?

It is a common misconception that assault is about sex. It is not. It is about power, conquest and proving oneself a “man”. Often these unwelcome actions are prompted by a sense of self-loathing. It is time we begin speaking of maleness in terms of kindness, self-reliance, and respect for women, courage and a sense of humor. The current discourse about men being a blight on the culture or predators whose dark and damaging impulses need to be reined in is dangerous and utterly self-defeating.

As a society we have a lot to answer for. The disturbing and heartrending news stories are an indictment of the blinkers we refuse to take off. It is a comment on our delusional inertia that prevents us from keeping pace with our growing children. The onus is on us adults to stay on top of trends and technology. It is no longer enough to provide for their basic needs, the demand is from us to be their guides and allies and safe spaces.

We could take a few steps right off with reference to sexual assault. The first thing to do would be to stay mindful of our own language and attitudes towards gender stereotypes at home. The next wise step would be to take the mystery out of ‘taboo topics’ by making them a part of the family’s regular conversation at home. For this, parents and educators themselves need to be well-informed and current with the prevailing trends and attitudes. The third thing to do is to literally get into the trenches with the young. ‘I don’t need to know’ is not an option any more. It would strengthen the mutual connection if parents made an effort to engage with their music and the online content their children are consuming. The young need to know that their parents are plugged into the modern ecosystem. It is as important not to operate from a place of fear and anxiety as it is to not make harsh judgments on the perceived poor choices of our children. The very nature of society and environment has changed. It is not as linear and programmed as it was when we were teenagers. The final measure would be to throw open your home and heart to their friends irrespective of our opinion of them. When the chips are down, it boils down to open channels of communication.

This is our opportunity to help prevent sexual violence. We cannot afford not to use it and use it well. This generation is poised to carry a very different mantle. Even though we are leaving them a harsher world it is they who are forward thinking and have the potential to develop a deeper sense of humanity. The idea of the “conquest” of women and boasting of the number they have hooked up with no longer appeals to many young boys, for instance. The cultural spiel about and sanction of a male’s raging hormones does not wash any more. We need to acknowledge and support these notions as much as allay the fear and anxiety in potential victims. A phenomenal personal and cultural shift hangs in the balance. Precious young lives are at stake. We better stem this tide by staying ahead of the curve.

The author is a former teacher/journalist, published author, and a public speaker with a background and training in media, having worked in advertising, public relations, documentary film making, and feature journalism. She can be reached at [email protected].

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