The logic of prohibition as protection is inherently perverse. It ends up punishing the vulnerable instead of empowering them, and reveals unsavoury prejudices in the minds of the protectors. The women and child welfare committee made up of legislators from the Karnataka assembly has recommended that students should be banned from using their mobile phones in the state’s schools and colleges. The point of the ban is to prevent sexual harassment of female students. When girls “play” with their phones they are “inviting trouble”, according to the committee’s chairperson. They could be “lured” into what she describes as “phone friendships”, which often put them in sexual danger. They could even be abducted while being absorbed with their phones, or “fall prey” to “sexual predators” in countless other ways, all somehow to do with phones or, worse still, social networking sites. Such unthinking and misplaced punitiveness has a bigoted ring to it that comes from the same sort of mindset that insists on regulating what women wear in public in order to prevent rape. It is particularly unfortunate when educational institutions blur the distinction between instilling good manners and guarding sexual morality. It makes a lot of sense to have rules about the use of mobile phones during classes. But the point of these rules is not to shield girls from the perils of sexual exploration. In fact, a much better way of ensuring their safety would be to have sensible discussions in class about how to handle the access to ‘adult’ material that the new technology gives to both male and female students.
In order to do this, the adults responsible for the safety of students must sort out their own confusions regarding sexuality in general, and the sexuality of the very young, in particular. Vengeful prudery is likely to have the opposite effect on students, and is unlikely to be taken seriously by young people who prefer to use their education to become independent-minded. It would be wrongheaded of adults to use their authority to take the prohibitionist or moralistic approach to regulating the use of phones, social networking sites or the internet by students. Educators, administrators and politicians have to think through these matters in less arbitrary and more nuanced ways in order to discharge their duty of looking after the over-all well-being of the young.