“Locker Room Talk” is the Problem, Not the Excuse
I was in my mid-20s. I was one of those guys who had never really had much luck with girls. No dates, no dances in high school. One girlfriend right after. A lot of time not getting attention from girls after that. When I was 26 I met the girl I thought was the one. For about three months. It was one of those stupid mid-20s relationships that carried on long past its expiration date.
One night after we’d gotten tired of each other but before we were ready to go our separate ways we were hanging out. We hugged. She said something. I playfully grabbed her ass. She got pissed. She yelled at me. I told her that I was only joking and, geez, what’s the big deal?
This is one of those, “I was being an idiot,” stories. We had been close, once. We had been fairly intimate (inasmuch as was possible for two people in the weird world of Evangelical Christian dating). It’s entirely possible that a few weeks before that incident a little bit of grab-ass would have been fine. In that moment, at that state in our relationship it absolutely wasn’t.
I crossed a line. I didn’t realize it at the time and tried going with the, “But it was just a joke,” response. I didn’t realize at the time that my response was actually worse than my original crime.
What I realize now, with all of the time and distance, is that it doesn’t matter that I didn’t realize it at the time. It was a stupid thing to do. The relationship was irretrievably broken and the boundaries had moved to a different place.
I understand why feminists use the term “rape culture.” I understand because I realize that I have participated in that culture.
A few years later I was at work. One of my co-workers, a married man, tried one of those little “pull aside and have a private conversation” moves. The subject of the conversation was whether or not I found a particular co-worker attractive. I basically froze up and said that it wasn’t appropriate work conversation. He gave me the, “Geez, I talk about this stuff all the time with [other co-worker], but I guess I won’t talk about it with you.”
Now, to be clear, there wasn’t anything obscene about that topic of conversation. There wasn’t an, “I just grabbed her pussy,” moment. That, however, was the sort of conversation Donald Trump was talking about when he refers to “locker room talk.”
That moment I related as my first story is the only time in my life that I have ever touched a woman in a way that I was not given permission to touch her (outside of genuinely incidental contact like bumping into someone while not paying attention, of course). This is complicated by the fact that she had, in the past, invited me to touch her in various ways. In that moment that particular contact was outside of the boundaries of our relationship. If we were still talking I would be apologizing to her right now.
This is what Donald Trump and his various apologists don’t understand. In that moment I didn’t realize I was doing something wrong. Later on it was obvious to me that something another man was passing on to me as “locker room talk” was wrong. Sometimes it’s easier to say, “What this other person did was wrong,” while also not realizing, “What I did was wrong.”
The fact of the matter is that reducing a co-worker to an attractive set of physical features is wrong. Touching a girlfriend in a place where she hasn’t given permission is wrong. These are things that should be obvious to everyone. These are also places where it’s easy to make an honest mistake. Mostly, though, the “mistakes” are actually the product of learned behavior.
Now, a decade later, I have come to the realization that what I did was shameful and wrong but it was also minor, relatively speaking. My defense would basically have been, “But at least I didn’t grab your breasts or your crotch.” And yet here we are with a goddamn Presidential candidate who is defending the actual grabbing of a woman’s genitals with, “That was just locker room talk.” These two things are connected.
What I did was wrong. It crossed a boundary that I had no right to cross. I was touching her before that. We were hugging. We would touch after that but I never again touched her anywhere I had not been given permission to touch her. And this was with someone with whom I had a pre-existing, nominally sexual boundary.
I haven’t sat around stewing on this for the last decade. Hell, I’d forgotten all about it until this past weekend. And I’d forgotten about that conversation with that one co-worker, too. They both returned to me at about the same time. I’ve realized that they’re linked.
While I say that what I did was a minor point in the grand scheme of things I also realize that it, in it’s own tiny way, contributed to a huge problem in the grand scheme of things. Because while I learned my lesson that night I also did what guys tend to do in that situation. I told her to calm down, I was just messing around, and it wasn’t that big of a deal. It’s fundamentally true that it wasn’t that big of a deal. I never did it again. She added that night to the list of resentments in her head. We continued along in our fatally broken “relationship” for a while longer.
It’s also fundamentally true that it was an extremely big deal. Not for the moment itself but for what I did afterwards. See, she was pissed. She told me she hadn’t given me permission to do what I had just done. I responded by telling her to calm down because it wasn’t that big of a deal.
This is how men begin to teach themselves to ignore women. This is how men begin to teach themselves to discount women’s anger. This is how men begin to teach themselves to ignore women’s bodily autonomy.
This, then, is where the locker room conversation comes into play. I go find my guy friends and I say to them, “Hey, can you believe what happened last night? I was just goofing around and she got all pissed at me for no reason.”
Then my friends say something like, “Women. They’re all fucking crazy.”
That’s not how this went down for me that next day. I don’t recall telling anyone about it. But that moment happens all the time. A man crosses a boundary and then blames the woman for getting mad about it. And then that man goes back to his buddies and they all agree with him.
It’s weird to do the thing I did a couple of years later with my co-worker. The other thing that men all know is that if you want to be invited into the in-group you sometimes just have to participate. I’ve been in situations since there where a guy was joking around about women and I’ve tried to back out of the conversation only to hear, “You’re just going to have to deal with that if you want to be one of the guys. That’s how we talk around here.” These are situations with grown men, usually grown men who are married and have kids.
This creates what is referred to as “rape culture.” Men and boys tell each other that it’s okay to touch or talk about the women and girls in their lives. They tell those same women that it’s not okay for them to be mad about it. They then enforce it with each other by making that sort of conversation a prerequisite for being a part of the in-group.
When these conversations come up you then get a lot of “not all men”-type excuses. That is true enough. I, for one, like to think I have a very good, although not completely unblemished track record in that first part where I don’t treat women like objects. I have a decent track record of at least trying to avoid participation in “locker room talk” and thinking “boys will be boys” is a shitty excuse for bad behavior.
I will also say that in my adult life I have mostly managed to avoid men who talk like that altogether. It’s really not that hard to find men who don’t think of mistreating women as a way of life. But men who claim complete innocence on this are either protesting too much or not really understanding the subtext of some of their conversations.
When we dismiss women’s anger with a, “Calm down, it’s not so bad,” we normalize the behavior that made them angry in the first place. Boys do not have to be boys. Boys who grew up hearing, “Boys will be boys,” become men who don’t know where the boundaries are and think they get to be in control.
Men don’t just wake up one morning and think, “I am going to go grab a woman’s pussy.” They gradually give themselves permission to do that. They start small by touching a woman without her permission and then dismissing her anger. They go find like-minded men and commiserate about how women are all terrible and wholly in thrall to their emotions.
We have this cartoonish image of the rapist as the guy hanging out in dark alleys just waiting to grab strange women who happen to be walking past. So when men find out that some guy they know raped someone they respond with, “What? Bob? No, he could never do that. She must be a liar.” because they think of Bob as not-at-all the sort of guy who would hang out in dark alleys and grab a random woman.
The thing is that Bob probably wasn’t in an alley. Statistically speaking Bob raped a woman on a date or a friend at a party. And Bob didn’t wake up that morning and say, “I want to be a rapist.” He woke up one morning many years ago and told his buddies a story about how he grabbed some girl in an inappropriate way and then he apologized but she was still mad and women are all just freaking crazy.
So here’s the thing about Donald Trump’s “apology” for that video where he admitted to sexually assaulting a woman. “It’s just locker room talk,” isn’t an excuse. That “locker room talk” is actually the core of the problem. That is where men learn to give themselves permission to sexually assault women.
It’s not an excuse. It’s a further admission of guilt.
[Author’s note: I published a similar piece today that I have since taken down. I had been mulling this topic for the past couple days but finally sat down to write about it after watching the Presidential debate. So I turned this into a political rant, which wasn’t my goal at the outset.]
This article starts with a story I’m not particularly proud of. The fact of the matter is that in this particular conversation the only way to go forward is if people start being honest. I think it also matters that my story happened when I was in my 20s and at least old enough to know better. For most guys this sort of thing happens in their teens. So we need to figure out how to have these conversations early in life. If you think this is going to help start an honest conversation please like and share.