Male Athletes May Insist Otherwise, But Locker Rooms Are Filled With Toxic Masculinity

Photo Credit: GQ

I have all kinds of feelings about Donald Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” remarks and the ensuing push back from professional athletes about what constitutes “locker room talk.” And I need to unpack them here.

First, let me say this: As a woman who has worked in male-dominated industries (mainly, sports) for several years, I am heartened to see that so many male players are speaking up about sexual violence. It’s critical that we have men raise their voices on these important issues, and I’m encouraged by their passionate advocacy here.

That being said, I’m really disappointed by the angle that is being peddled to make this point right now, which is to insist that pro locker rooms are NOTHING like how Trump spoke to Billy Bush. It’s a false dichotomy of good vs. bad that is naive at best and erasure at worst. We can affirm that #NotAllMen speak so deplorably about assault (even macho athletes) while also acknowledging the gendered toxicity that still exists in these male-centric arenas.

Having worked in *actual locker rooms,* I can promise you that they’re no picnic if you’re a woman. Just last year, three reporters were barred from NFL locker room access, with the reason given as “you know how guys are.” In 1990, Boston Herald Reporter Lisa Olson was flashed by five New England Patriots players, and in the present day male athletes and team staff still use their positions of power to hit on female talent.

And let’s be clear: This sexual degradation is still the rule, not the exception. As Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated has asserted, “If you think such stories are uncommon, think again. Most women who work in the sports media have similar stories to tell.” Here are a few examples:

While covering hockey, one west coast-based sports television reporter recalled a player skating by during a practice to say, “Nice lip gloss, it’ll look good on my c — — tonight.” There were the GMs over the years who told the woman that females should not be sports reporters. When traveling on the road with pro teams, the reporter said she had players knocking on her door at 4 a.m.

“I’ve been invited to hotel rooms while on the road more times than I can count,” said one east coast-based female sports reporter who has worked for newspapers and websites. “One agent was fixated on me giving him a number of how many penises I had seen in locker rooms through the years and how they compared. I eventually stopped calling him, which meant that sometimes I was unable to get information I needed.”

“It doesn’t happen often, but I have had my breasts and butt squeezed, the old ‘hand at the small my back’ that slides down and/or across, a stolen kiss on the cheek, etc.,” said one female sports anchor in an east coast market. “While it all seems innocent enough, it can be really uncomfortable, particularly the subtle touching. It makes you feel like you are not even human but instead an object for someone else to ogle or fondle.”

In all of the aforementioned instances, a woman’s personhood is reduced to that of a sexual object, instead of recognizing the three-dimensional human being that she is. This is what we talk about when we use the term “rape culture.”

So while it may very well be the case that no one in a locker room is explicitly advocating assault, the sexual objectification of women is still all too commonplace. And it has real, dangerous consequences for us. From the Washington Post:

Truth is, many men objectify women and say outrageously offensive things about their breasts, butts and other body parts in spaces we occupy with each other…Such talk is not confined to gyms and country club showers, but occurs too often in other spaces where men are among other men — in fraternity houses, on golf courses, in barbershops, at bars. When men fail to challenge other men on troubling things they say about and do to women, we contribute to cultures that excuse sexual harassment, assault and other forms of gender violence.

There’s lots of progress being made on these fronts, and it gives me hope for the future. However, it’s insulting, and frankly it feels like gaslighting, to pretend that these male-dominated spaces are closer to being bastions of feminism than they are to resembling the boys club banter between Trump and Bush. Moreover, this lack of nuance does nothing to help push this complex conversation forward in the march toward equality.

So next time, men — please don’t reflexively hold up your hands and say WE’RE NOTHING LIKE THIS ASSHOLE OVER THERE. Instead, make sure that you’re constantly examining how *you* can be better and more inclusive. That’s true allyship.