In the Company of Men

We watched the second presidential debate last night with our little boys. It was pretty awful. For the hour before the debate we talked about the latest Trump video and his threat of casual sexual assault, which lives at that curiously precarious threshold between the morally unimaginable and the tragically commonplace. We tried to explain the back-story of Bill Clinton and his history of predation and indiscretion, about which our boys were even more incredulous. I suppose they have been normalized to the absurdities of Trump; but the idea that presidential history was littered and soiled with such stories was shocking to them (though I suppose that the Reynolds scandal — which they had learned about from memorizing the “Hamilton” soundtrack — had already begun the lifelong process that we all endure in rupturing the mythic purity of our political icons in the face of their peccadillos.) And then we sat through the debate itself, cringing as Trump dismissed his boastful, violent words as “locker room talk,” sitting alongside little boys who would one day find themselves with peers in just such locker rooms, and fearful that — for all the scaffolding that we intended to provide for them in this moment — some small amount of what they saw would seep in as instructive rather than cautionary.

We watched the debate with our kids for a simple reason: I need them, when they grow up, to become men.

I found myself stuck the morning after the incriminating Trump video appeared, and at a loss for words. The quick defense that amounted around the Trump campaign, the pathetic parry, was just this “locker room talk” defense: this is who men are. Though the defense itself implied that men were by nature actual sexual predators — that left alone, men actually want to grab women’s genitals, to rape and to boast about it — the apologists insisted that men merely enjoyed talking about such things, and that as long as the men involved issue a standard non-apology, we are meant to differentiate between what men should be allowed to say among men and how we judge men for their actions. Donald Trump reminds us, of course, that “no one respects women” more than him, which might well be true in his imagined universe which exists totally separate from the interactions that he actually has with women in real life.

I was stuck because assenting to the excuse of “locker room talk” gives Trump and his ilk a pass. When we allow ‘boys to be boys’ we tolerate far more than our ethical instincts should allow, and we foster an environment of fear and suspicion about the minds and hearts of men who may act gentlemanly in public but in private harbor predatory fantasies over their co-workers, friends, and people walking down the street.

But if we dissent from this excuse — if we say “not all men” — there too we weaken the case against this culture that we live in, one which is far too forgiving of the spectrum of behavior from sexual harassment to assault, a culture in which the Donald Trumps are allowed the plausible excuse of differentiating between what they say and what they do. Denying the “locker room talk” excuse denies that the larger problem we face, which is precisely that too many men act in the world like they are in a locker room.

There is another concern that gives me pause. The “locker room talk” excuse is not merely sourced by politicians, but is a relatively common feature of rabbinic malfeasance stories. When the Baruch Lanner controversy broke, a common excuse used in his defense for his physical abuse of boys was that ‘roughhousing’ was part of how boys interact, and can be an effective tool for character education. When the Jonathan Rosenblatt story broke in the New York Times, a process in which I played a small but meaningful role, I was accused by many people of misunderstanding, and mischaracterizing, the contrived nudity that the rabbi invited upon his subjects/victims, that I too had failed to understand this as a form of “locker room talk.” In other words: “locker room talk” is not merely a discourse that seeks to reiterate the difference between men and women for the purpose of protecting men against accusations of sexual violence against women; it is also deployed to de-masculinize men who might feel victimized by the behavior of other men.

And indeed, I experienced throughout the lifecycle of that story some self-doubt about my role in triggering this particular exposing of rabbinic malfeasance. Some men feel different than others in locker rooms, and men live with various (and often unarticulated) degrees of comfort and discomfort with their own nudity, the nudity of others, and the bawdy language that might accompany the loosening of boundaries in such spaces that envision a different correlation between the private and the public. Was I operating with an empirically different understanding of appropriate boundaries and therefore appropriate behavior? Mustn’t there be tolerable, subjective gray areas in boundary-crossing behavior whose negotiation and interpretation depend on the life and locker-room experience of the border police?

Today, I no longer have doubts about the propriety of that decision to go public, knowing now much more about the story and with so much independent verification about the dangerous patterns of behaviors that could only become visible with sunlight and with the tools of a proper investigation. In this case, too, the “locker room” provided a useful excuse, a means of deflecting responsibility towards an imagined culture that cannot be allowed to absorb the gross iniquities that are perpetrated in its name.

And here again the larger question remains: When men do not interrogate what it means to be a man, why are we surprised that they retreat to inarticulate excuses of masculinity in defending the most depraved behavior? Instead of asking whether “locker room talk” sufficiently exonerates Trump, we must ask: why would men’s-only spaces ever possibly tolerate such violence as part of their cultural norm? Why is this imagined locker room in which men brag of their sexual violence allowed to exist?

Our society is full of problems that are thought to be the problems of women. These include sexual violence, the dogged persistence of structural gender inequality in the workplace, a retrograde American insistence on medieval approaches towards childcare and parental leave, vicious public policy debates about the bodies of women that more often than not silence the voices of women, a new suite of challenges raised by individuals who sit at the threshold of the gender binary, and more. These are thought of as women’s problems, but more often than not are problems of and by men. Try though to set up a workshop on gender inequalities and see the gender balance in who shows up. The problems of women implicate us all, but are thought to be theirs.

I want my boys to be Jewish men. This means, in the words of the Sages, that “in the place where there are no men, [they must] strive to be a man.” It is not a failure of masculinity to challenge its assumptions; it is its fulfillment. I was so sad watching my boys watching the brokenness of American political masculinity. I hope they can learn that it is not their fated lot to become of the locker room. It is their responsibility to transcend it.