There are undoubtedly dark corners in man caves where predatory boasts like those made by Donald Trump on videotape commonly occur, but dismissing them as mere ‘locker room talk’ entirely misses the point.
What Makes Locker Rooms Unique
Locker room culture, especially when it comes to team sports, differs from the way men are taught or allowed to behave more generally in three ways:
- It is incredibly primal. The demands of being successful, especially in a sport like football, strongly encourage a take-no-prisoners attitude. Aggressive behavior that is normally condemned is often lauded.
- There are very few other environments where colleagues confront and criticize each other so directly, often profanely. Imagine what would happen if Bobby Knight gave one of his patented halftime speeches at your office?
- And team chemistry almost always takes priority over fair play or criticizing teammates for off-the-field behavior.
All of three of these conditions can lead to serious problems, and graphic language and descriptions are commonplace. However, when it comes to sex talk, the vast majority of the time male athletes want to boast about how much beautiful women want to be with them, not about assaulting them.
Trump’s Likely Motives
The fact that Trump likened his behavior to that sometimes on display in locker rooms obscures his real motives.
Numerous remarks that he has made about female anatomy—on the video, during his campaign and over the past few decades—reflect the fact that he sees women, first and foremost, as sexual objects rather than colleagues or friends, or equals. He is effectively reinforcing the idea that a woman who is not attractive, by the standards of being a model, deserves second-class status.
It is important to understand that the social norms he is reinforcing strongly shape how women view themselves, and how men view themselves. I once heard a college football coach say that he would not hire an assistant who did not have an attractive wife. He reasoned that any coach who could not close the deal with a beautiful woman would not be able to close the deal with a prized recruit. Trump, like most of us, can’t escape definitions of success that are deeply woven into society’s fabric.
The fact that he has so much power only intensifies the sense of social expectation. Many people expect movie stars, star athletes and the rich and famous more generally to symbolize their success by flaunting customs and norms, and even laws, that ordinary people are compelled to obey.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the video was the casual manner in which Billy Bush and Trump discussed what amounted to sexual assault. There was no ambivalence, let alone contrition; they both seemed to revel in the fact that Trump is free to treat women so abusively. More to the point, there was nothing erotic about the conversation; this seemed to be a warped way Trump could substantiate his prowess.
Finally, Trump came across like a character from the TV show Mad Men, out of touch with how gender and sexual relations have evolved.
When I was a graduate student in philosophy during the early 90s, I once listened to the female chair of a department characterize some of her male colleagues as ‘ghoulish’ before she described how she had to fend some of them off at ‘professional’ conferences. There is still progress to be made, but I daresay that there is far less sexual harassment in academic and professional environments than 25 years ago (since the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing).
Locker Rooms, Board Rooms and Bar Rooms
I am very skeptical about whether male locker rooms have made progress at the same rate. After all, we are only three years removed seeing transcripts showing that then Miami Dolphins’ offensive lineman Richie Incognito hazed and bullied a younger teammate with homophobic and racist remarks.
Having acknowledged that, some athletes, such as National Football League wide receiver Chris Conley, have taken to twitter to condemn Mr. Trump and claimed that behavior like this is not normal: “I work in a locker room (every day)…that is not locker room talk…Have I been in every locker room? No. But the guys I know and respect don’t talk like that. They talk about girls but not like that. Period.”
The Incognito incident illustrates the extent to which locker rooms can incubate horrendous behavior and attitudes prevalent in society, but comments like Conley’s suggest that stereotyping locker room behavior and athletes risks painting too many men with the same brush.
There are still deep problems with gender and sexual relations, and some of those are no doubt manifested in locker rooms, but the root causes of the attitudes expressed by Mr. Trump, and Mr. Incognito, speak to much deeper issues in our society. A problematic locker room culture is the symptom not the cause of such offensive behavior.
The analogy Trump drew with locker rooms only served to diminish the importance of the issues raised by the recording. He and many of his defenders have tried to argue that his comments were just words, boys being boys, or a distraction from the real issues such immigration and ISIS. However, the idea that the way women are treated is just a political distraction speaks to how clueless Trump and his surrogates are about the impact of predatory behavior. And the claim that this is just the way that men are bound to behave is just false, regardless of whether we are talking about a locker room, boardroom, or bar room.
Men and gender relations, and even locker rooms, are evolving. It’s too bad that Mr. Trump opted to use his apology to trivialize and dismiss the issue rather than shed light on the power of language to perpetuate out-of-date social attitudes toward women.