“Locker room” language encourages rape culture, even if it stays private

It’s never “just words.”
It’s never “just words.”
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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The second presidential debate on Oct. 9 revealed that men and women are divided over the political issues are most important to them. A Facebook analysis of users released during the debate revealed that women’s trending topics were, in order of priority: Trump’s lewd 2005 video recording, ISIL, government ethics, education, and race issues. Men, meanwhile, were interested in the Wikileaks release of Clinton campaign emails, guns, Russia and Ukraine, the economy, and government ethics. According to Facebook, the Access Hollywood recording of Trump essentially admitting to sexual assault—number one on women’s minds—was much less important to men. The divide was evident, too, in the highly gendered responses to candidates’ performances. Women overwhelmingly favored Clinton and found Trump to be bullying, peevish, and reminiscent of abusers in their own lives.

In my own observation, reactions to the Trump tape have also split along gender lines.

Indeed, Trump’s defense for his sexism has centered around how common such language is among men generally. These are “just words, folks,” he told the debate audience, characterizing his boasts about sexual assault as mere “locker room banter.” This explanation relies on the idea that private talk and public talk are somehow separate. For many women, however, this separation makes no sense. In fact, locker room talk reinforces and reaffirms the cultural misogyny we experience in our own lives daily.

After the tape was released, Canadian author and blogger Kelly Oxford tweeted a request to women: share the story of the first time you were threatened or attacked. Oxford was 12. To date, Oxford says that she has received more than 29 million responses from women. The stories shared provide a distressing commentary on how pervasive sexual harassment and assault still are, and how early they begin for young women and girls. I was nine when I first remember being harassed, and I have lost count of the number of times in the ensuing years that I’ve been groped, “manhandled,” grabbed, or followed. How we learn to think and talk about behavior like Trump’s plays a powerful role in the oppression of women.

Over the weekend, I too was deluged by women who privately recounted instances of harassment they had long ignored or minimized. We do this as a survival mechanism; too many girls are still socialized to ignore and downplay the effect of men’s aggressive harassment. We are supposed to keep calm and taught not to interrupt men or assert ourselves in ways that might upset them. In this way, sexual aggression and power are intrinsically linked. So too are entitlement and abuse.

The ugly fact is that rape, which is always motivated by a desire for power, remains pervasive in our culture. In the US, advocacy organization RAINN estimates that fewer than 3% of rapists are ever incarcerated. In more than 50% of US states, rapists can still sue for custody of rape-born children. Marital rape, made illegal only in 1993, is still treated leniently. Until 2014, the FBI definition of rape did not include anal or oral penetration.

In addition to well-documented emotional and psychological trauma, victims incur financial costs rarely publicly commented on. A 2014 White House report concluded that the cost of recovery for the average survivor ranges from $87,000 to $240,776 per rape. Victims even have to pay for rape kit processing. The National Institute of Justice estimates that rape and other sexual assaults involving adults result in an annual minimum loss of $127 billion in health care costs alone. Sexual assault results in 50% of rape victims having to interrupt their school or work. This tally does not include costs related to lost educational or job opportunities, nor does it include the costs related to sexual harassment or abuse. Trump’s companies, for example, are currently involved in more than 20 sexual harassment and gender discrimination lawsuits.

Meanwhile, the costs of rape culture generally to women’s civic and political participation, including their freedom of movement and expression, are practically incalculable.

The problem is not that men haven’t thought about these things; it’s more that they haven’t thought about them enough or truly taken the time to understand what women are trying to tell them. Or, they have done these things and still chose to ignore women’s experiences and pain. Either way, it is difficult for many people to consider what it means that men who claim to have “great respect for women” can speak, publicly or privately, the way Trump and Billy Bush did. If men act in this way, then the paternalistic justification for male authority is, at it’s heart, corrupt and so is the legitimacy of that authority.

On Oct. 9, The New York Times writer Richard Perez Pena published a piece in which he asked men to explain what they thought of Trump’s comments. Most men he interviewed were horrified, but also readily accepted that this language isn’t rare. Even the most progressive, egalitarian, feminist men know that their peers (or they themselves) talk in ways that degrade and sexually objectify women. The story’s headline read, “Men Say Trump’s Remarks About Women are Beyond the Pale.” Women, meanwhile, have been calling out Trump’s behavior as sexist and egregious for this entire election cycle. And yet here we are in 2016, and nothing has really changed.

In the collective and institutionally powerful sense, men remain the deciders—in government, in law, in public policy, in the media. Women’s experiences with gendered violence continue to be systemically invalidated as a result. Look at the behavior of GOP leaders, many of whom have a long history of pursuing policies that degrade and infantilize women, and attempt to take away their autonomy. The politically expedient last straw for these men wasn’t Trump’s denigration of veterans, minorities, immigrants, the disabled, or beauty queens—it was the denigration of married white women.

Men who are our fathers, brothers, spouses, and coworkers cannot only respond when the insult is to their masculinity or sense of familial responsibility. And when women are told some variation of “Nothing really happened,” “Let’s focus on the important things,” “He just likes you,” “It’s a compliment,” “Stop being oversensitive,” or, as Trump argued, “they’re just words,” we are being told to accept male dominance and rape culture. To bring it back to Trump’s earliest justifications, this is what happens when we allow sexual harassment and assault to be waved away as harmless “locker room talk.”

Ultimately, Trump’s excuses specifically normalize this culture of everyday harassment, assault, coercion, and disregard for women’s consent. Any man (or woman) who thinks that what you say in private has no connection with how you behave in public hasn’t been paying attention to the way the world works. Women are not going to vote for a man who, like many others we encounter in our lives, rubs his entitlement in our faces.