An Oxford linguist on the dangers of dismissing comments about sexual assault as “locker-room talk”

An obvious excuse.
An obvious excuse.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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“Grab them by the pussy,” Donald Trump boasted in 2005. “You can do anything.” When the recording of these comments surfaced last week, the Republican presidential nominee apologized, before later saying (predictably) that his words were ”locker-room talk.”

For Deborah Cameron, a linguist at the University of Oxford, the notion of ”locker-room talk” (or “banter,” to use its British-English equivalent) does more than explain what goes on in the mind of a known misogynist.

“The whole point of it is bonding,” she says. A sexualized discussion of women is largely “a way for men to have close emotional and social bonds [with each other] without risking their masculinity, which many are concerned and insecure about.” It’s about showing trust, affection, and entertainment.

“Banter” originally dates to the late 17th century and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks”; Merriam-Webster defines “locker-room talk” as having a “coarse or sexual nature.” The terms themselves don’t inherently imply a guilt-free space in which these sorts of conversations can happen, but “the meaning of a word is its use,” Cameron says, and in her view they now have connotations of men talking about things such as transgressive sexual desires (as well as making racist or homophobic comments), so that’s what they convey.

So what is Trump doing when he says that describing behavior that’s tantamount to sexual assault are just “locker-room talk”? First, Cameron explains, he is saying that these sorts of conversations happen in private among men who are just blowing off steam, and don’t reflect how they actually behave. By Trump playing the banter card, his message is “we talk shit, we lie to each other, it doesn’t mean I did commit sexual assault,” Cameron says. 

Second, says Cameron, this sort of public dismissal allows men to get away with such acts in real life. “It creates a culture in which women are viewed and treated on those terms (that is, public physical intrusion), and won’t feel they have any redress because people are saying ‘oh, it’s just a bit of fun’ or ‘it’s just a compliment’.”

“No man can feel it viscerally the way we [women] do: what it’s like to walk through the world and always be vulnerable to the grope or the grab.”

Private speech is just that—private—and can’t be policed, but that does not mean “it doesn’t have any influence on what people think or do outside the room,” Cameron says. The type of “locker-room talk” Trump makes excuses for, in a way, grooms men for that sort of transgressive behavior, “because it objectifies women and talks about them as if they’re not human… It’s getting men to a place where they feel it’s okay to do this.” It ends up being a way of inducting people “into the culture of aggressive heterosexual masculinity.”

But the story goes far beyond Trump’s predatory comments. “This is a kind of male culture that we’ve condoned for too long and are still making excuses for.”

The best resource for dealing with and talking about it is other men themselves. Peer pressure, Cameron says, is the only way. “Men have to stand up to it if they’re not comfortable with it and see that it’s doing harm.”