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What We Talk About When We Talk About Locker Room Talk

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Gabriel N. Rosenberg is assistant professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University and the author of The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America. His proudest achievement from four years of high school football is that as the starting center he never fumbled a snap.

You already know that Donald Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women. And you know that both he and his apologists have responded to this leaked tape by calling it “locker room talk.” In the last few days, jocks, journalists, coaches, and ex-jocks have been rising in defense of locker rooms everywhere to boldly proclaim #NotAllLockerRooms! Many folks seem excited about this response, but it leaves me completely cold.

At the most basic level, this response literalizes “locker room” in a painfully obtuse way. It’s obvious that Trump wasn’t literally engaging in “locker room talk” since he was on a bus. So what is “locker room” a metaphor for? Some research from folks who actually study gender and sexuality could be useful.

“Locker room” is short for male homosocial spaces, particularly those spaces where men are encouraged to exhibit aggression, dominance, and emotional invulnerability. As sociologist C. J. Pascoe notes in her ethnography of a California high school, ritualized bragging about sexual violence is a common way for many adolescent boys to perform masculinity. Pascoe also found that this bragging was consistently validated, countenanced, and sometimes reproduced by authority figures in the school—teachers, coaches, and administrators. Her response to the recent controversy is worth reading in its entirety but I want to foreground this:

“Locker room talk is not ‘just words.’ It is not funny. It is not harmless. And it is certainly not limited to the locker room. This kind of sex talk is a central part of normative masculinity in the global West. It is a way in which some men simultaneously endorse and dodge such endorsement of sexual assault. It is a way in which violence against women and women’s bodies are rendered ‘just jokes’ or ‘guy talk.’ In fact, the girls in my study were often used by young men as props in their competition for status and recognition from one another.”

Parsing whether actual bragging among men in homosocial spaces is identical to or “just as bad” as what Trump said badly misses the point. Bragging need not precisely fit a confession to sexual assault to reproduce the pernicious idea that real men dominate and real women wish to be dominated. Indeed, this is another critical finding of Pascoe and other scholars of American masculinity: talk among boys and men in homosocial spaces contributes to a view of masculinity that makes later sexual harassment and abuse of both girls and other boys more probable.

It’s not surprising, then, that even if one does focus on literal locker rooms, we probably shouldn’t be rushing to defend them. Many locker rooms are awful places! Not only are they where some men brag about sexualized domination in ways that leads to actual sexual violence outside of the locker room; they also happen to be the site of actual sexual violence and harassment in high schools, colleges, and even among professional sports.

I understand the underlying strategic sensibility—I won’t call it wisdom—that parallels the Clinton campaign’s election strategy until recently. Clinton repeatedly claimed that Donald Trump was singularly and historically awful among Republican politicians, such that his campaign represented a departure from the historical appeal of the GOP rather than its natural progression. The strategy gave wavering Republican voters emotional “permission” to dump Trump without feeling like they’d betrayed their party. Similarly, #NotAllLockerRooms offers men an exit ramp from Trump’s violent chauvinism and a way to square masculine identity with a vote for Clinton.

But as many have already noted, this triangulation comes at a serious cost. In the election context, it makes it harder in down-ballot races to tie other Republican candidates to Trump. More broadly, it also makes it harder for people on the left to (correctly) argue that Trump is an expression of the modern Republican party, not a deviation from it. In terms of the politics of sexual assault and Trump’s remarks, this triangulation makes it all the harder to talk about the vile reality of what happens in too many literal and metaphoric locker rooms.

To put it more bluntly, at a moment when Donald Trump is normalizing sexual assault, we are witnessing the obscene spectacle of people rising up to defend the honor of professional athletes. This priority seems, to say the least, misplaced.

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