Does men's ‘locker room talk’ encourage sexist behavior?
- The Urban Dictionary defines “locker room talk” as “the crude, vulgar, offensive and often sexual trade of comments guys pass to each other, usually in high school locker rooms. Exists solely for the purpose of male comedy and is not meant to be taken seriously.”
- Public discussion over “locker room talk” burst onto the scene in October 2016 when leaked 2005 footage of then-GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump hit the press.
- Candidate Trump referred to his lewd Access Hollywood chatter with then-host Billy Bush as “locker room banter.” A Politico/Morning Consult poll showed Republicans were more likely than Democrats to “think most men speak lewdly about women in private, 67 percent to 31 percent.”
- Then-Democrat presidential nominee, Hilary Clinton, tweeted in response to the footage, “This is horrific. We cannot allow this man to become president.”
While some may claim that 'men's locker room talk' promotes sexual assault against women, at the end of the day, such language is just words. It is protected free speech that has never been linked to increased sexual misconduct or any other negative act.
A New York Times sportswriter reported that despite sometimes overhearing questionable talk in a locker room setting, he 'never heard anything that could be described as an assault—not even close.' This doesn't dismiss that it can occur; however, the author noted such talk actually occurs less frequently now than it had in the past. A recent and notable example about 'locker room talk' surrounded President Trump and his 'Grab them by the p***y' comment. While his opposers, and many feminists, were outraged by this, it, of course, does not mean that Trump ever did what he joked about in 2005. Just as women also gossip, sometimes having an outlet to discuss controversial thoughts can be therapeutic in getting feelings or even sensitive desires off one's chest, even if the associated language or choice of words can be viewed as 'vulgar' or 'coarse.'
One often-overlooked point is that while 'locker room talk' is often frowned upon, it provides an opportunity for men to exercise personal autonomy—to hold one other accountable if another man makes inappropriate comments that cross the line. This type of freedom to lead by example could potentially prevent inappropriate behavior. 'Locker room talk' definitely does not encourage or 'normalize' sexual assault as some claim—such a crime is never considered appropriate in a free society. While undeniably sick individuals with malicious intentions do exist, condemning male banter is not the solution in dealing with them.
Though words may seem inconsequential, what we hear and say affects us subconsciously and creates internal biases that we may not even be aware of. Pamela B. Paresky, Ph.D. writes, 'The ways in which we speak 'prime' us to think in certain ways... […] Even if men don't consciously think they have less respect for women as a result of…[these] conversations, below the level of awareness, their brains are making associations.' Betty Anne Heggie elaborates on this point in a Huffington Post article: 'Once you have obscenely torn a woman apart with bro-talk, an insidious web of disrespect is woven. It becomes difficult to promote her and even more difficult to work for her. In short, it limits her opportunities.'
'Locker room talk' has psychological effects on women as well. Heggie states that 'From the time we enter high school we are told that this type of talk is harmless, good-natured joking and if we react negatively, we must lack a sense of humour.' The desire to belong and avoid conflict causes many men to keep silent in the face of 'locker room talk,' even if they think it is inappropriate. This silence is harmful because when men engage in 'locker room talk' and don't hear any objections from their peers, this further cements their belief that it is okay to talk about women this way. The damage 'locker room talk' does extend beyond any discomfort that may be caused at the time of speaking. Repeated exposure to such dehumanizing conversation about women creates subconscious biases and leads to sexist behavior towards women from men.