Saturday, October 22, 2016

Toxic locker rooms

The candidate's comments do not need repeating. Our news cycle runs so quick that I was shocked my friend had not heard the 2005 clip yet by 2 P.M. the day they were released. The 2005 conversation between a then-59-year-old-twice-divorced-known-adulterer-accused-rapist-now-presidential-candidate and an off-brand Bush was so utterly disgusting it overshadowed the fact the former recently stated he still believes the Central Park 5 are guilty.

The relative moral outrage to the two statements is telling. Many politicians/pundits cited their daughters/mothers/wives to justify their anger and disappointment. Between the lines, these reactions also say: calling for the lynching of innocent black men just isn’t that big of a deal to me, and women’s humanity isn’t enough for me to care about sexual assault. But, weeks before the election, I am just happy conservatives are renouncing the Republican candidate. Today,  I am more concerned with the apologists.

Locker room talk. That is the justification from surrogates, supporters, and straight from the horse’s mouth. Some men have dismissed the locker room defense, pointing to their own benign experiences and essentially proclaiming “my locker room was not like that.” While I know that all-male locker rooms are not always hellholes, I have seen the worst of American masculinity come out in the locker room.

In junior high I witnessed a classmate get his underwear ripped off after P.E. class. In high school, I was held down and beat in the locker room after football practice. I carried a pocketknife to school because an upperclassman had a penchant for going nude and shoving underclassmen’s face into his groin. The conversations ranged from lewd to explicitly violent.

I disagree with the apologists. The candidate’s comments do represent “locker room talk.” And therein lies the problem. All-male spaces are the breeding grounds for misogyny and violence. Philip Cohen, writing on single gender workspaces,  put it best: “To understand the relationship between culture and behavior, you have to consider the possibility that extreme behavior is the tail end of a long distribution.” (

The Access Hollywood clip represents the spectrum of behavior that rape culture enables. On one end of the distribution is the listener who does not object, Billy Bush. In the middle is the trivialization of sexual violence, the actual recorded conversation. And at the extreme end are the acts of violence, committed by the man who wants to be president.  

All-male spaces play a pivotal role in fostering rape culture, in normalizing “locker room talk.” When men are not forced to confront the humanity of women in spaces that dominate their life, the mindset leaches out. The incubation of toxic masculinity results in real violence, against men and women alike.

The law has spurred along changes in all-male spaces, from the Virginia Military  Institute to the coal mine depicted in North Country. Yet no one would deny that more progress is needed. Which is why I am intrigued by a new all-male space that’s been created to spur change.

Students at Duke University and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill are both leading the charge of male group introspection. The Duke Women’s Center is sponsoring the Duke Men’s project with the hope of spurring the deconstruction of toxic masculinity. The nine-week program will consist of male-identified students and they’ll discuss privilege, the language of dominance, and intersectional feminism.

While the success of this project remains to be seen, I am optimistic about its prospects. An all-male setting might encourage higher participant receptiveness to the curriculum. The project is turning the locker room on its head, forcing the participants to grapple with gender issues when mothers, sisters, wives and daughters are not around. I hope that this, in turn, will make the participants better allies whose resistance to misogyny is rooted in the recognition of female humanity.

Links to posts about the Duke Men's Project and their Facebook page:


Louise Trainor said...

Ernest, thank you for your forceful arguments on this hot topic of "locker room talk". I agree with your point that this casual behind-closed-doors sexism which Mr. Trump attempts to justify directly feeds male entitlement and rape culture. Your comparison of this private male-dominated environment as the beginning of a broad spectrum which ultimately spans to sexual violence against women is powerful and intelligent.

I also think it is worth noting how harmful Mr. Trump's comments are to the males of our society. He is demeaning men when he claims that his language is common to all alike. He is equating all men to potential rapists. To think that such a character could become the head of government is frightening.

I read the articles you linked on the Duke Project and its prospects look very promising! I look forward to following up on its success in the coming months.

Kyle Kate Dudley said...


This post is so very important. I wish we saw more of this openness about what goes on behind closed doors in male-dominated environments. The locker rooms that you speak of (which were a terribly hostile environment you had to experience), and the football and military culture of the Atlantic article seem to foster an environment where men feel its important, or even necessary, to degrade women in language. Sometimes, I wonder, are men protecting themselves against other men with their misogynistic words?

I found this interesting article about how NFL players view their "locker room talk" It's a mix of apologists (like you've noted in your article), and others who are on the fence, though no one gets close to your honesty.

I think what you're doing by calling out an honest experience that, while may not happen everywhere, still happens all too frequently, opens the doors to real conversation about how to encourage men to be more feminist and supportive in their instincts towards women. The Duke program seem like they would do this too. I'm grateful that those exist. I'm grateful you wrote this post!

Josie Zimmermann said...

Thank you for sharing your experience. I haven't heard any other responses that are quite like this. Every response has either dismissed it as not a big deal or said that the comments are not their experience of locker room talk. I'm honestly struggling to reconcile your experience with those responses. While I do believe in toxic masculinity and its negative effects on men and society, it was just so comforting to hear men proclaim loudly that Trump's words were not the norm for male spaces. But I suppose they have to be. There's no other way to explain how so many still support him and dismiss the words. Thank you for making sure we don't get too comfortable in our rather liberal bubble, and reminding us what we should be working against.

Earnest Femingway said...

Josie, even with my own personal experience, I also find it difficult to reconcile the near unanimous responses of other men. I think this reaction is a manifestation of the "not-all-men" phenomenon, an attempt to distance yourself from a group you very much are a part of. It is a process all would-be allies go through because it is difficult to acknowledge your own shortcomings; no ally is perfect. Many of us make mistakes. I myself do not call out every instance of misogyny or check my male privilege sufficiently. But this outburst has spurred conversations and you are right, it is bursting the bubble. I hope the men who claim his comments do not represent their male space will stamp out future instances of "locker room talk."