Let’s discuss “locker-room talk.” At the second presidential debate, Donald Trump defended taped comments that he likes to “grab [women] by the pussy” as simply “locker-room talk” instead of what it was: boasting about sexual assault.
Immediately, social media were flooded with pro athletes, people who assumedly have spent a hell of a lot more time in locker rooms than Donald Trump, saying that this is a slander on their workplace.
I have also spent my share of time in locker rooms, and while I understand the desire to brand Donald Trump as a uniquely misogynistic liar, I cannot say that his comments are alien to a locker room. If only the sole alleged rapist to emerge from a locker room in this country was Donald Trump, but that’s just not the truth. Read Jessica Luther’s book Unsportsmanlike Conduct and get a crash course about how the locker room can be an incubator of rape and a fortress against anyone who would challenge this culture.
I also, however, have no doubt that the athletes who are coming forward to say that they never heard rape talk in the locker room are telling the truth. Again, I have been in many locker rooms and it is absolutely true that there is no steady stream of banter—liberated to talk freely without the tender ears of lady-folk—blabbing about how they love to assault women. I personally have heard it only twice out of hundreds of locker-room interactions as an athlete or reporter. But both times, the words and deeds were anything but benign.
The first time was in high school. An upperclassman, call him “Brett,” was next to me bragging to a friend about how he, if at the right party and in the right scenario, “could grab any tits without even talking and make [any woman have sex with him].” He told a story in detail about the previous Saturday night when “[his] hands were all over her body and it was over.” He then quoted a rap song by Nice & Smooth—of all people—where Greg Nice says, “Sex sex sex is the ligga-ligga law when a guy gets a girl behind the bedroom door.”
I was a 15-year-old silent bystander to this. I stood and said nothing. I’d like to say I was concerned that I’d be beat up or pushed in a locker, but that would be bullshit. The truth was, I thought I’d look like a loser if I said anything. I was Billy Bush. I didn’t know what “rape culture” or being a “passive bystander” meant. I knew I left that locker room feeling like shit, embarrassed to face my big sister that evening.
That same student, Brett, was accused of rape as a senior. His parents had some sway and the choice was to kick him out of school quietly. His senior year quote, at a new school in a new yearbook, was more rap lyrics about rape. It was all a joke to him. (It’s at this point where I feel obliged to say that this person was white, wealthy, and entitled.)
The second time was also in high school. I had a very peaceful hippie, vegetarian basketball coach who once came into the locker room and told us to get our clothes on because one of the girls’ team coaches, Coach Deb, was about to come in and say a few words. We all reached for our pants, except a teammate I’ll call “Tim.” Tim saw this as a moment for humor and said, “Let’s keep our pants off because then we can rape her!”
I wish I could tell you whether laughter followed, but we didn’t even get the chance to react. Coach Dan backhanded Tim across the face. Seeing a coach or adult authority figure hit a 14-year-old, even a huge one like Tim, was shocking enough. Seeing Hippie Dan do it was unreal. We all stood there either stunned or shaking. Coach Dan finally spoke and said, “I’m sorry but there are some things you don’t joke about.” He then walked out of the locker room and practice was done. The incident was never mentioned, but Dan lost his joy for the job, Tim became sullen in practice, and that was the first and last locker-room rape joke of the season.
I am not writing about that last interaction positively. Using violence to teach a teenage kid that rape is wrong seems like being caught in the same cycle of toxic masculinity that produces rape and rape culture in the first place. But even though I disagree with what Coach Dan did, he wasn’t a passive bystander. I never heard about Tim being accused of assault. One wonders if someone had intervened with Brett if a woman—or women—could have been spared his predations. One wonders if someone had smacked a teenage Donald Trump, if women could have been spared the decades of degradation he has so willingly projected both in his public and personal life. It is because of people like Donald Trump that a locker room can become an incubator of rape culture and a fortress against anyone who would challenge it from the outside. Inside the locker room, all athletes need to pledge that this will not fly. No one—well, maybe almost no one—needs to be smacked. But the predators need to be confronted and removed. Don’t be a rape-culture bystander. Just be clear that “pulling a Trump” will not be tolerated, and say loudly and proudly, “Not in my locker room.”