The tape of Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women disgusted and shocked the world. Trump and his still loyal supporters have been downplaying the repugnance of his commentary by using the term “locker room talk”. This assertion is problematic, but not surprising, even if only because there is a spot of truth in it.
Sports are a realm where individuals of all genders can learn diligence in pursuit of goals, grace in adversity, mental mastery over one’s physicality, and often the discipline of teamwork. While striving for self, athletes must also follow rules of decent conduct toward others in the competition arena. These are life skills that should help forge better members of society, not groom predatory sociopaths.
High profile sports figures have expressed outrage at the idea that Trump’s and Billy Bush’s behavior mirrors the way all athletes comport themselves behind closed doors. Despite the public disavowals and distancing, the presence of misogyny in sports culture is not new. Trump certainly didn’t pioneer using the phrase “locker room talk” to describe hateful conversations between men about women. Yet, we should drop the euphemism and get to the ugly truth. Conversations that demean women or relish, however jokingly, tales of violence towards them is misogyny talk.
When we mislabel misogyny talk as locker room talk, we are co-signing the assertion that this type of exchange is something that males naturally engage in when alone with each other. Consequently, we sanction the collective dehumanizing of women and girls as a normal form of male social bonding. By implication, we say it is acceptable for any male dominated space, whether a locker room, a boardroom, or a bus, to become an unsafe place for women and girls. Generations of passing off misogyny talk as routine locker room talk has strengthened rape culture.
Over the past several decades, athletes like Nancy Lopez, Serena Williams and Abby Wambach have forced previously male-dominated sports to reckon with their achievements, inspiring others to follow in their footsteps. We know sexual assault is not about sex and actually about power. Therefore, women, and even marginalized men can be victimized in sporting environments in which sexual violence is discussed as normal and/or entertaining means to prove one’s vitality and to control another person. Touting misogyny talk as locker room talk, is also harmful to women and girls who move and work in other sectors where they are in the numerical minority, such as the technology industry.
The false narrative of misogyny talk as normal, acceptable locker room banter may have played a part in not only the start of many gender violence stories but the ending as well. The criminal justice system judged high school athlete David Becker and former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner not as convicted rapists deserving full punishment under the law, but a couple of “boys who will be boys” that deserve a second chance. A CNN investigation explores systemic privileges extended to athlete rapists, referring to “one frequently cited study, published in Sociology of Sport Journal in 1997,” which “found that even though athletes are more likely to be arrested for sexual assault than the general population, they are less likely to be convicted”.
Interestingly, it was Billy Bush, the same man who egged Trump on during that infamous tape, who minimized Ryan Lochte’s criminal behavior and lies in Brazil. Simply compare how the U.S.A. has treated 1968 Olympian sprinters Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and these days Colin Kaepernick, with the way our society handles the Beckers, Turners and the Lochtes,
One might believe we have more tolerance for athletes harming women than we do for those athletes who champion human rights.