Despite what we might want to believe, the Republican nominee doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
By Jenny J. Chen
Donald Trump casts a shadow as he speaks on September 28th, 2016. (Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
On October 8th, Donald Trump once again scandalized the Internet when a video from 2005 resurfaced, depicting the presidential nominee bragging that his celebrity status allowed him to sexually harass women. “Grab them by the pussy,” Trump was recorded as saying. “You can do anything.”
When Trump dismissed the video two days later by saying it was merely “locker room banter,” professional athletes scrambled to distance themselves by publicly decrying his comments. “I didn’t appreciate it, to be completely honest,” Miami Heat forward Udonis Haslem told CNN. “That’s not our locker room talk.” Oakland A’s pitcher Sean Doolittle tweeted, “As an athlete, I’ve been in locker rooms my entire adult life and uh, that’s not locker room talk.” Former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe wrote a viral piece for Vox in which he rails: “Not in any locker room. Not in high school, not in college, not professional, not recreational. I’ve never heard any man talk of anything of that nature.”
While it’s admirable that men are condemning Trump’s language, their claim that they’ve never heard or participated in similar talk is misleading. It masks the reality that Trump’s words are actually quite representative of male-only settings, and are a direct result of a culture that teaches boys that sexual conquest equals status and inclusion. Trump doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
The truth is, the type of language Trump calls “locker room banter” is embedded in what it means to act like a man in Western culture. Known among sociologists as “homosocial behavior,” banter serves the dual purpose of competition and connection between men. Bragging about sex is a way men establish social hierarchy in a paradigm where boys are taught from a young age that the more sexual experience someone has, the more masculine (and therefore powerful and respected) he’s seen by his peers. Getting a woman to sleep with you is not a natural progression of a relationship, but more of an affirmation of your masculinity.
Sex as status is particularly well illustrated in a 2008 paper published in the journal Men and Masculinities, in which Australian sociologist Michael Flood interviewed and observed young men in male-only settings (at a college, military academy, and youth center). Many of his interviewees admitted that the act of sex was less about the woman they were with than it was about how they would be seen by their male peers. “I’ve got a girl suckin’ me off … and I go: ‘Hohhh. If the boys could see me now,’” said one young man identified as “Tim.”
Bragging about sex is a way men establish social hierarchy in a paradigm where boys are taught from a young age that, the more sexual experience someone has, the more masculine he’s seen by his peers.
Jonathan Kalin, founder of Party With Consent, an organization that advocates against campus sexual assault, says this refrain is common in America as well. “That concept of ‘manhood’ can escalate conversations about who can find the most demeaning, objectifying story, who can get the most naked pictures of girls on their phones,” Kalin says. What’s more, the more a guy can shock the other guys with his cruelty, the more he will be feared by his peers. “Guys think, if [they] can project a tone of ‘I don’t give a shit what the consequences are,’ the less people are going to take advantage of [them], and pick on [them],” Kalin says.
For an example of how that cruelty can manifest itself in an actual locker room, look at a study published in 1991, where sports psychologist Timothy Jon Curry documented locker room talk among athletes and coaches for nine months. One of the conversations he recorded reads:
Athlete 1: He said he was with two different girls in the same day and both girls were begging, and I emphasize begging, for him to stop. He said he banged each of them so hard that they begged for him to stop … he just kept telling me about this; it was hilarious.
Sexual conquest also serves as a bonding activity between guys — something only “the men” do together, an inside joke of sorts. Men who don’t participate can feel like an outsider. In Flood’s study, “Tim” details how he and a friend are at a local hotel with their girlfriends and both end up having sex within earshot of each other. Tim says:
I could see Curtis, like, in the other room goin’, “Yeah, yeah,” and I’m goin’, “Yeah, yeah,” and we’re thinking of each other, you know, as we’re giving it to ’em…. The girls were loving it ’cause they were both howling, you could hear them go: “Oh! Fuck! Uh, oh, oh.” … It was fantastic. It was great, ’cause it was, like, it was teamwork, you know? … Yeah, so we just do everything together.
This teamwork mentality takes an even darker turn when Flood describes a game some of these men played called “Rodeo,” where one of the men goes out to pick up the most overweight woman he can, brings her back to the room and ties her to the bed on her hands and knees. He then calls out to his hiding friends to watch as he jumps on her back, trying to hold on for as long as he can while she struggles. Another disturbing “game” (reminiscent of the Stanford University rape case that made headlines earlier this year) involves a group of men bringing a drunk girl home and taking turns thrusting golf balls into her vagina trying to “get a hole in one” after she had passed out.
Sean Doolittle pitches in a game on May 27th, 2015. (Photo: Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
It’s easy for professional athletes to deny that Trump’s language doesn’t exist in locker rooms — direct quotes from male-only communities are hard to come by because they’re usually only said behind closed doors. Furthermore, there’s an understanding that what’s said between men is not repeated to others. However, to any man who has grown up in American male culture, these comments are not foreign at all. Shaun Harper, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in an essay in the Washington Post about how young boys learn to banter about women as early as middle school: “Truth is, I have known Trumps most of my life.” Even in the context of actual locker rooms, such banter pervades. Tom Boselli, former offensive lineman for the Jacksonville Jaguars, told Bleacher Report: “To act like what Donald Trump said is so far out there from what’s said in a locker room, that’s ridiculous.”
The consequences of a culture where men are applauded for their sexual dominance over women are clear to anyone paying attention. Sexual assault is rampant among male athletes: Last year, Vicereleased a list of 44 National Football League players who have been accused of sexual or physical assault. A survey released earlier this year found that 54 percent of college male athletes admitted to sexually coercive behavior, many of which met the legal definitions of rape. And, of course, this behavior is not limited to the sports environment — it filters into all male-only spaces including Wall Street, the entertainment business, board rooms, and golf courses. Harper says he even hears this kind of talk at children’s birthday parties among fathers talking about their kids’ mothers.
“The everyday sexism I saw, and participated in, during high school and college was nothing compared with what I witnessed on Wall Street,” wrote Sam Polk, a former Wall Street hedge fund trader who details how men jeered and heckled women in his memoir For the Love of Money.
It’s hard to speculate as to why professional athletes are denying they’ve heard Trump’s language in their own locker rooms when it’s more than likely that they have. Perhaps it’s all an elaborate public relations campaign after a year of vitriol against sexual assault in the professional and college athletic community. It’s also worth mentioning that because men have grown up around this type of banter since their early teens, however, this language can become normalized to the point where men don’t recognize that even words less overtly callous than Trump’s are part of the same vocabulary of misogyny.
“I think that most men don’t recognize that language like ‘don’t be such a pussy,’ ‘you throw like a girl,’ ‘grow some balls’ all play into a culture that champions toxic masculinity,” Kalin says. “Therefore many men can simultaneously decry Trump’s remarks — and be seen as a caring, liberal man — yet not connect them to the everyday forms of sexism they participate in.”
It’s also easier to denounce Trump’s comments in public when so many others are ridiculing him as well. But in the locker room setting, it’s silence that permeates, according to Kalin. By virtue of the fact that lewd language elevates a man’s status, most men feel uncomfortable speaking out against it. Yet by denying that there is a problem, professional athletes are perpetuating that silence.
“It’s pretty easy to say Donald Trump is an idiot; you’re almost incentivized to for your public image,” Kalin says. “But we need to have the introspection to realize that, as men, we play roles in this culture that allows this violence to happen.”
Throughout Trump’s campaign, his racist and sexist comments have given voice to some of the most problematic beliefs embedded within our culture. The video released from 2005 is no different. The man is not so much an aberration as a mirror that reflects the uglier aspects of American culture back to us. And if we don’t like what we see, maybe it’s time to change things.