What, really, is “locker room talk”?
Locker rooms bring to mind sports jocks, of course. This possibly tenuous connection is why I am devoting this week’s sports column to the phrase, and to a certain Donald Trump’s use of it in a 2005 video that surfaced last week.
Now I hardly mean to claim that I’ve experienced everything Trump has in his life. But yes, I’ve been in my share of (male) locker rooms: in Mumbai, Providence, Dallas, Austin, Kanpur, Cambridge, Chennai, Atlanta and more. All places, of course, where I went to shower and change before and after a swim, or a game of tennis, or a spell of karate practice.
As you might expect, such rooms are filled with men in various states of undress. So I’ve seen my share of high court judges, fellow students, film stars, colleagues, tennis partners and more, all with few or no clothes on. The first time I went into one of these rooms, I was naturally more than a little shy and hesitant to strip off myself. But I quickly realized that nobody was looking at me. They couldn’t be bothered.
Everybody was entirely at ease changing, or showering in open cubicles, or walking about in the nude. The locker room is one place where you can forget inhibitions and do your own thing, because every other man there has forgotten his and is doing his own thing too. And I suspect women feel much the same about their locker rooms.
So what’s this about “locker room talk”?
Here’s the thing: Whether I was in those rooms by myself, or with one or more friends, I don’t recall even once talking in the terms Trump used on that now-famous bus. I don’t recall anyone else around me talking like that either. Nor is it just me saying this. A slew of athletes and sports journalists, all with plenty of experience in locker rooms, have since remarked that “Guys don’t talk like that in locker rooms”, or “I haven’t heard [language like that] in any locker rooms”.
No, neither these folks nor I found ways to frequent only the world’s most genteel locker rooms. So yes, why have I not experienced this kind of talk for myself?
The answer is that the “locker room talk” claim is simply nonsense. Merely because some men happen to find themselves together in a room wearing few or no clothes, it’s nonsense to assume that they will suddenly start using and chuckling over crude terms for women’s anatomy, or suddenly start gloating about women they have slept with. It’s nonsense to assume that they are all decorous and respectful of women outside, and turn to talk like this inside the locker room. This a bizarre notion to me personally, but more than that, I don’t know a single man who behaves this way.
In other words, this is just Trump’s half-baked excuse for behaviour and language that is unacceptable, period. He may have talked this way inside a closed bus, but this is not how men talk in general. By pretending otherwise, he insults them.
This is not to suggest that all men are respectful to all women all the time. Not in the least. After all, plenty of prominent men have used their prominence itself to make advances to women, even with plenty of “success.” Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Jimmy Savile and Jimmy Swaggart come to mind right off the top of my head; in India, Asaram Bapu, for example, is accused of sexual assault.
And since we’re discussing athletes, there’s Chris Gayle who thought he could proposition a Australian TV journalist while she was interviewing him on air. There’s Tiger Woods and Magic Johnson, both known to have had sexual dalliances with plenty of women. (Trump himself once publicly discussed Tiger Woods’ sexual escapades, in explicit and graphic terms, with the radio host Howard Stern.)
This is a story that is as old as history.
If men like these appear to think they are intensely attractive to women and can therefore proposition them, there are also men who think they can use crude language about women and that’s ok. A student who very briefly shared my apartment in Dallas couldn’t stop himself referring to the genitals of every woman we passed on the street (I swear I’m not making this up).
It was like one great joke to him, and he must have thought I found it funny too — though perhaps he got the message when I asked him to move out. There’s no claim to virtuous moral ground here — I’m no stranger to the crude terms he used, after all — but after the first time he put it on display, the miserable attitude this man had towards women was too much to stomach.
And that’s the truth about language like Trump used in that infamous clip. Sure, when he got off the bus, he was all polite charm — if you can really call that smarm charm. But the language he used inside the bus tells you the truth. It speaks unmistakably of the miserable attitude this man has towards women.
So nobody should let Trump get away with calling it “locker room talk”. For when he does so, he implies athletes and every man who has been inside locker rooms speak of women like that, think of women like that. I’m completely serious when I say that as a sometime user of locker rooms, I take that as a personal insult. I think plenty of athletes would too.
No, his language tells the story of just one thing: the Trump himself.
Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.
His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun
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