At a dinner party a few years ago the conversation turned to the furor at a local Catholic university over a production of the Vagina Monologues. A very good friend of mine said she couldn’t understand the uproar, since “vagina” is a word heard every day in male locker rooms. I gently objected that, as a woman, my friend had absolutely no idea what did or didn’t go on in male locker rooms. Instead, she had relied on a popular conjecture of what that all-male world must be like.
Donald Trump has no such excuse. He has been in locker rooms. His defense for the comments he made on the 2005 videotape that surfaced over the weekend, however, betrays the fact that he has no better sense of what a typical locker room is like than my progressive female friend.
I’m no jock or icon of masculinity but I have spent a fair amount of my life in male locker rooms. I was in boys’ locker rooms for sports camp and swimming camp as a little kid, and in locker rooms before and after gym class several times a week throughout my years in middle school and in high school; in the latter case, I shared the locker room with more than 125 other men of all races, sizes and persuasions. I spent countless nights and weekends in locker rooms across the state of Connecticut when I wrestled for three years in high school, and devoted a part of virtually every day of college to the locker room in Fordham’s athletic center. I was also in many a locker room for my brother’s karate tournaments and my own judo classes during my teenage years, and laced up my boots in a locker room at the Morris Park Boxing Club for a very brief period in my 30s. Over the past 15 years I’ve belonged to four private gyms where I often showered and changed in locker rooms, in conversation with or at least in hearing range of everyone from bar bouncers in Queens to doctoral students in London. Outside those locker rooms, I have spent more than a little time in other all-male settings like the Boy Scouts for eight years during my teens and a rugby team for three years starting in 2012.
These places and settings were by no means idyllic, though I mostly loved them. There were plenty of threats and fights, lots of bullying and hazing. There were racial and homophobic slurs. I heard sexual talk that I’d never want my kids to hear; I said things I wouldn’t particularly want my mother or wife to know about. The adults involved in this all-male culture were sometimes paragons of morality, though one on occasion asked for my help in committing petty crimes.
Occasionally these men-only rooms were scary, or very uncomfortable; often they were welcoming and hilarious. Usually they were not remarkable at all. Almost always, the locker room didn’t smell very good.
But I never heard, nor can I imagine that I would have heard, anything like the things Trump said on that tape. I try to think of what would have happened if someone had talked that way in the locker room at New Britain High School, probably the all-male bastion where I spent the most cumulative time.
“Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything,” a kid says.
What happens? Probably, there’s an awkward silence. “Yo, that’s f—-ed up,” someone finally says. And then people move away from the kid who said it. Or maybe some nervous laughter trickles out, and someone changes the subject. At worst, one or two of the real psychos follow that line of conversation, while the rest turn to deodorizing their shoes or checking out their pecs in the mirror. People head to the weight-room a little early. Or go scan the conference standings by the coach’s office.
Why the cold-shoulder to the dirty talk? It could be for a few reasons. Locker-room posturing is usually about making yourself feel strong enough to be there, and someone who goes as low as the GOP nominee did on that tape would have everyone suspicious that he was overcompensating, just a tad. Some guys would worry what was going to get back to their girlfriends or sisters and other guys would wonder that the guy who said it would do to their girlfriends or sisters, if given the chance. Still others would recognize that there’s a line between dark comedy and just plain darkness. Most people in male locker rooms are not rapists, rape fantasists, rape apologists or predators of any sort. Most of them, it’s true, are not feminist theoreticians. But sadism isn’t as prevalent behind the “MEN” door as you might think.
There are many casualties to stories like the one that broke this weekend, the dignity of our national politics being one of them, and my focus here might be a relatively unimportant one. But I hope that the idea that that kind of talk is what locker rooms are all about doesn’t take hold. It’s not true.
Let those who are just starting to get to the age where one enters locker rooms be assured.
And let those who might detect in Trump’s transcript a green-light to engage in such talk be warned. Spew [expletive deleted] like that in the wrong locker room, and you might just get your [expletive deleted] kicked.