For a group of people who claim to abhor “safe spaces,” Donald Trump and his conservative defenders sure do like characterizing the men’s locker room as one. That’s the excuse Trump and his surrogates have been spitting out over the last three days in response to leaked video from 2005 that reveals the presidential candidate saying lewd and downright violent things about women. It wasn’t real, Trump argues—it was “locker room talk.”
Women, politicians, pundits, and decent human beings alike called bullshit on this lightweight explanation, first issued Friday evening, arguing that it couldn't possibly justify Trump’s assertion on the video that his star power allows him to grab women "by the pussy." Even still, his fiercest defenders continue to repeat the locker room line like dutiful parrots, claiming the sacredness of the space as fair ground for misogyny. The question isn’t whether this sort of talk actually goes on—it certainly does in some places—but rather why some people give still give it any sort of protection. What's so damn special about locker rooms?
They're the setting of many-a-movie scene, where young men convene, towels around their waists, never up to any good. In films, they're usually either talking about how they want to score, or speaking crudely about a woman’s appearance, or hatching a plan. Even in Disney’s High School Musical, the basketball team corners Zac Efron’s character in its precious locker room to guilt him into ditching theater and the girl he likes in favor of hoop dreams and pleasing his toxically masculine father.
Historically, the locker room has been a place without options. It’s an environment rife with social pressure. It’s a space where dissent is not encouraged, and even men who disagree must bite their tongues, lest they be ostracized—or much worse.
It’s foolish to believe that a man's disrespect for women could be somehow contained to the locker room of a school or a gym or a Trump golf course—as if his mindset changes the moment he steps through the door back into the “real world.” While Hillary argued in the debate on Sunday that it’s possible for a candidate to have public and private stances on issues, it’s hard to imagine a man who was caught on camera admitting to nonconsensual sexual contact publicly fight for the rights of women. And he’s proven time and again the rights of women are secondary to the rights of men (white ones, specifically).
While it's all well and good that some men (including many athletes) have spoken out about the fact that they've never said or ever heard this sort of thing in a locker room, it feels irresponsible to write it off as myth. Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump's fiercest allies, appeared on the Sunday morning politics shows this week to continue defending the "pussy" comment and again used the locker room excuse. When he used the line on CNN, host Jake Tapper replied “I will gladly tell you, Mr. Mayor, I have never said that. I have never done that…I don’t know any man―I have been in locker rooms, I’ve been a member of a fraternity―I’ve never heard any man brag about being able to maul women because they get away with it, never.” But this feels like it misses the point: Men do speak this way, and men do grab women by the genitals without consent. The better response would be, "I know some men hold these views. And they need to do better."
If you think of the privilege afforded to “locker room talk” as on par with white male privilege, it makes a great deal more sense. In the aftermath of former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner’s rape conviction, many eyes were on the locker room—the actual room where athletes prepare to perform. After Turner’s conviction, further evidence revealed he was known to be aggressive towards women. One anonymous member of the Stanford women’s swim team told In Touch magazine, “Brock would make comments to the women such as ‘I can see your tits in that swimsuit.’” Was this just “locker room talk” if it happened away from the showers and folded towels?
One activist is trying to change the toxic culture of locker rooms, but takes a different approach to purifying the space. As the founder of ProtectHer, Alexis Jones travels the country speaking to young male athletes about their locker room conduct. But instead of attacking their sense of masculinity and telling them what a real man is not, the former ESPN and Fox Sports employee tells them what a real man is—or ought to be.
“I actually come into the room being the biggest fan of these guys,” Jones told MSNBC.com in June, shortly after Brock Turner’s sentencing. “I just want to invite them to participate in the conversation that the entire country is having about them…There are also really amazing guys out there and we’re not doing a good enough job of celebrating them and highlighting them and saying ‘See, be more like this.’ They can actually digest a message that’s not shutting them down.”
But when the potential leader of the free world is writing off his heinous comments as "locker room talk," he is saying that's where that kind of talk belongs. And he's condoning it.
If America wants to teach men to respect women—to not view the world as their locker room—we have to elevate and celebrate men who treat women respectfully. Who offer positive examples. Obviously Trump doesn’t fit that bill, and though potential First Husband and former President Bill Clinton has managed to rehab his image since his impeachment for sexual misconduct while in office, the presence of multiple women at Sunday night’s debate who claim Bill raped or sexually assaulted them brings his attitude toward women into serious question. Trump even claimed he’s heard “much worse” comments about women from Bill, though that remains unsubstantiated.
Trump’s comments and Bill’s indiscretions have proven to be very real triggers for women with a history of abuse. We simply cannot write off abusive rhetoric as “locker room talk” because it makes women (and non-cis white men) feel legitimately unsafe.
Friday night, author and social media personality Kelly Oxford put a call out for users to share the stories of their first assault. She kicked things off by sharing her own story, and within minutes, the deeply personal responses were pouring in. By Monday afternoon, 27 million people had visited Oxford’s page or responded to the tweet, according to The New York Times.
But the most absurd thing of all about Trump's excuse is that he was not even in a locker room. Not even close. No, he was on a microphone-enabled luxury bus with the host of a Hollywood gossip TV show, wearing a suit. He wasn't suiting up for the big game, or getting ready to hit the sauna after a squash match. It was a regular day for The Donald, and he was speaking about actions he may or may not have taken.
This election cycle has been all about words: words tweeted, words spoken, words issued via official campaign statements. So whether they were said 11 hours ago or 11 years ago, words are fair game. And no locker room can contain them.
Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.