The Spiritual Cost of “Locker Room Talk”

Friday, October 21, 2016 - 3:30 pm

The Spiritual Cost of “Locker Room Talk”

This week, Melania Trump, who has largely eschewed the spotlight since her plagiarized speech at the G.O.P. convention, came out publicly to say that the recording of her husband’s bus conversation with Billy Bush was “not the man that I know.”

Her comments, however strategic, do speak to the oftentimes large and important gap between our public and private selves. Surely, the Donald that puts on his pajamas and collapses into bed next to Melania after a long day on the campaign trail is not the same one who blusters on and on in front of a podium and a worked up audience (or so I hope). The same is no doubt true of Hillary, though I would actually argue that it’s the narrower gap between her public and private self that sometimes causes her problems; she’s not a performer, but a doer — even on stage.

Which gets to one of the remaining impasses between men and women in our modern age. As much progress as we’ve made, as many ceilings as we’ve cracked, a lot of women walk around with a sinking suspicion that the men in their lives are not quite what they seem, that there are places and spaces where they say and do things that they would try to explain away when the lights are turned on. Or more specifically, when other women are around.

There are less dramatic examples of this around every sex-segregated corner, which is why Trump and his people have tried so hard to spin this as “locker room talk.” Their justification is indefensible, but their point is well taken: men do talk differently in locker rooms. In board rooms. At elite country clubs. On email threads. During guys night out at the bar. Where women are absent, men’s language and tenor sometimes change.

What does that kind of compartmentalization do to men? What does it do to the women in their lives? And what is the emotional and spiritual cost for all of us?

I’m not naïve enough to think that all of us are 100 percent authentic all of the time. I’m as capable of chameleon-like code-switching as anyone else; I watch myself choose words or stories depending on who I’m hanging out with. And sure, I’ve talked about boys when I’m with my girls since elementary school, but never in a way that demeaned them (if anything, there are times when our conversations about boys have been too protective). Sociologist Erving Goffman argued that we all, men and women alike, take what he called a “dramaturgical approach” to human interaction — performing versions of ourselves depending on our audience.

But I genuinely wonder: is men’s dramaturgy more wide-ranging than women’s? And is this range at the rotten root of so much of our continued gender inequities? Trump is a freakish version of a larger dynamic at play between men and women, teenage boys and girls. The conversation between Trump and Bush was abhorrent, but it wasn’t anomalous. Versions of it happen every day.

I remember it viscerally — the first time I walked down the hallway in high school and knew I was being talked about in a language that I didn’t speak, that I couldn’t speak. I knew that I was a punch line on a conversation that had taken place behind closed doors between men, that I was, in a sense, a power play for insecure guys. In my case, it was a boyfriend who had lied to the rest of the football team about our sex life (we didn’t technically have one).

As misrepresentations go, it’s a fairly benign one. But I could taste the powerlessness of that subjectivity. I was gobsmacked by my sweet boyfriend’s capacity to show up as someone totally different in cleats as he’d been just moments before in his Timberlands. Just about every woman on the planet knows what I’m talking about — that moment when you realize you have been spoken about behind closed doors, that sinking suspicion that the inner life or lives, as it were, of a man you work with or maybe even love is far less coherent than you’d thought it was. It makes you feel not only dehumanized, but in a state of chronic disequilibrium, asking, What else am I in the dark about? In what other ways are things not what they seem?

Guys, it breaks our heart a little every time, despite the fact that we put on a brave face. In my case, I wrote an op-ed in the high school newspaper publicly proclaiming my virginity! That showed him, but it didn’t heal the fissure — not just between me and that sweet, insecure boy, but between the girl I was before, the one who didn’t expect guys to have different standards of decency when they are with men, and the woman I became, who knew better.

I know that not all men do this. But a lot of men do. Gender parity isn’t just about women breaking glass ceilings; it’s also about restoring a sense of trust, transparency, and basic respect between men and women. We won’t be truly equal until men have the same standard of decency for women when they don’t know that the proverbial mic is hot. Forget Trump — that’s the conversation we need to be having.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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