The Locker Room Talk

Have you had “the talk” with your kids yet? Mine are adolescents and I had the talk with them yesterday. It started as a discussion about the second presidential debate. 

Whenever I come off the road, we talk about what we did while we were apart. They asked me about the debate.  My son and daughter had already heard about it from their friends and the news. A conversation in the kitchen quickly headed into the locker room.

They’re old enough to have been in locker rooms but not those kinds of locker rooms and definitely not the sad room (if it exists) where men delight in boasting about repeatedly groping women against their will. 

My audience: a boy becoming a man listening for clues what men are supposed to be like. A girl becoming a woman hearing about how women are viewed in the world she will join. We were no longer talking about the presidential campaign. The separation of powers was no help to me here. 

This is a tough spot for a parent because before you can put something in context, you have to describe something ugly. I was reminded of that first time when the kids were very much younger that we had to teach them what to do if someone touched them in a way that made them uncomfortable. Only a parent or a nurse if she asks you first. When you tell them this, they wonder why you’re telling them this. Because someone might touch you where you don’t want to be touched without asking. 

We were about to have that conversation again, but my daughter saved me. As I was describing what some men talk about in the locker room she interrupted to point out the distinction was between talking about women and talking about doing to women what we had taught them no one should be allowed to do to them. Yes.

This distinction is getting fuzzy in the public conversation.  

Giuliani: Trump "embarrassed" by 2005 tape of lewd remarks

Sunday, on Face the Nation I asked Rudy Giuliani exactly what on the video from 2005 Donald Trump was apologizing for. He couldn’t say, other than that Trump was apologizing for what he said. He wouldn’t be specific. The reason I asked is that different people hear different things in Donald Trump’s tape

Here is a portion of what Trump said:  “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait...And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the p---y. You can do anything.”

Some people hear Donald Trump boasting about physically forcing himself on women and other people just hear dirty words. The latter is locker room talk. The former, which is what Trump actually said, is the description of something that can get you arrested.  

Donald Trump called this “locker room talk” in the debate. He benefits by framing his boasts about grabbing women by their private parts as the regrettable bawdy talk of male enclaves. It makes it less creepy. You could imagine that it even elevates it, given the place of honor professional athletes hold in our culture and the sense of achievement associated with belonging to a private club. The locker rooms that Donald Trump is in are not at the cut-rate gym with the broken treadmills, they are at his swish golf clubs. They are places of stature. 

Using the term “locker room talk” blurs the line between what is criminal and what is simply oafish. That’s not a line anyone should want blurred. It’s the line I was trying to draw as sharp as possible in my kitchen. Expectations shouldn’t be lowered, even if Donald Trump was just telling stories to impress the crowd around him and never grabbed as many women as he suggested. Lower the bar for what you can talk about, and you lower the bar for what is acceptable behavior.

Men have enough trouble on their own. Some of us do talk about women like objects, which dehumanizes them. We don’t need people thinking we’re all having fun, casual exchanges about sexual assault to amuse ourselves. Those of us who are fathers of sons don’t want any son to think this is honorable behavior no matter where the talk about it takes place. We might even want to raise men who would not seek to elevate their social status by boasting of preying on women without consent, but who would call people out when they boast about forcing themselves on women. That’s the advice I gave my son. It might not be politically correct to speak up, but it would be the right thing to do. I also knew my daughter was listening too. I want her to expect that kind of behavior of men, not the other kind.

What makes people -- including athletes in locker rooms-- recoil at Donald Trump’s predatory remarks is that somewhere they were taught how a man is supposed to behave. Or we might have a woman in our life who we could imagine being talked about this way. If we were not taught directly, we picked up the signals from our teachers, our churches or our public figures. A new signal is being sent. The transmission didn’t start eleven years ago in a bus on a soap opera lot, it started last Friday.