During last night’s debate presidential candidate Donald Trump doubled down on his 2005 conversation with Billy Bush about “grabbing” women “by the pussy,” making moves on one woman “like a bitch,” and the apparent pride he takes in sexually assaulting women: “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.” Answering moderator Anderson Cooper’s question, Trump claimed, “It’s locker room talk – it’s one of those things.”
From 2003-2005, right around the same time Trump bragged about his skill at sexual assault, I was studying how teenage boys at a northern California high school, River High, talked about girls and sex. Indeed, much of what they said sounded just like the “locker room talk” Trump refers to. Here are some examples:
In talking about their plans for Winter Ball Josh told Reggie, “I’ll be fucking pissed if I don’t get some.” Reggie advised him “That’s why you take a girl whose gonna do something. I got Jack Daniels!” Josh countered, “I got a big bag of marijuana…the sooner I get her drunk the sooner I get laid.” Reggie triumphantly bragged, “I can get laid any time, anywhere.”
Jerome complained that he was not “gonna get laid at Winter Ball.” Josh admonished “That’s why you gotta go for the younger ones fool! Like 12 years old!” Josh then claimed he was “so good” at sex that he couldn’t “control the girl from thrashing around on the bed and hurting herself on the headboard.”
In weightlifting class, Pedro proceeded to act out his previous night’s sexual adventures, “Dude I had sex with my girlfriend last night. She tied me to the bed! I was like damn!” Josh chimed in, shaking his head knowingly, “never let a girl tie you up.” Pedro laughed and continued to say proudly “I did her so hard when I was done she was bleeding. I tore her walls!”
In autoshop Jay talked about a girl he thought was “hella ugly” but had “titties:” “She’s a bitch. I might take her out to the street races and leave her there so she can get raped.” All the other boys in auto-shop, as usual, responded in laughter.
While Trump framed this sort of sex talk as “just words,” as “things that people say,” this sort of talk undergirds what feminist scholars call “rape culture” in which symbolic violence, especially humorous symbolic violence, dehumanizes women, reducing them to sexual objects. It is precisely the joking quality of many of these instances that make them so hard to see as serious endorsements of violence against women. The line between talk and action, however, is much less clear than Trump claims. For instance, Jay, the boy who talked about raping the “hella ugly” girl who was a “bitch” but had “titties” regularly harassed the only girl in his autoshop class:
One afternoon Jay walked up to Tammy and stood behind her deeply inhaling, his nose not even an inch away from her hair. Clearly uncomfortable with this, she moved to the side. He asked her if she was planning to attend WyoTech (Wyoming Technical College, a mechanic school). She responded “yes.” He said “I’m going too! You and me. We’re gonna be in a room together.” He closed his eyes and started thrusting his hips back and forth and softly moaning as if to indicate that he was having sex.
Girls at River High suffered from this kind of physical sexual “joking” on a regular basis:
Walking between government and drama classes, Keith yelled “GET RAPED! GET RAPED!” as he rhythmically jabbed a girl in the crotch with his drumstick. She yelled at him to stop and tried to kick him in the crotch with her foot. He dodged and started yelling “CROTCH! CROTCH!”
Locker room talk is not “just words.” It is not funny. It is not harmless. And it is certainly not limited to the locker room. This kind of sex talk is a central part of normative masculinity in the global West. It is a way in which some men simultaneously endorse and dodge such endorsement of sexual assault. It is a way in which violence against women and women’s bodies are rendered “just jokes” or “guy talk.” In fact, the girls in my study were often used by young men as props in their competition for status and recognition from one another.
As feminist scholar Adrienne Rich powerfully argued, heterosexuality not only describes sexual desires, practices and orientations; it is also a “political institution.” The “enforcement of heterosexuality for women as a means of assuring male right of physical, economic and emotional access” is a central component of gender inequality. The locker room talk examples of “mythic-story telling” in which boys and men tell humorous larger than life tales about their sexual adventures, their bodies, and girls’ bodies are an important way in which men maintain sexual dominance over women. And dominance is central to contemporary American masculinity – dominance over other men, dominance over other countries, dominance over one’s political opponent, and yes, dominance over women.
So, sure, let’s use Donald’s locker room metaphor. But let’s also remember that Donald was not actually in a locker room when he claimed to have participated in sexual violence and assault to barter for status with another man. He was on a tour bus. He could have just as easily been in a board room, the men’s restroom at a corporate law firm, a strip club, a fraternity, an internet forum, a workplace, a school, a family picnic. Having people claim that he “did not really mean” what he said, or that those comments are inconsistent with “the man they know” does not actually undo the power of the words. Trump’s “locker room talk” is more than locker room talk; it’s an interactional ritual in which boys and men participate. They do it to establish status amongst one another. And just like the high school boys I studied, women often play the “role” of prop in this dramatic performance.
So, yes, it may very well have been “just locker room talk.” But there’s actually a science of locker room talk, Mr. Trump. And it suggests that your “talk” is and was related to institutionalized forms of inequality that make life dangerous for girls and women (and, yes certain men). These “jokes” and “words” are not unique to one time or place and they are not without consequence; rather they are part of, and indeed central to, persistent gendered inequality and violence.