“It’s just locker room talk.”
With these five words, Donald Trump and many of his supporters have tried to brush away the presidential candidate’s sexually predatory comments recorded in a 2005 conversation between the GOP presidential candidate and NBC host Billy Bush. Presumably, the same defense covers Trump’s conversations with Howard Stern about threesomes, anal sex, and his own daughter’s derriere.
Putting aside the more serious question of whether Trump’s words in his conversation with Bush accurately describe real actions he has committed (something he denied when pressed by Anderson Cooper in Sunday night’s debate), let’s consider the notion that all this is “just locker room talk.”
The locker room, with its shiny little lockers and their built-in locks, lulls us into the illusion that compartmentalization of our lives is possible. The locker room offers the appearance of privacy, but at the same time elicits public performance (as every awkward middle school student knows too well). A liminal space, the locker room requires people to be at their most vulnerable—naked—in front of other people and therefore elicits the most bravado, whether feigned or genuine.
Thus the locker room is emblematic of the aspects of our lives that are both public and private—which, ultimately, are most things. The locker room is a window into both the individual soul and into the community that forms that soul. The locker room is a picture of the republic.
More recently, the locker room has mirrored contentious social and political debates about sex and gender. As more women participate in sports and sports journalism, the locker room points to progress in women’s equality. Now the current debate over “locker room talk,” I’m happy to report, highlights our decreasing acceptance of the old, broken morality that “boys will be boys.”
The very phrase “locker room talk” operates much the way sin operates. Give sin a name that minimizes and excuses its seriousness. Bestow upon it a royal title such as “just,” and the sin isn’t made right, exactly, but it becomes understandable, acceptable even, especially when it is understood as something that occurs in that space cordoned off from the rest of life.
But the problem is that what happens in the locker room doesn’t stay in the locker room. Scripture tells us that as a man thinks within himself, so he is. Therefore, we must take even “talk” seriously.
There is, therefore, no such thing as “just locker room talk.”
Not long ago, my husband, a public high school teacher and coach, was in a car with two of his students. One spotted a female jogger up ahead and made a couple of lascivious comments. To the boy’s surprise, my husband responded by pulling up alongside the jogger, lowering the passenger side window where the student was sitting, and saying to him, “I’d like you to meet my wife.”
It’s a funny story. But it’s funny only because of how it ended. That “locker room talk” turned into a teachable moment for a man-in-the-making: make that two men-in the making, because after driving away, the second boy, seated wide-eyed in the back seat the entire time, asked my husband if he was going to “beat up” the other boy for what he said. Instead, my husband sternly but lovingly lectured both students, first about respecting women and then about resolving conflicts peacefully. What my husband did in that moment is what all good men must rise up and do when locker room talk enters the conversation.
This is why I found a recent essay by Tim Challies about the real fears women runners face because of the all-too-common stories of harassment to be so important. The essay is an acknowledgement that the problem of sexual predation is real and pervasive and affecting all women everywhere every day. Challies calls for his Christian brothers to “look” and “see” the truth, something many men in the church seem to have been reluctant to do. In the wake of the latest Trump revelations, more Christian women are speaking up about sexual exploitation and abuse, but as one writer argued at the Washington Post, “Many men talk like Donald Trump in private. And only other men can stop them.”
Young men—not just those who spend time in locker rooms—need their dads, uncles, male teachers, ministers, rabbis, and other adult men in their lives to teach them how to appreciate and talk about women.
But too many adult men fall short of this ourselves, especially when we are in “men’s only” spaces with guys whom we need to affirm our masculinities. … It takes men like me to hold our friends accountable for things they say and do to objectify women. We must challenge their values, language, and actions.
One by one, more evangelical leaders are speaking out against Trump’s sexually violent language. But there was a time when many evangelical and conservative Christian men spoke loudly and clearly against sexual exploitation by a political leader. That time was exactly 20 years ago when the person abusing his power was the Democratic President, Bill Clinton. We’ve really not come far from those days, sadly, in our locker room talk or our propensity to compartmentalize our moral outrage along partisan lines. Among the many painful revelations offered by the current election season is, I think, the pervasiveness of a collective compartmentalized mindset that allows us to place exceptions around how and where we apply our principles. Endorsing a man who publicly and privately promotes sexual promiscuity in hopes of reducing abortion is no less absurd than endorsing the candidate who promises increased access to abortion.
Sure, as they say, all politics is compromise. But compartmentalization goes far beyond compromise. Compartmentalizing attempts to lock up some behavior and cut it off from the whole fabric of belief. Understood this way, compartmentalizing “locker room talk” is an ill that ails much more these days than the Trump campaign. To say this is not to make the error of moral equivalency because compartmentalizing behaviors may differ in degree, but that variation does not make any particular degree right.
We see one party accepting or excusing the immoral sexual behavior of one politician but not another. We speak up against the de-humanization of one class of people—women, the unborn, the minority, or the refugee—while being silent about the de-humanization of other classes. We support particular policies while winking at the behavior and attitudes that lead to the need for those policies. But the walls of the locker room are porous; those little lockers can hold only so many grievous inconsistencies.
We can expect of our elected officials (and ourselves) integrity—the idea that we can act as honorably in the locker room as we would from the stage of the political rally or the seat in the Oval Office—without requiring perfection.
“It’s just locker room talk” is a rationale that doesn’t belong in our society. It doesn’t excuse degradation of women in word or deed. Perhaps God is using this election to open our eyes to our inconsistent and compartmentalized mindsets. If we continue to allow this thinking, in the end, no matter who wins the election, we lose.
But if we remember the declaration of Deuteronomy 6:4 and hear not lewd and idle locker room talk (whether literal or metaphorical) but rather the declaration that “The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” we win in the most important way possible.