Is 'locker room talk' really just harmless banter? Or should we all be holding ourselves more accountable to these everyday examples of misogyny?
In London’s High Court this month, Paul Wells and Robert Solari argued they were wrongfully dismissed from a logistics firm after messages were discovered between them comparing their female colleagues to porn performers and speculating about their genitals.
In a group Whatsapp chat, the men targeted a female co-worker referred to as ‘D’, posting photos of porn performers’ vaginas and making comments like "face like Katie Price and a muff like D". The men also shared videos of a woman masturbating and commented "D in a wig, isn’t it?"
Wells defended the messages on the basis that they only occurred within the private realm of men’s conversations. “I’m not saying these videos were right, but they were just sent for amusement,” he said. “This was just a lads’ group. We wouldn’t talk like that in the office.”
Prevalence of locker room chat
This is far from the only recent example of men’s private, misogyny-laden conversations to hit the headlines, drawing our attention to the way toxic masculinity and complicity among some men allows misogynistic attitudes to flourish.
On this year's Love Island, Tom made openly objectifying, speculative comments about Maura’s sexual prowess to the show’s other male contestants, none of whom batted an eye – until Maura herself overheard.
There were the Warwick University students who used a Facebook group called ‘Fuck women. Disrespect them all’ to swap racist slurs and rape fantasies about female students, posting comments like “Rape her friends too. Sometimes it’s fun to just go wild and rape 100 girls”. And there was the Whatsapp group used by the defendants of the Belfast rape trial, where Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding and Blane McIlroy exchanged messages that spoke of “shaggers”, “Belfast sluts” and “spit-roasting” and asking "Why are we are such legends?"
Related: Who is 'locker room talk' really hurting?
Men in these conversations - and their lawyers - often use the pervasively popular "locker room" defence; claiming these conversations were harmless jokes or banter and that they respect women in the “real world. Rarely do they examine the real world impact of these private, misogynistic conversations. Do they question if repeatedly objectifying women leads contributes to rape culture? Do they question if sexualising your female co-workers could lead to a work environment where harassment, discrimination and devaluing women is normalised? Do they wonder which men who, upon hearing them laughing about rape and gendered violence, feel emboldened to commit it?
These men don’t consider that the “locker room” defence means every woman has to wonder how she is being objectified, devalued and threatened by the men in her life whenever she’s not listening.
The misogyny is the point
The idea of "locker room chats" is a privileged one that allows men to feel entitled to create spaces where they can openly engage in misogyny, but then they can leave that space and never have their actions or character questioned. They often publicly deny that rape culture even exists.
Men know rape culture exists. They know misogyny contributes to it. That’s why they hide it.
"It would indeed be helpful if misogyny always publicly identified itself. We could all avoid it. But we all know that’s not how it works."
After being caught, Paul Wells and Robert Solari acknowledged that their female colleagues wouldn't be happy with their “degrading” conversations. Paddy Jackson admitted the Whatsapp messages were “degrading and offensive”.
They knew this all along. This misogyny isn’t an accident, it is the point. Are these men sorry they degraded women or sorry their private spaces of misogyny were made public and sorry they got caught?
'Good man from a good family'
It’s this hypocrisy that makes "locker room" misogyny so insidious because it allows men to occupy two worlds. In the private spaces of misogyny - the locker rooms, the Whatsapp groups, the online chatrooms - men get to enjoy and perpetuate misogyny. Yet in public spaces, men hypocritically benefit from having a different persona. They benefit from being known as a Good Man, a persona that is unfailingly evoked in their defence, should their misogyny be brought to light.
This "Good Man" persona has been used to defend rapists and sexual abusers such as Brock Turner and his “promising future”, and the defendant in a recent New Jersey rape case. Prosecutors showed that a 16-year-old boy accused of rape sent a video of him penetrating an intoxicated girl to his friends with the caption, “When your first time having sex was rape.” However, Judge James Troiano separated this private, boys-only confession from the boy’s public persona. Troiano connected the boy’s good social standing to his decision not to try him in adult court, saying “This young man comes from a good family who put him into an excellent school where he was doing extremely well”.
"There are no “locker rooms” where misogyny is just a joke, where it’s harmless, where has no impact. Misogyny always spreads, and it affects us all."
Even US President Donald Trump - whose own infamous “locker room chat” with Billy Bush saw him admit to sexually assaulting women; who has been accused of sexual violence by 21 women; whose policies are systematically stripping women of their rights - still feels entitled to a "Good Man" persona, publicly declaring that “nobody respects women more than I do”.
Society still supports the idea that there is a separation between men’s public and private attitudes towards women; that men get to decide if they are misogynists; that “real” misogyny publicly announces itself.
It would indeed be helpful if misogyny always publicly identified itself. We could all avoid it. But we all know that’s not how it works.
The pyramid structure of misogyny
Private spaces are the realms where misogyny lives and thrives. They are its playground and protector. And each private, casually misogynistic space becomes the foundation for another more egregious form of misogyny to be built on top it.
"The homes where domestic abuse is inflicted. The bedrooms where women are sexually assaulted and raped."
The locker rooms where men casually normalise objectivation, dismissal and othering of women. The Whatsapp groups where men share videos of rape. The toxic online spaces where men encourage each other’s sense of entitlement to sex and disdain for women. The offices where employers decide to not hire women or to pay them less. The private chambers where lawmakers write and pass bills that control women’s bodies. The intimate places where emotional abuse occurs. The homes where domestic abuse is inflicted. The bedrooms where women are sexually assaulted and raped.
All of these private spaces are connected, creating a pyramid of misogyny. One cannot exist without the other.
So let’s end this myth now. There are no “locker rooms” where misogyny is just a joke, where it’s harmless, where has no impact. Misogyny always spreads, and it affects us all.
If you are a misogynist in a locker room, you are a misogynist everywhere. And the future of women’s equality has no room for you.
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