There’s been a lot of chat about “locker room talk” over the last months. It began with then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump boasting to Billy Bush in a 2005 taping of Hollywood Extra, and was followed by the suspension of the Harvard soccer team who created a “scouting report”, rating the women’s team looks, singling out specific parts and imagining their preferred sexual position. It’s featured closer to home too, in 2010 the Dublin branch of PwC landed in hot water when a group of male employees circulated a document rating the company’s newest female recruits and most recently it's reared its ugly head with the Ulster Rugby rape case and the release of WhatsApp messages between the men the day after the alleged incident.
Locker room talk has long been a part of the Western cultural lexicon, Amy Schumer mercilessly mocked this attitude to rape culture in her skit on Friday Night Lights. By-in-large this type of language has been criticised as reprehensible and egregious, yet many have backed away from outright condemning its use in these situations, excusing it as pathetic but meaningless banter. They’re just words after all, who are they hurting?
And let’s be honest, almost everyone makes passing judgments. Women critique men and other women based on their physical appearance and use less than attractive language to do so.
“Did you see how gorgeous that guy was? Pity about the dreadful shoes…”
“I am just dying to get a blending brush to that girl’s face…”
But when women talk, about both men and women, it usually isn’t done with the same level of violent language and outright cruelty. Explicit, derogatory language directed towards a particular woman, or women in general, usually occurs in a male-only group, and often as a way to encourage cohesion. But if the words are just words, and they never leave the theoretical “locker room”, who are they hurting?
Well, they hurt men. And then they hurt women, too.
Locker room talk expresses an aggressive, toxic masculinity, the idea that to be a man you must be dominant and controlling, and exert that control over women. It uses the (often violent) objectification of women for bonding purposes.
It encourages men to look at women as sexual objects, causing emotional detachment, sexual repression and reduces men’s ability to partake in balanced, equal relationships with women.
And the problem is a cyclical one.
In psychology there’s a phenomenon known as “diffusion of responsibility”. It’s the idea that people are less likely to feel directly responsible for something if others are present. An example is not calling the police when there is an accident on a busy street. With so many witnesses, we feel less personally responsible to alert emergency services.
The same theory can be applied to this “locker room” situation- people involved in something morally questionable feel less morally responsible if they can share the blame with others. When a man discusses a female colleague or friend in a derogatory way, if his friends react positively or even neutrally, he feels less guilty because they are all in it together. To maintain this semblance of a bond, they need to continue to talk that way, or otherwise risk breaking this shallow connection. Not only are they encouraged to condone this language and behaviour, they must actively partake in it to maintain the illusion.
To break that cycle, we need to hold everyone as accountable for their words as we do their actions. We need to be clear that words have consequences, whether you intend them to or not. Talk of spit roasts and pussygrabbing is never idle chatter. It hurts us all.