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What They Said Behind Closed Doors: The Problematic Nature of Locker Room Talk

What They Said Behind Closed Doors: The Problematic Nature of Locker Room Talk
an article by Chris Fong Chew

Trigger Warning: Sexual Harassment/Assault

Dear Asian Youth,

Back in 2016 (doesn’t it feels like ages ago?), a term was hugely popularized by the then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Following a series of extremely disturbing recordings in which Trump was recorded saying, “Grab them by the p*ssy” among many other disturbing phrases; Trump denounced the recording publicly as “Locker Room Talk” in a presidential debate with Hilary Clinton.

Locker room talk in the past was often associated with the inappropriate behavior of adolescent boys, but it has grown unaddressed to encompass men in positions of power, sitting presidents, and celebrities. It speaks to the morals of a society that excuses this behavior.

Urban Dictionary all too nicely defines locker room talk as, “Any manner of conversation that polite society dictates be held privately - with small groups of like-minded, similarly gendered peers - due to its sexually charged language, situations, or innuendos.” Yet locker room talk has even greater far-reaching moral implications on our society and culture.

As a former male athlete, who has been in many male-dominated spaces, I have unfortunately come across locker room talk in too many instances. Both in high school and college, I have had numerous encounters with male peers who would casually make a suggestive comment or objectify a female counterpart’s body. Yet, the most perplexing aspect is the fact that most of my peers knew it was wrong and continued to make such inappropriate comments. If there was even one female in the room the topic of conversation would immediately change.

While in high school, I cannot count the innumerable number of times someone made a suggestive comment in passing. “She has a nice ass.” “I would so tap that”. These off-the-cuff comments disrespectfully objectify female peers.

Sadly, it’s only after these extremely uncomfortable moments that I would often find myself wishing I had done more to stop those conversations. As someone who has long identified as a feminist and an ally, I wish I had known earlier why it was so incredibly wrong and what I could’ve done about it.

In college, locker room talk became even more prevalent as I tried to navigate the complex social environment. In finding new friends, I often would come across similar comments or conversations with different people. I remember once talking about a school project with one of these “friends.” I mentioned I was working with a mutual female friend of ours when he made an off-the-cuff remark on her appearance. I confronted him on why he made such comments, to which he replied something along the lines of, “I can’t help it.” Much like the phrase “boys will be boys” this comment would also follow along the lines of catcalling and other problematic behaviors that have become widespread and normalized in society.

As much as I have tried to understand and deconstruct this behavior, all I can really only think of is how society excuses this behavior and believes it to be “harmless.” In truth, “harmless” speech doesn’t objectify, dehumanize, or perpetuate violent actions against another person.

Back in May, several boys in New Delhi, India were taken into custody over an Instagram chat that exchanged nude photos of girls. According to BBC, the group chat titled, “The Bois Locker Room” was screenshotted and shared widely across social media. The incident sparked mass outrage across the city, which has already been labeled as one of India’s most unsafe cities for women.

A few weeks ago, my heart dropped as a similar incident happened in my hometown. As I was scrolling through my social media feed, I came across a thread exposing several boys from my former high school for participating in a group chat where they traded girls nudes with each other. The incredibly disturbing story gained a lot of traction as many more people began to share stories of sexual harassment at school.

I personally have had several friends that have come forward to me about their experiences with sexual harassment and domestic abuse while in high school and college. I cannot speak for the level of trauma they faced, but I cannot deny the fact that there is a link between the culture around locker room talk and these incidents.

Locker room talk perpetuates rape culture: Where societal or cultural attitudes normalize or trivialize sexual assault and abuse. When we excuse locker room talk, we allow men to associate women as sexual objects and people who exist solely for their own pleasure.

The connection between locker room talk and sexual harassment can be explained by the Psychology Today article: What’s Wrong With Locker Room Talk? by Dr. Pamela B. Paresky. In the article, Paresky explains, “When men speak about women using ‘locker room talk,’ men are priming themselves to think of women as sex objects they can “grab” and to whom they can ‘do anything.’ Even if men don’t consciously think they have less respect for women as a result of engaging in or hearing these kinds of conversations, below the level of awareness, their brains are making associations.”

Even those who are complicit in such incidents of locker room talk play a part in perpetuating these societal attitudes, which in the past, I, unfortunately, have been all too guilty of. When these comments were made, especially in high school, I would often find myself deflecting these comments by either becoming really quiet or disengaged. Sometimes, I would attempt to change the subject or say something general like “uhh whatever you say.” I figured that by ignoring and deflecting, it would just go away.

This got even worse in college as I found myself navigating an even tougher social environment. My attempts to deflect and disengage often would have myself aggressively confronted over my clear discomfort of the discussion. In my first year of college, I simply wanted to get along with everyone and not be labeled the “sensitive one.” Looking back, I realize how it led to my own personal declining mental health as I constantly had to disassociate and process these awful comments my peers were making. I was dealing with extreme cognitive dissonance.

This is where I began to understand the problematic nature of locker room talk. Excusing locker room talk dehumanizes women and creates associations of women as sexual objects which normalize sexual assault and harassment. In my head, I knew what my peers were saying was wrong and constantly having to tell myself that took a mental toll. I tried to talk to other friends about my issue with locker room talk. They would often acknowledge my discomfort, but continued to participate, even though they knew how harmful their actions were.

It’s hard explaining to someone why they should care, especially when it doesn’t directly affect or bring harm to them. I wish I had understood then what I know now. I eventually went on to find new friends, which got me involved in a women empowerment organization and finding the opportunity to speak out against subjects such as locker room talk. Actively engaging my community in conversations about the negative implications it has on our society.

We live in an age of information. A single post, a tweet, or conversation can reach millions of people in seconds. We need to understand that our words carry weight. Our words carry influence, and our words matter. Locker room talk is clearly wrong, and even those that participate in it know it, however, many do not know the great consequences of participating and enabling this behavior.

It’s not enough to just ignore this behavior. We have to actively engage and fight it by intervening when locker room talk happens. Asking a person why they are making such demeaning comments. Educating others on why it's wrong, and how it’s not just “harmless” conversation.

In light of the #MeToo movement, there has been a growing narrative of how men in our culture view and treat women and how our cultural racist and sexist biases perpetuate rape culture. This cannot be more exemplified by the fact that our current president has engaged in this behavior.

In the end, not participating in locker room talk comes down to respect and integrity. Respect for one’s body, safety, and autonomy. The belief that no person should be treated or spoken about in a dehumanizing and degrading fashion. The integrity to stand up for what is right even behind closed doors. Locker room talk perpetuates rape culture, further normalizes demeaning language. What we say no matter how seemingly “harmless” it may seem at the moment has far-reaching consequences in our cultural and societal attitudes.

- Chris Fong Chew

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