When The Washington Post obtained video footage showing Donald Trump having a lewd conversation with NBC anchor Billy Bush, in which the presidential candidate condoned sexual violence, the majority of Americans recoiled. The actions Trump described in the recording constitute sexual assault, but the nominee's Republican surrogates engaged in verbal contortions to obfuscate that fact. The campaign’s official talking point is that the banter in which Trump and Bush engaged was “locker room talk.” Within five days of the release of the video, the campaign spin was so embedded in the popular discourse, that one Florida congressman insisted incorrectly that the conversation had occurred in an actual locker room.
Talk and deeds are different, but the evidence suggests that Trump, and thousands of men like him, go well beyond just talking about abuse. In Trump’s case we don’t need to speculate. He brags about acting on his violent urges, which new revelations in The New York Times confirm. That violence takes an enormous physical and psychological toll on all women. When writer Kelly Oxford asked Twitter users to share their first experience of being assaulted, she received thousands of immediate responses. Every woman I know – including my wife, mother, sister, colleagues, and friends – has more than one story about harassment and abuse. The epidemic knows no class boundaries, as more than ten percent of women reported sexual violence while in college, lest we assume that different standards exist for men whose locker room happens to be located in a country club.
While repudiating overt abusive behavior is easy, men especially need to interrogate what the “locker room” really means, and how that space is complicit in Trump’s murky morality. Trump’s locker room is a place where he – a wealthy, powerful White man – does not have to worry about having his beliefs scrutinized. The locker room is Trump’s safe space, where loose talk about sexual violence against women is an acceptable norm; because he’s the nominee of the Republican party, his safe space now penetrates every corner of American culture. Peak white male privilege. Trump’s safe space is not alone in being hospitable to bad behavior. At least one fraternity at Yale, my own alma mater, is a safe place to express ugly ideas about sexual violence and consent. A Georgia teacher’s Facebook page is a safe space for expressing racism towards children, while the San Francisco Police Department is a safe place to send racist text messages.
Trump’s “locker room” is a place where he can float trial balloons about his lax attitudes towards sexual violence. There are huge problems with Trump’s beliefs, but equally problematic is the fact that those ideas left the proverbial locker room unchallenged. The other men in Trump’s safe space are complicit in his bad behavior, not to mention rape culture as a whole, and there should be fewer male spaces in which Trumpian behavior gets a pass. As appalling as we find Trump’s attitudes, Billy Bush’s encouraging giggles are perhaps the most disturbing part of this whole episode. His laughter resonates as tacit support for violence against women, something that’s all too common in comedy, media, and daily conversation.
Men must be responsible for building the moral guardrails within male culture. It is not enough for men to be offended by Trump on behalf of, or in defense of, the women in our lives. Not all men commit rape, but many have. Even more have been in the presence of a man who telegraphs his intentions to commit assault. When confronted with such ideas, men have a responsibility to speak up, most of all in those safe spaces, whether they are locker rooms or board rooms. Men should understand when they cross the line from filth and philandering, which are crude but not illegal, to assault and abuse, which are both. If you are a man and unclear about the difference, you need to educate yourself. Otherwise, we will end up being complicit in the behavior of our worst examples.
Not everyone who engages in flagrant talk about sexual assault will commit rape, just as not everyone who uses racial slurs in emails will perpetrate a hate crime. What people say in private, though, communicates a great deal about what that they consider to be within the boundaries of allowable behavior. When the loose talk leaks out of the locker room without being challenged, the results are devastating: women are assaulted, children are abused, and people are killed.