In the Locker Room: Talk Matters

We have all heard the phrase “locker room talk,” and in the past, I have thought primarily of two groups: high school boys and athletic teams. Men have told me that such talk is often not only filthy and objectifying, but also hostile. While there may be an attitude of lust it is flavored with contempt. The objective is to impress others with your manliness with tough talk about women, rating them, detailing how often you score, relating the salacious details. But it does not include boasting of sexual assault.

I wasn’t sure I understood the flavor of this kind of talk until one day, sitting on a beach, I happened to overhear a conversation between two fresh-faced young lifeguards. Because of the way the wind was blowing I could hear everything they were saying about their adventures from the previous night, as if I were sitting next to them, rather than below and many yards away.

What I heard was harrowing. They sounded like predators whose goals were not just to score, but also to humiliate women. At the time, I was the mother of teenage daughters, and I was shocked to realize this might be the way boys talked about them when they were alone together. Is it hyperbole, and/or braggadocio when they talk like this, or are they accurately reporting what they do? Certainly they were showing a contemptuous attitude toward girls and women.  Do all of them talk like this? No, but some factors make it more likely.

One factor is youth. As boys first begin to think about the opposite sex, they often take their cues from what the other guys tell them and how they act. When they are together there are posturing and preening behaviors, not unlike the kind of jockeying for position that we see in nature videos of animal species. They exaggerate and puff out their chests, metaphorically (though sometimes literally) like the male gorilla. The urge is to prove dominance and superiority over one another, but also dominance of women.

Another subtext to this kind of talk is male bonding. Not only do they engage in this as a means of asserting the strength of their group, they are also assiduously warding off any hint of unconscious homosexual flirtation or affection that might occur during this bonding. This is one of the reasons why these conversations are common in locker rooms: they are attempts to ease the tension that can be created in a group of naked males in close proximity.

But as men mature, and become more comfortable around women and more sure of themselves, they are freer to express not only individual preferences in their attraction for women, but also affection. Yet even rituals surrounding “grown” men, like bachelor parties, are sometimes centered on rough talk and the group objectification of women. One could argue, however, that the groom and his friends are, on the brink of his wedding, helping him bid such “immature” behavior goodbye.

Mature men should be expected to express civil and respectful attitudes toward women, even in private. If they do not, it can be evidence of fixation at an immature level, or even outright misogyny. But in a culture in which such issues as rape on college campus are in the spotlight as a major problem, there should be more pressure on men to be respectful. Instead, standards of behavior have plummeted, even as women have sought to fight back against the objectification that leads to violence. 

There have been clear cultural shifts in terms of what is considered appropriate for public discourse in the media. For most of our history, the press has refrained from publishing stories about politicians’ sex lives. As recently as 1979, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller died suddenly, The New York Times, (whose motto is “All the News That’s Fit to Print”), ran a story about the event that was veiled and incomplete. The governor, they said, was “working” late at night in his office with a female assistant when he had a heart attack. The only hint they gave was to indicate something else might be going on was to mention that the assistant was wearing an evening dress. The innuendo in the story was so subtle that I completely missed it, even though I was in my 20s.

I am not sure when or how standards of civil discourse changed so radically, but by the mid-1980s shows like “Jerry Springer,” whose focus is bad behavior, the more scandalous the better, appeared during daytime TV hours. Soap operas created more “relevant,” racier story lines, and eventually, with the advent of the “reality TV” genre, broadcast TV came to resemble tabloid journalism more and more.

Although there were a few shows that could be called “reality TV” when I was growing up in the ’60s, their tenor was very different. There were shows like “Candid Camera,” which filmed people reacting to strange, funny or awkward situations, and “This Is Your Life,” which surprised contestants by gathering a group of friends and relatives who recounted good memories of the person. A childhood favorite of mine was the show “Queen for a Day,” in which an overworked housewife could win a prize like a new washing machine or dryer, usually provoking in her heart-warming tears of joy and gratitude.

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  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. October 13, 2016 at 7:47 pm

    This is an insightful article on such a timely subject that has affected many Americans deeply. Thank you for your thoughtful discussion of the psychological issues that could underlie the behavior that we witnessed this weekend from the Access Hollywood “hot mic” audio and video tapes. And your observation about the change in ‘reality television” from the 60’s and 70’s Queen for a Day to programs such as the “Housewives” series was sobering. Queen for a Day acknowledged that there were so many women who were struggling financially with no hope of reaching the middle class. It is time for all Americans to think about those who are without education, technical training, job opportunity, and health care. It is time to bring back Queen for a Day in all those communities where there is no hope and award the winner job training, jobs, social connections and support.