“Not all men.”
This is what many of us men say in response to generalizations about our gender.
“Men commit a vastly disproportionate number of rapes.” — “Not all men.”
“Men catcall strange women and create hostile environments.” — “Not all men.”
“Absentee fathers prioritize their work over their family.” — “Not all men.”
And now, “Men brag casually about sexual assault.” — “Not all men.”
What’s different about Donald Trump’s “locker room talk” defense is that it’s coming from a man (as an apologist’s generalization) rather than from a feminist critique. What’s similar, though, is that “Not all men” is still a deflection from the main problem.
No, not all men talk that way away from women’s ears. But Trump is not alone.
Trump, as a male, is justifying his own bad comments by attributing his behavior to men in general. In his narrative, he’s not a statistical outlier: This is normal guy talk.
This argument is tenacious and harmful. It removes or at least mitigates the notion of free will. According to “boys will be boys,” it is only the extraordinary male that can rise above those baser instincts, so the rest of maledom should not be judged poorly for its lack of self-control.
However, even if it were true that every male on the planet has engaged in the sort of vile commentary that Trump is guilty of, that doesn’t justify any single man’s conduct.
And, of course, it’s not true that Trump was engaging in some sort of universalist male roguishness. Few men talk cavalierly about sexually assaulting women, and most men are disturbed by such conversations.
Michelle Obama is right to characterize Trump’s defense as “an insult to decent men.” It is not decent to even joke about sexual assault, let alone suggest you’re so powerful it would be welcomed.
At the same time, though, many men do engage in a good deal of sordid, lewd, inappropriate objectification of women.
Women complain often about unwanted cat-calls and sexually explicit photos. One woman recorded her experiences walking around New York City. Her encounters included two men who walked side-by-side with her for several minutes each, in a dominating manner, as well as many lewd and sexist comments.
This talk doesn’t stop when women can’t hear it. I’ve heard plenty of inappropriate comments about women: Male friends and acquaintances discussing sexual conquests and desires. I’ve engaged in it myself.
It’s common throughout popular culture. Sir Mix-a-Lot’s most enduring “hit song,” “Baby Got Back,” begins: “I like big butts and I cannot lie / You other brothers can’t deny.” In “Cowboy,” Kid Rock fantasizes about catcalling women and having sex with “the sheriff’s” wife. The comedy movie “Revenge of the Nerds” includes a non-consensual sex scene (a mask-wearing protagonist has sex with the antagonist’s girlfriend; she thinks it’s her boyfriend). The movie “Animal House” includes a scene where one character debates having sex with a drunk, unconscious, half-nude, underage girl. Both of these movies include scenes where male college students spy on naked female students.
These are examples of rape culture.
Whether or not we want to call them “locker room talk,” they’re all around us. Trump’s comments may be a particularly disgusting example of that talk, but the general tone is not nearly as rare as the “not all men” arguments would suggest.
Let’s also consider Billy Bush’s role in this. Billy Bush was the host of Access Hollywood who is talking to Trump in the infamous tape. While he seems to be uncomfortable with the tenor of the conversation, Bush doesn’t stop Trump. When they leave the bus, with Bush having heard what Trump has said about having poor control, Bush encourages the woman they meet to hug Trump. Bush enables Trump, and for his part in the tapes, he has been suspended from his current position on The Today Show. How many men in Bush’s position, though, would stand up to Trump?
It is one thing to be quietly outraged at the vile nature of Trump’s comments. It is another to have the fortitude to speak out against them. Not all men speak like Trump does, but not all men have that fortitude, either.
It is frightening to do so. Rosalind Wiseman’s “Masterminds and Wingmen” talks about the strong hierarchies within the community of boys and men. As a male, I can also speak to the strong drive to accept boorish, sexist, inappropriate behavior from fellow men in order to not rock the boat, to maintain social standing, and to fit in.
As a high school teacher, I have a biased perspective. The majority of the males I interact with are teenagers, who are more driven by hormones than a 70-year-old man ought to be, and who have less maturity and self-control than that. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that I’ve heard some sexist, objectifying comments about girls coming from my students.
I correct those comments, and they need correction. This is a large part of why it’s so frustrating to me that a man who would be President is modeling such terrible behavior.
It is great to see so many men willing to speak out against Trump’s comments. It means that we are evolving as a culture, and that we are increasingly respectful of women.
At the same time, I’m concerned that we’re trying too hard to suggest that Trump’s comments are somehow unique. They aren’t. Other men do talk like that.
We can’t address that if we’re too focused on denying our own complicity. Even if we don’t talk like that, do we also speak out when we hear it? Or is our disapproval an awkward chuckle, sending a mixed message?
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