Oct 10, 2016

No, It's Totally Not Okay.

I'm not making a political judgment, but there's a cultural issue I want to discuss regarding Donald Trump and his now infamous conversation with Billy Bush from 11 years ago in which he refers to women as "It" and talks about grabbing them "by the pussy" without their consent - AKA sexual assault.
I can't remain on the sidelines. This is about more than P.C. principles.
At Sunday night's debate, Trump in an attempt to rehabilitate his image dismissed his statements as "locker room" talk.
Apparently "locker room" talk is something that 59-year-old men still engage in. Apparently "locker room" talk is something that grown adults are supposed to find "normal." Apparently "locker room" talk is okay if you're doing it with the guys outside of a woman's earshot. Apparently "locker room" talk is so trivial that we shouldn't worry about it. Apparently, some of this candidate's other past behavior, like ogling nude pageant contestants, refusing to date women over 35, calling his own daughter a "piece of ass," and appearances in Playboy videos shouldn't be viewed as a clear and stunning pattern of misogyny.
That bothers me. First, it presents an appearance to women that men talk this way when they're not in the company of women and that it's normal. I have not been party to a conversation like this in almost 17 years - I was an 18-year-old college freshman the last time I was in the company of a group of men who talked about women in such a way. Grown, mature people generally don't talk about other human beings like they're things to be used without a shitload of "sarcasm tags" around the discussion. There was nothing flippant about what Trump said, and it's insulting for him and his surrogates to pretend like it was flippant. This was another nasty comment about women in a long line of nasty comments about women.
To pretend like this kind of shit goes on all the time in men's locker rooms is also offensive to me as a man. To tell you the truth, most of us seem to be too busy trying to get showered and dressed to have any more than the "how's the weather" kind of talk in the locker room. My guess would be that, just as in bathrooms overall, there's more talking going on on the women's side of things. My locker room memories are of being ashamed of my own body and of being nervous about other peoples. I was always trying to avoid accidentally looking at other people's junk by strictly minding my own business in the damn locker room. Men's locker rooms are awkward, sweaty, stinky, hairy places, and most men enter with the goal of getting out with as little interaction as possible.
To pretend like this kind of shit goes on all the time in the private company of other men is also a little insulting. Yes, straight men do talk about women, and they talk about sex, and they talk about sex with women, and they talk about which women they want to have sex with, and they talk about what kind of sex they want to have with which women, sometimes in explicit detail - but those are the conversations usually had by high school- or college-aged men who are exploring their social relationships and sexualities, and those conversations center around consensual sex - not assault.
For me, these so-called "locker room" conversations about women usually happened in someone's car or on someone's couch or in a coffeehouse, not at the gym. I admit to talking about women as if they were sexual objects at times when I was a teenager, but it's a sin I've never committed as a rational adult in thought, word or action. Barring the truly sociopathic among us, most people reach the point where they acknowledge that there's a human being in the second half of their sentences with thoughts, feelings and a life of their own.
Trying to be magnanimous, I have usually remained uncomfortably silent whenever I heard racist, sexist and homophobic comments from my peers. In the face of men like Donald Trump, however, that well-intentioned silence might not be enough. I feel like my silence accommodates the acceptance of Trump's views towards women, and though I don't expect many people to read this blog, I can't allow that to happen. We can't allow for statements that reduce women and minorities to objects or that otherwise dehumanize them to stand as part of our political discourse. It's totally not okay.
Yet we have also imbibed gallons of culture that treats men and women as objects - or less - mostly without saying a peep. Not only in salacious movies and magazines, but also in television shows purported to be made for women and in R&B and rap songs by artists who have publicly staked a claim to "feminism." It's generally acceptable for men and women to be reduced to their appearance, or their sexual prowess, or parts of their bodies, or even just their genitalia, in lyrics, in sports, and in the fashion magazine articles of our time. Should we really be surprised that Trump does the same?
I don't hold the common feminist view that this kind of language and treatment is a direct, overt attempt to oppress women - but it is the kind of thought and behavior that minimizes sexual assault and also encourages men and women to dehumanize each other for their natural feminine and masculine traits. Feminism's response, after the outrage and snark is filtered out, seems to be an appeal to some sort of gender neutrality or, if men are intransigent, a dissociation from inter-gender relations altogether.
But we're sexual beings, and men and women should be free to think and to talk about each other in overtly sexual ways in private and in public forums.
We can't appeal to young men by asking them to think of their sisters, mothers, daughters, aunts or nieces before speaking or acting in a misogynist manner because young men's views of these relationships are (hopefully) purely non-sexual. We can't strip sexuality away from other social relationships, as sexual attraction and tension are healthy, naturally occurring elements of those relationships.
Instead of creating a public that is sterilized from mention or acknowledgement of sex, perhaps we should be creating a public that is a safe place to discuss sex, sexuality and sexual thoughts - even among *gasp* coworkers and classmates. Instead of creating a world that suppresses thought and speech in favor of language and culture that pushes us towards gender neutrality, we should create a world safe for expressions of masculinity and femininity, positive and negative. I believe that "locker room" talk needs to be pushed out into open forums so it can be dissected, discussed and checked as it occurs. Perhaps that will do more to heal a world where many women still live in fear of sexual assault, harassment, domination and unequal treatment - after 35 years or so of third-wave feminism, perhaps we need to try a different approach.
In spite of our pop culture promiscuity, we are awfully Victorian when it comes to personal conversations about sex and sexuality. It's been banished from the dinner table and challenged in the classroom. Politicians are afraid to discuss it. Parents dread having the conversations with their children. Even churches, once the outspoken authority, for better or for worse, on Western sexuality, now fear to broach the subject in the wake of scandals of prostitute-soliciting televangelists and pedophile priests.
Young men especially are forced to learn about sex from pop culture, and then talk about it in their private settings - and preferably in private settings free from the curious ears of young women, "safe spaces" if you will. As gender divisions have slowly been obliterated in government, business and culture, men's "safe spaces" have dwindled down to the locker room. What kind of lesson does pop culture teach young men about women, sex and sexuality, and what kind of confirmation do we think they're going receive within private settings like a locker room?
A lot has been made at the speed and ease at which Donald Trump moved from "locker room" talk with Billy Bush on his tour bus to shaking hands and interacting with one of the women he had just been denigrating. Look, politicians and celebrities are more likely to have two different personas within their public and private lives, and everyone does this to some extent. It was not surprising to see Donald Trump move from the crude, juvenile language of his private conversation to a warm, sanitized public persona.
We all sanitize ourselves for public consumption. For most of us, though, our public facade hides only a little bit of politically incorrect ribaldry and perversion and anarchism and dark humor that comes through unfiltered in private settings - we're essentially the same person in public and in private, just with different filters.
Trump, on the other hand, has a private persona that's clearly misogynist and potentially bigoted in other ways. Think of the divide between what Trump is willing to say publicly about women - which isn't great - and what he's now revealed to have said privately about them. Now apply that change in persona to what Trump has said about Latinos, or Muslims, or African Americans, or the disabled. It's totally not okay.
That concerns me as someone who desires more diversity not just in their own life, but also in the public's eye. Gone unchecked, this sort of dialogue not only pushes women and minorities away from public life, but also isolates men, white people, straight people, cisgendered people, abled people - and, tragically, their children - from being immersed in and understanding the diverse world they're surrounded by. How can we be effective workers, teachers, fathers or leaders if we're so isolated by our own boorishness - and how could one of us be an effective president?
I don't think that private conversations should be fair game in a presidential campaign. I hate it when our electoral discourse wanders away from the issues and into such salacious, character-driven stories. But I don't think we can afford to be flippant about what has been said about women and minorities in this election. None of my views about *why* or *how* Trump made his comments makes them acceptable - or even tolerable. Silence, inaction and ignorance will only deepen our divisions - and even my journalist's objectivity has its limits. It's totally not okay.
Trump's "obscene" thinking inevitably leads to true obscenities like sexual assault and domestic violence. His speech is the speech that legitimizes that thinking - it happens, it's meant to be private, so it's okay. But it's totally not okay. Not in the least.