It’s been surprising to see so many people in sports claim that Donald Trump’s labeling of his vulgar language as “locker room talk” is inaccurate.
Many athletes and coaches have gone out of their way in the last two weeks to paint locker rooms as some kind of sanitized venues for sipping tea and nibbling on sandwiches, in which gentlemen discuss the pressing issues of the day and share pictures of their wives.
Yet we know that’s just not true. These may be components of a locker room environment, but they do not paint the picture of a locker room. And some of the past statements from the very men now claiming locker rooms to be a sort of academic salon are some of the very people who have shared their distaste for the environment in the past.
The truth is, conversation in locker rooms and other places where people of the same gender congregate often revolve around sex — even desperately graphic conversations.
Saying that’s not a very real part of locker room experiences undermines our ability to address real issues affecting women in and outside of sports every day. We have a long history in sports of pretending that issues like sexual harassment don’t exist. Sadly this dismissing of the issue out-of-hand does more damage to our ability to solve very real issues beyond just “talk.”
The vulgar talk of sex also affects gay athletes on a daily basis. These gay athletes often feel marginalized when surrounded by the constant talk of sex with the opposite gender. And yes, it is constant in many locker rooms.
Yet professional athletes have taken to the media to profess a lack of awareness of it.
Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said “there's nobody demeaning [women] -- there's players in our locker room with sisters, wives and daughters. There's not that type of talk in anyone's locker room.”
Except, we know that’s not true. I know that’s not true. Vulgar objectification of women is something I’ve heard in locker rooms in high school and as an adult, and in my fraternity house in college — from friends, acquaintances and complete strangers.
To be sure, there is a distinction to be made that talk of grabbing women unsolicited, as Trump boasted, may be far less common. Though we know that the number of accusations of actual grabbing of women — or even worse, as Jessica Luther writes in her new book — by college football and NFL players is growing.
One dynamic at play in all of these professions by athletes could be the shifting environment from high school to professional locker rooms. We’ve been told by various athletes that homophobic comments are common in high school, occasional in college and rare if not non-existent in the pros. Certainly that could translate to less and less vulgar sexual commentary as professionalism and paychecks increase.
Except then we have stories like the one Jeff Pearlman is now telling of Green Bay Packers players thinking Aaron Rodgers is gay because he wouldn’t brag in the locker room about “his endless string of sexual conquests.” Objectifying women in the locker room is so common that if you don’t do it, you must be gay.
“Nobody demeaning women” in the locker room. Give me a break.
Garrett Snoeyenbos, who came out as gay after his playing days, heard it in in the locker room when he played football at Navy and Vanderbilt.
"A lot of the conversations in the locker room were about such-and-such girl and how she looked and what went on over the weekend,” Snoeyenbos wrote for Outsports. “It's this over-emphasized heterosexuality, the stereotypical macho-man talk, who has his pick of any girl, things like that."
Former NFL prospect Wade Davis talks about feeling so much heterosexual pressure from inside the sport that he would go to a brothel and hire a prostitute to play the part.
Yale University rugby player Luc Ryan Schreiber even started a group on campus to change “a locker room culture that assumes everyone is straight. It's not malicious, at least not 99 percent of the time here at Yale, but it is sort of... non-thinking."
Schreiber wasn’t referencing discussions about Settlers of Catan strategies.
Claiming “locker room talk” doesn’t include graphic, lewd talk of sex is to invalidate the very real experiences of gay athletes who feel marginalized by this banter. Claiming vulgar conversation about women’s body parts isn’t intrinsic to the experiences of many — if not most -- male athletes in America is to gloss over an issue that affects the psyche of all men, gay and straight.
Why should we doubt it? Sports in America are intertwined with sex. Cheerleaders wear skimpy clothing to titillate the audience. Sports Illustrated’s top-selling issue every years is its Swimsuit Issue, and it’s not because of the swimsuits.
Still, some of the people whom I respect deeply in the sports world — and who have helped pave a way for gay athletes in professional sports — have said surprising things about an alleged tea-and-crumpets locker room culture.
Former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe tried to paint NFL locker rooms as chardonnay-sipping high-class affairs, discussing travel and economics, along with sharing pictures of athletes’ wives and kids.
Of course that’s part of it. Yet four years ago Kluwe told Outsports he didn’t know any active NFL players who were gay because “the locker room culture is the locker room culture. It’s a very tough environment for someone who’s gay to come out in.”
As we know from gay athletes, that’s not just because of blatant homophobia, but rather desperately overt heterosexuality that pervades almost every men’s locker room.
Pro soccer player Robbie Rogers once spoke of the fear he had as a gay man in part because of locker-room culture. Earlier this year he talked about locker-room banter joking about everything (emphasis on everything, including homophobia).
“It's a tough place, the locker room. It's pretty similar in England to how it is in the States: homophobic, sexist,” Rogers said just four months ago.
Now he says vulgar sexual language like Trump’s isn’t a part of locker rooms.
The truth is, it is. And it hurts gay athletes like Rogers who feel they have no connection to it beyond disgust.
The behavior trickles outside of locker rooms. Sure, places like Wall Street offices and men’s locker rooms and fraternity houses are particularly prone to lewd sexual language. Yet as a gay man I hear this language on a regular basis. I’ve had men say things to me at dinner parties that were crude and sexually vulgar, one even making unwanted graphic sexual advances last week moments after we talked about Trump’s comments. I have, to be sure, said them myself.
It’s certainly convenient to gloss over the behavior of men and women when they are in a closed environment thinking no one is listening. Yet story after story tell us that locker rooms are places where gay men and lesbians often feel uncomfortable because of the graphic talk of straight sex.
To claim otherwise is to set back our real, honest conversations about how to make sports spaces more inclusive and curtail the very real threat of sexual abuse so many women face at the hands of men.