As a man who believes women are people who deserve to be respected before they are anything else, I’m highly offended by Donald Trump’s vile remarks about grabbing women by the crotch. I am not, however, the least bit surprised. When you consider what he’s said about immigrants, the disabled, and even soldiers – not to mention all the other offensive things he’s said about various women and women in general – if this revelation surprises you, you’ve had your head in the sand. Or maybe it took a certain crude word to get your attention.
If “pussy” bothers you more than “grab” you need to re-evaluate your priorities.
Trump tried to dismiss this as “locker room talk.” But this isn’t just crude and objectifying comments about women (which, in case you have any doubts, isn’t the least bit OK either). This is joking about sexual assault and bragging about the privilege wealth and power gives men to treat women as playthings instead of as people who deserve to be respected.
A lot of men are saying no, this isn’t locker room talk: I don’t talk like that in locker rooms, and neither do the men I associate with. This is certainly in line with my experience. I never heard talk like this in high school, much less in the locker rooms and other male-only spaces I’m in now.
It would never occur to many men to talk like this, much less to assault women the way Trump brags about doing. But the women in our lives tell us they hear crude talk and receive unwanted touches all the time. If we’re not doing it, and the people we know aren’t doing it, who is doing it?
All you know for sure is that you’re not doing it. If it’s happening this often – and women tell us it is – then some of those “good guys” in your locker room and in your board room aren’t as good as they make us think. In our presence their behavior is constrained by the examples we set and the desire for our approval, but when we’re not around they feel entitled to grope and catcall all they like.
What constrains behavior when no one with the power to physically stop it is around? There are only two things: character and culture.
Character constrains us from doing things that are in conflict with our higher values, even though at some level we want to do them. You know that guy who, when traffic is backed up merging from two lanes to one, goes as fast as he can to get to the head of line and then forces his way in, instead of merging in place like everyone else? Given a free opportunity, I wouldn’t actually beat him to death with a baseball bat. But the thought has occurred to me.
Building character is a job for parents and early childhood caregivers. Most of it is set by age seven or so, and what’s left is locked in by early adulthood. Donald Trump’s character was set long ago and he’s not going to change who he is.
Culture constrains us from doing things we would do given the opportunity. Culture is how a society says “this is who we are, this is what we do, and this is what we don’t do.” As all of us who consider ourselves countercultural (in any sense of the term) understand, if you deviate from the culture you run the risk of being ostracized. Humans are social animals, and being cut off from the rest of society can be a severe penalty.
Culture is a matter of consensus, and it’s constantly shifting. We are re-negotiating our culture on a daily basis. This is why the men who say “I don’t talk like that” are doing a good thing – they’re not just trying to say “I’m not a creepy scumbag like Trump” they’re saying “this behavior is not acceptable in our society.”
If someone says something offensive and you don’t respond, that sends an unclear message. Maybe you don’t approve of it and you just don’t want to make waves. But for all he knows, maybe you don’t care one way or the other if some rich guy grabs women by the crotch.
On the other hand, if you respond with “hey, don’t be talking like that” or “dude, learn some respect” that sends a stronger message. Those who hear “locker room talk” and actively express their disapproval are doing a lot more to make things better than those who just distance themselves from it.The men around Donald Trump didn’t say anything to him because he’s rich and powerful. Our culture tells us to defer to rich, powerful men – being their friend can be beneficial, and being their enemy can be difficult. But “rich” and “powerful” are relative terms – those who are peasants compared to Donald Trump can look like kings in the presence of those who are young, poor, or otherwise vulnerable, and they may be tempted to follow his example of groping women just because they can. And then men who aren’t particularly rich or powerful start thinking they can do the same thing, just because they’re men.
This is the culture we have. It tells men that women are sexual playthings and that if you’re rich enough, powerful enough, or whatever enough, you can any kind of sex you want with any woman you want. Listen to Trump’s words – he’s convinced women want to be groped, because he’s a “star.” So if you’re a man who thinks he’s a “star” (like, say, an athlete who’s been idolized all his life), you may think you’re just like the Donald. And if you rape an unconscious woman, a judge (another rich, powerful man) may decide that what you did wasn’t all that bad.
You know something? This culture sucks, and not in the fun way. It’s long past time we changed it.
Culture changes in two ways. It changes gradually, as older people lose influence or die off and their opinions are replaced by those of younger people. Given some of what I’ve seen this year, I’m not sure the younger generation is any better than the older generations.
Culture also changes when we demand it changes here and now. It changes when we refuse to excuse offensive behavior no matter where it comes from. It changes when have more compassion for rape victims than for rapists.
It changes when men learn that the only way we have a right to approach women is the same way we approach other men: as people and as individuals whose sex lives are none of our business unless they actively and freely choose to include us in them.
It changes when we learn to value women’s sovereignty more than we value their potential to be a sex partner.
It changes when we learn that “consensual” doesn’t just mean not forced, it means mutually desired. It changes when we understand – and accept – that consent must be free, clear, informed, and unambiguous.
It changes when we refuse to tolerate other men who violate the sovereignty of women with unwanted words, touching, or other attention, even when those men are rich and powerful and could (Gods forbid) become President of the United States.
It changes when we finally see women as people first and anything else well down the list. No more “that’s someone’s mother” or “that could be your daughter.” No. That’s a person, with the full dignity and worth of any other person, regardless of gender or orientation or appearance or anything else.
We cannot change Donald Trump or the Stanford rapist or the judge who let him off with a six month sentence. Their character is insufficient to constrain their behavior. We can change the culture that told them that this was acceptable behavior, and in doing so constrain the behavior of future Donald Trumps.
For a deeper look at how we can change the culture, I highly recommend Pagan Consent Culture, an anthology edited by former Patheos channel editor Christine Kramer and current Patheos columnist Yvonne Aburrow. I have an essay in the book, but I get no royalties or other compensation from sales – except for the satisfaction of knowing that someone else is reading and thinking about some of the most important changes our society needs to make.