“Locker room talk” is too casual of a term, and obviously not only athletic boys talk about women in disrespectful ways. Locker room talk does not only exist purely in privacy before and after sports, it exists in front of women who are often too scared to speak up. This hate speech dwells in classrooms, homes, and the liminal spaces between them. The words these boys are using to demean women are not simple-minded. They are intentional and powerful words.
When I was 15, I moved to a co-ed boarding school and unsurprisingly the separate sexes lived in different buildings from each other. I am not advocating that all boarding schools throw together a bunch of lascivious teenagers, however one side effect of this separation is that boys living with only boys learn to be comfortable degrading women during a developmental stage in their lives. When boys feel comfortable demeaning women every morning, all day, and every night, calling it “locker room talk” is wildly inappropriate.
My boarding school is also a military academy just for the boys who are titled “men” by their system, whereas the women fall under a prefect system within a ‘girl's academy’. This goes hand in hand with many other covertly (sometimes overtly) sexist policy differences. For example, the girl’s dorms are all equipped with kitchens and laundry rooms, which none of the boy’s barracks possess because their laundry is done for them. Students must attend ‘leadership’ periods before and after school on Wednesdays. While it is not uncommon to have the boys driving trucks, and shooting off cannons in the parade field, the girls are busy planning their next mandatory 4 hour dorm decorating session, having an abstinence only sex “education” session, or choreographing a dance to (no joke) Cruisin’ for a Brusin’ from Teen Beach Movie to perform to the freshman.
It would be foolish to think that these traditions and implications of our school system don’t reinforce, or even create, the rhetoric slithering through the boy’s living barracks. Another side effect to the boys operating under a military system is that the beginning of the school year is ‘New Cadet Season’, which results in a large number of freshman boys who just left home for the first time sitting by themselves in the cafeteria. My friend group has a strict policy to invite all such boys to sit with us. Since half of my friend group was formed from this very action years ago there is rarely an objection and we always welcome the boys with open arms. The kind of loyalty this breeds is part of the reason that I have been privy over the years to learning exactly what is being said in the barracks.
The more important factor though is that some words are powerful enough to break the bonds of brotherhood, especially words like “rape”. In the middle of conservative Indiana (where my school is located) “faggot” is a generally accepted term, and shockingly rape often is as well. Recently, 5 boys were sitting together in the lounge harassing each other as teenagers (myself included) often like to do. These boys are all 18 and most of them have either girlfriends, sisters, or both, and I can only assume that they did at one point exit out of a woman. None the less, they began to tease their friend because for the 4th month in a row he was spending time with a girl he hadn’t had sex with. What made it even worse, was that this girl is a proud feminist. They berated him about how she must have converted him to a “feminist” with vitriol melting out of their mouths until one of them had an epiphany.
“Wait, didn’t you spend the night at her house this summer?”
And then the boy that had declared his realization with all the confidence of Buddha under his tree said something so misogynistic that even I (who had previously considered myself completely desensitized to douche-bags) was shocked. He said
“And you didn’t rape her?! If you didn’t rape her you must be a feminist.”
Now, despite everything you have read up until this point, my school is decently diverse. We have students from all over the world, certainly ones from many different family dynamics, and an abundance of different political parties and religions. Yet, not a single boy in that group said anything to contradict that statement. No one even flinched.
The boy who said it has a girlfriend, and when I heard about this I made sure to tell her right away. She did not care, and they are still together. I have been debating which one of them is more in the wrong for that and I can’t decide so I’ll leave it up to you, but there are several clear points to be had here.
1. If an institution maintains traditions and rhetoric that reinforce harmful societal stereotypes, then that may cultivate environments where people are comfortable being bigots.
2. Putting boys around women is not enough. A sister/girlfriend/mother that they love is not enough to stop them from harboring harmful beliefs. Conversations need to be had and lessons need to be delivered.
3. Some women really don’t care about misogynistic words.
Those boys knew what they were saying. Encouraging rape at 18 years old it's not ignorance, it is violence and it needs to be treated as such. When “locker room talk” becomes a deliberate call to violence it needs to be called what it is—hate speech. It is extremely unlikely that all 5 of those boys came into high school with the attitude that rape should be encouraged. That kind of hate is learned and women that are aware of that kind of hate being present in their relationships need to be empowered enough to act. To the girlfriend, to the boys in that room, and to all of us,
Silence is a choice of words.
Saying nothing can have an effect just as strong (if not more so) than powerful misogynist diction. Labeling hate speech as “locker room talk” or writing off these kinds of interactions by saying “boys will be boys” is hurting your children. It is hurting your daughters that are dating, and it is also hurting your sons. I have read work by feminists about how harmful it is when boys ignorantly speak about women, but that is ignoring the reason that rhetoric and inter-sectional feminism will forever be interlaced— women have voices.
We bare part of the responsibility for the hatred that is being taught and it is hatred, not ignorance. Words are powerful, and these boys know which ones to use. It is not simple ignorance that built the environments they live in; it is systematic irresponsibility which needs to be addressed by all genders. Language, and lack of it, is what carries the future forward. All our fights towards equality can be diminished in any community that undervalues the power of words. His girlfriend didn’t care because he didn’t do anything besides speak.
Speaking is a powerful action.
It doesn’t matter how many warriors change the world in their battle to equality, because those battles can be undone in communities where words are left to rot in the air all the while feeding and growing in the silence.
I believe this hatred all started with vulnerable boys at lunch tables with no friends. They wanted a group to fit into. So along with my obvious message to label hatred accurately and to speak up when you see it, I also greatly encourage you to help young boys (and girls) when you’re able. If toxic masculinity befriends them then they will learn to praise it, so beat the misogynists to the punch. Be a warrior for women. Ransack their rhetoric, steal their learning children, and do not ever surrender.