Locker room from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
On October 8, a 2005 hot-mic tape recording of Donald Trump and Billy Bush revealed a conversation in which the Republican presidential candidate made statements that appeared to describe sexual assault. Immediate outrage ensued from both “family values” Republicans and gender equality-supporting Democrats. Trump’s campaign responded with an apology and a dismissal; he was sorry for his “locker room talk.”
The term “locker room talk” sparked a national conversation on the severity of the banter reserved for the privacy of male spaces. Former and current major league athletes declared they had never encountered the language that Trump used on that bus. In an article for Vox, onetime NFL punter and UCLA alumnus Chris Kluwe wrote: “Hell, I played a couple years with a guy who later turned out to be a serial rapist. Even he never talked like that.” Media pundits decried the vulgar form but not the content of Trump’s speech. Some of his supporters took on his words almost as campaign slogans. Out of all these critiques, the most concerning line of argument may have come from the very people who oppose Trump the most.
Whether it be denying that they had ever heard anything like Trump’s statements or invoking that no real man would say something so perverse, the rejoinder from those all over the left utilized a common rhetorical theme of “not all men.” In a campaign speech for Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama emphasized the uniqueness of Trump’s comments among men, arguing that “to dismiss this as everyday locker-room talk is an insult to decent men everywhere. The men that you and I know don’t treat women this way.” On Facebook, civil rights activist Shaun King stated: “Never, not once, in my entire life, has a man said anything like what Trump just said in my presence…I reject the notion that what Trump said is common.”
Perhaps Democrats recognize that Trump’s misogyny is of the same kind affiliated with frat houses and country clubs, but feel a need to present him as an anomaly for campaign purposes. Yet this response fails to confront the pervasive nature of sexual assault in our culture. Whether Trump wins or loses, men’s rampant objectification of women and boasting of sexual conquest will continue to occur behind closed doors. Trump did not invent sexual assault. His actions represent the development of a man who has for seventy years been surrounded and encouraged by other men who view women as vessels for gratification. Refusing to broaden the discussion cements the system that produced individuals like Donald Trump and Billy Bush in the first place.
In some respect, liberals that characterize Trump’s statements as atypical of men are correct, but not for the reason they think. Though many men brag of their ability to overcome women’s sexual autonomy, Trump wields his power through his celebrity status and wealth. This is all the more reason the refusal of Michelle Obama and others to interrogate the formation of violent masculinities harms women. By telling ourselves men are not like Trump, we mask necessary questions about how other male politicians and men of status use their power when the general public isn’t watching.
The failure of this discourse to move beyond Trump also enables Republicans to further normalize sexual assault. Former New York City Mayor and avid Trump spokesman Rudy Giuliani stated flatly that, “the fact is men, at times, talk like that.” The Trump campaign’s New York co-chair defended Trump’s actions as what “all men do, at least normal men.” They presume that sexual assault is integral to men’s nature. They make explicit the unwritten rules of masculinity and then broadcast it as a party platform. If Democrats continue to disregard the structural implications of Trump’s statements, they will only reinforce the systemic sexism that shapes his beliefs on women. It is no surprise that Trump supporters have now taken on sexual assault as a tool for political revolt.
As it becomes increasingly clear that Trump is set to lose the election, there is reason to begin demanding a more comprehensive response from Democrats. In many ways, Trump is the champion of a system condoning (if not actively encouraging) the domination of women. While being sure to hold Trump accountable for his actions, we must also recognize that it is not just him, but what he represents, that must ultimately be defeated.