When I was a senior in high school, I engaged in a one-woman feud with the football team and school administrators after the opening night of our musical was cancelled to accommodate a conference championship football game. My brother, a sophomore on the football team, told me that the seniors were complaining about me in the locker room. He said they were insulting me and saying all kinds of awful things. To this day, almost 11 years later, he still refuses to tell me what they said—it was that bad.
So when a candidate for the President of the United States dismisses the seriousness of bragging about sexually assaulting women as mere “locker room talk,” I can’t help but think back to high school.
The locker room is this male-only space where (apparently) men can say what they want without consequence. Guys are bullied and hazed. Women are degraded. I can’t say I’ve ever been privy to the conversations, but if bragging about sexual assault is what “locker room talk” is, then I’m glad I wasn’t invited into that space.
Regardless of the context, why is it that men can say whatever they want as long as women aren’t there to overhear them? Why do decent men let them? And is this so-called locker room talk really harmless?
Of course it’s not harmless.
Bragging about or joking about degrading women is serious business. Words are never “just words.” They are rooted in violent, deep-seated beliefs about women’s worth. Words shape the way we think. The way we think shapes the way we act. And the more acceptable, the more laughable, violence toward women becomes, the less safe women become. You’ve heard the statistics:
One in five women in the United States have been sexually assaulted while attending college. 4.5 million people are trapped in sexual exploitation globally. Nearly all women experience sexual harassment in one form or another repeatedly over their lifetimes.
Do words really have the power to incite that level of abuse?
James, the brother of Jesus, sure seemed to think so. James 3 is a stern reminder of the power of the tongue and has so much relevance to this conversation about “locker room talk.” Crack open your Bible, or click here, and take a look at the whole chapter. If you don’t read the whole thing, at least read these two excerpts:
“When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”
“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.”
Men, when insults or lewd jokes toward women come out of your mouth, you reveal a dark, sinful piece of your soul. It’s equally damning to say nothing when you hear other men make degrading comments about women.
This is a unique challenge to men in male-only spaces. In these spaces, you have the opportunity to change the culture of the church and the rest of the world. Let fresh water pour forth by standing up to the bullying and degradation of women in “locker room talk.”
When we hear friends, political figures, or celebrities dehumanize and degrade people made in the image of God, we must stand up and speak out. If we don’t, we condone the words and the subsequent behavior.
The church cannot remain silent anymore. We must challenge the culture of permissiveness. It has to be absolutely unacceptable to talk about sexual harassment and sexual assault flippantly. We have to stop making excuses for boys—and especially men. This starts with men and boys standing up for women, even when no women are in earshot.
Men must model this to young boys around them in male-only spaces. They must teach boys to honor and respect women with their words and actions, because eventually, these boys will be forced to choose between joining in the crude words or putting a stop to them. And the boys who join in will likely grow into adult men who exhibit the same toxic behavior. We must put a stop to it, because words are never just words.
Image credit Flickr user Michael B. Stuart
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the author's brother did not stand up for her in the locker room. It has now been corrected. The author remembers now that her brother actually did stand up for her. She would like to thank him for being a hero in that super awkward situation!
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