The news broke Friday that a recording had been found from nearly ten years ago with a presidential candidate saying coarse things about women, basically admitting to sexual assault in the crudest of ways, and the journalist he was talking to (who was, absurdly, the nephew of the then sitting president) laughing and echoing the sentiments. It’s hard stuff to defend, but to the extent anyone tried to deflect it, it was dismissed as mere “guy talk,” the kind of banter you hear in locker rooms.
It’s not rare. I go to a gym, and encounter a lot of these older guys (heck, I’m practically one of them). The talk is more often veiled (or unveiled) racism than sexism, which probably has to do with my age group. But whether it is misogynistic or racist, locker rooms are apparently a “safe place” for men to be “themselves” and therefore not held accountable for anything they say.
The question is, when you’re in such a place, what is your responsibility? I rarely speak up. I listen uncomfortably, give milquetoast responses, and ease out of the situation as quickly as possible. My instincts are for “flight,” not for “fight.” I rationalize that anything I say will lead to defensive hostility rather than changing anyone’s mind. I can’t say I’m concerned about my physical safety, exactly, but I know I’ll be yelled at and called names, and that’s enough to dissuade me. Memories are triggered of middle school and high school and even college, when because of my size and frailty I wasn’t really one of the guys. I walk away with sickness in my stomach.
But is it OK to remain silent? I think without social proximity, it is unlikely to be an effective ally. At the same time, I know how weasly that sounds. As a person of privilege who is quickly taken into the confidence of other people of privilege, I have a power to speak up.
At the same time I think “calling out” strangers in this way simply sets rules of discourse: don’t talk like that. But social proximity gives someone the ability to address a friend’s inner toxicity: here’s why you shouldn’t think like that. That takes work, empathic listening, and thoughtful responses. So while there’s an importance to speaking up and even calling out, the real work is in having a conversation.
So I realize the real responsibility here is to actually get to know these guys and talk to them. I’ll try harder.