HOW OBJECTIFYING DISCOURSE LEADS TO SEXUAL ASSAULT
If the Locker Room Talk Scandal has done nothing else, it has put a spotlight on the way men talk when they don’t believe they are being heard and how what might be private words can translate into public actions. It’s also forced men, honest men at least, to re-evaluate how they talk about women, even if they don’t advocate sexual assault in their particular locker rooms.
First, let’s be clear. The things the Republican Blunder said, and his giggling lackey reinforced, were beyond “locker room talk.” Frankly, the GOP’s top walking catastrophe does not strike me as the kind who has been anywhere near a locker room in many years.
Of course, by locker room talk, he and the media echo chamber are referring to the way men talk to each other in private. The claim is that, when there is no reason to believe that someone might be recording our conversations, men say crude things about women. That’s just the way it is. It’s perfectly normal and no big deal.
Um…I can say definitively that I have never had a conversation with other men that involved admitting to or condoning sexual assault on women.
That being said, I cannot deny participating in off-color conversations about women. Men participating in such conversation are often describing their intimate histories, or rather exaggerated narratives about their intimate histories, their desires and rather lascivious forms of “admiration” for the physical features or presumed sexual prowess of women. We may not go straight sexual assault as does the Right Wing’s chosen champion, but, let’s face it, objectification is objectification. So are we only talking about a matter of degree when we condemn the lead lecher of the right while claiming that “normal” locker room talk is benign?
If there’s one thing that sociologists, specifically Social Constructionists, know, it’s that language, how we talk about things, sets the stage for how we know things, for what we recognize as real. So “talk” whether the locker room kind or not, is important. It is the foundation of our perceptions of reality.
In a post that predated this scandal I suggested that men’s understanding of women’s bodies goes beyond the kind of objectification that one would expect from discussing a physical entity. All individuals are, to a certain extent, objects to others. There’s no escaping this fact. With regard to male objectification of women, however, this truth is misaligned with patriarchy, with discourses of dominance and possession.
This is clear in the presumptions offered by the accused rapist on the Republican ticket. He claimed that he could get away with kissing and groping women at will because he’s famous. “Locker room talk,”or the sexual stories we tell, is often a discourse for constructing one’s own sexual identity. We use specific discursive formations to present our selves. When it comes to masculine sexual identity, such discursive formations are often bound up with themes of dominance, power and possession. This scandal simply highlights this fact in sharp contrast.
So what makes this scandal interesting isn’t the loud and obnoxious source. It’s about men in general and our often hapless reproduction of male dominance through discourse. We can’t condemn the source of this scandal without condemning ourselves. “Yeahbuts” only confirm that we are all guilty in degree if not in specifics. “Yeah, but…I never talked about assaulting women.” Perhaps, but you have participated in related discourse. You have constructed your own sexuality by accepting the power/dominance paradigm. That’s the problem.
In the 1970’s, feminists introduced the term “rape culture” to describe the perceived normative ways in which rape and sexual exploitation of women is condoned and even promoted in everyday life. Feminists demanded that we look beyond the assumptions of a “bad” rapist and “undeserving” victim and to examine the structural elements of sexual exploitation. The discourse on rape culture is a powerful analytical tool. By downplaying this scandal as nothing more than “locker room talk” we are confirming the basic truth about the basic principles of rape culture. That, rather than the specific scandal, is the problem.
Language, or how we talk, is a component of culture. It is the foundational element of all that we know. We construct reality principally by talking about it. So our understanding of women as they relate to us is premised and reproduced by how we talk about women. Objectification itself is not necessarily the problem. Rather the nature of the objectification, one that denies or subordinates women’s subjectivity to male dominance and possession, is the groundwork for actions taken toward women under the same pretext.
How we know a phenomena, in this case, how we know each other, defines how we interact or perceive appropriate interaction. The Republican nominee, as he has done many times before, forces us to look at our society and ourselves under an astonishingly clear and precise microscope. That may explain why this particular scandal has stuck like no other. It serves as a looking glass through which we cannot help but see our own blemishes and moral disfigurements. We may try to explain them away, but yet they remain.
If it is true that such “locker room talk” is so common as to be considered perfectly normal and excusable, at least to a certain extent, then men might need to evaluate the nature of this talk. As is clear, talk leads to understanding, understanding guides action. This is the inescapable revelation of this scandal.