Let’s please take a moment to note that on Friday, a tape came out in which Donald Trump said a bunch of insane things that would be comic if not for the fact that he could be elected president a month from now. As in: “You know, I moved on her — actually, you know, she was down in Palm Beach and I moved on her, and I failed, I’ll admit it”; “I moved on her very heavily, in fact I took her out furniture shopping”; “I took her out furniture — I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there and she was married”; and — here’s where it goes from comic to grotesque — “grab them by the pussy … do anything.”
In the fallout of the tape, GOPers alternately said stuff about how women need to be “revered and cherished” (Paul Ryan) or pulled a Who Among Us, saying that “the fact is that men at times talk like that” (Rudy Giuliani). Seen through a linguistic lens, Giuliani’s comment is more insightful than even he probably assumed it to be. Because, as linguist Debbie Cameron argues in a post highlighted by Gretchen McCulloch at All Things Linguistic, Trump’s “locker-room talk” is indeed offensive, lewd, and inane, but that’s not all it is. Locker-room talk, as you can tell by the way Billy Bush and the rest of the gang whoop and guffaw at Trump’s tales of tail, isn’t just about being funny. It’s about bonding with the boys.
Like the sharing of secrets, the sharing of transgressive desires, acts and words is a token of intimacy and trust. It says, ‘I am showing that I trust you by saying things, and using words, that I wouldn’t want the whole world to hear’. It’s also an invitation to the hearer to reciprocate by offering some kind of affiliative response, whether a token of approval like appreciative laughter, or a matching transgressive comment. (‘I trust you, now show that you trust me’.)
In its own twisted way, bragging about serial sexual assault, which Trump is clearly doing, is a display of vulnerability. As an affiliative bid, its social function is a lot like cursing, in that swears are “unexpectedly useful in fostering human relations because they carry risk,” according to In Praise of Profanity author Michael Adams. The function is a lot like humor more largely writ: All over the world, people tell each other that they want to eat one another’s intestines (Papua New Guinea) or lovingly knock the chardonnay out of each other’s hands (New York). This is because the meaning of spoken language and gesture isn’t just a matter of “semantic content,” or the definitions and clauses and propositions you lay out in your grand arguments, but social function — words allow us to communicate shared experiences and put the “relate” into relationship.
Cameron notes that Trump’s “moved on her like a bitch” monologue is like fishermen boasting of big catches or soldiers swapping war stories. The misogyny doesn’t speak so much to their hating women, Cameron argues, but to the lads’ investment in their brotherly relationships. The “goal is to impress their male peers,” she notes, and the misogyny and dehumanization is a means to a bro-y end. That’s why the meaning of the locker-room talk is more than just Trump being a sexist jackass. Rather, this kind of banter is “a ritualised social practice which contributes to the maintenance of structural sexual inequality,” she says. The banter also tends to have a no-girls-allowed locus, maybe a strip club, a sports bar, or yes, a locker room.
All this becomes more clear when you update the terminology by which men dominate women from the feudal to the contemporary: Rather than patriarchy, the rule of the fathers, it’s “fratriarchy,” the rule of the brothers. (Or, to truly capture the old boys’ club, combine the two: fraternal patriarchy.) Banter is the “verbal glue” of these systems, Cameron contends. Male solidarity is extended and deepened by “excluding, Othering and dehumanising women; and in doing those things it also facilitates sexual violence,” she says. It’s an easy line to draw to rape culture, she furthers, pointing to anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday and her 1990 book Fraternity Gang Rape. Sanday finds that gang rape takes root in fraternities and sports teams when men wish to bond and women are dehumanized. “The woman involved is a tool, an object, the centerfold around which boys both test and demonstrate their power and heterosexual desire by performing for one another,” Sanday writes. “It establishes fraternal bonding and helps boys to make the transition to their vision of a powerful manhood — in unity against women, one against the world.”
In the way Trump has continued to dismiss the video, which, with the speed of the news cycle, he’s apparently done a pretty good job at, the subtext of “locker-room talk” is that it’s not speech for women to hear. Chris Kluwe, who played eight NFL seasons for the Minnesota Vikings, tore into him in a Vox column this week, saying that though he spent a better part of a decade in the “macho, alpha male environment you’re so feebly trying to evoke to protect yourself,” he never heard anything like what Trump said, even from the guy “who later turned out to be a serial rapist.” For Trump, this more metaphorical locker room is a place where guys can be guys, and women are territory to conquer, excluded from his ruling of the world (except as arm candy and, yes, that most important job of all, motherhood). As Cameron observes, the banter that Trump is being rightly chastised for is more than just his relentless personal vice, it’s “a social practice supporting a form of fraternity that stands in the way of women’s liberty and equality.” It’s a way of talking about someone — or half the population — without recognizing that there’s really a thinking, feeling human experience happening inside there. Thankfully, those same people are the ones who are going to keep him out of office.