The odds that you haven't already heard about Donald Trump's 2005 comments regarding "grabbing" women's genitals, as well as his half-baked non-apology for them this past weekend, are about nil. But just in case you were in space for the past 18 months, just landed, and made your first act back on earth clicking this article (thanks, and welcome back!), let's quickly go over the facts: a 2005 tape of Trump making offensive comments about women, including that "when you're a star they let you do it. You can do anything...Grab them by the p****" were published by the Washington Post on Saturday; that night, Trump issued a video apology which barely apologized, wherein he dismissed his remarks as "foolish" and referred to the tape as a "distraction," before hurriedly working in a jab at Bill Clinton. “I’ve said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more-than-a-decade-old video are one of them," Trump said in the video.
However, in a statement to the Washington Post regarding the tapes, Trump was even less apologetic, proclaiming of the comments, “This was locker-room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago....I apologize if anyone was offended.” Trump doubled-down on that position during Sunday night's debate, using the phrase "locker room talk" at least five times.
What is "locker room talk," exactly? Well, judging from the way Trump used the phrase in response to moderator Anderson Cooper's question, "You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?", Trump believes that "locker room talk" refers to sexist or hateful talk about women that occurs when no women are around — and this fact means that no man should be held accountable for engaging in it:
No, I didn’t say that at all. I don’t think you understood what was — this was locker room talk. I’m not proud of it. I apologize to my family. I apologize to the American people. Certainly I’m not proud of it. But this is locker room talk.
Never mind that men, as a group, seem to have reacted with revulsion at the idea of being part of Trump's "locker room" — a number of athletes have come out to denounce Trump's comments and note that this is not how they talk in their actual locker room, and many fellow Republicans who have withdrawn their support for Trump over the comment. Trump supporter and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani still went on CNN's State of the Union to discuss the tapes and claimed that "men at times talk like that."
Of course, that's an inaccurate statement — surely everyone reading this knows many men who have never spoken about women like this, or may even be one of those men themselves. Shocking, I know! The statement is degrading to men by implying that participation in this kind of talk is a normal and natural part of being a man. But there's another worrying part of this line of thinking — the idea that, because "locker room talk" is somehow an inherent part of the male experience (something implied even by the name — the "locker room," a sanctum of masculinity where female feet are forbidden to tread), men hold no responsibility for the ideas expressed during "locker room talk," and these ideas have no impact on the men who speak them, the men who hear them, or the world at large. "Men at times talk like that" covers the same turf as "boys will be boys": a concept that implies that men are sometimes not responsible for their negatice actions.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the phrase "boys will be boys" was first used in English in 1589, where it was used to indicate an expectation that boys (and men) will behave badly — the phrase implies that there is some inherent aspect of maleness that causes men to act out in aggressive or improper ways, and that the best course of action is just to blow it off. Over 400 years after its initial usage, our understanding of masculinity seems to have deepened very little, because in 2016 alone, plenty of people invoked this idea while speaking about men who had done awful things.
Earlier this year, the spectre of "boys will be boys" was evoked during the Brock Turner assault case — in which Turner's father infamously lamented how his son was being punished for "20 minutes of action" and a number of people involved seemed more concerned with Turner's future than his victim. The concept also came up during this summer's Rio Olympics, when gold medal-winning U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte and several team mates claimed that they had been robbed while heading home from a club; when their story began to unravel, the International Olympic Committee's Mario Andrada commented, “We have to understand that these kids came here to have fun...Let’s give these kids a break. Sometimes you make decisions that you later regret. They had fun, they made a mistake, life goes on.” The phrase was also used by one writer to defend an Australian Facebook group called "Bloke Advice," which captured headlines in the country due to posts that seemed to imply that posters were bragging about engaging in sexual assault.
Widen the scope into even the recent past, and the picture goes from awful to horrifying: a 2014 investigation into how rape cases were being handled by the justice system in Montana found that the mother of one five-year-old rape victim was told that "boys will be boys" when she asked about her daughter's assailant, a teenager who received a distressingly light sentence of community service; in that same year, the rape and murder of two women in India's Uttar Pradesh led Mulayam Singh Yadav, head of the Samajwadi Party, that area's governing party, to comment that “Boys will be boys. They make mistakes.”
These actions — from lying and making misogynistic social media posts, to engaging in sexual assault and murder — may at first seem to have no connection. But the idea inherent in "boys will be boys" — that carelessly hurting others, especially women, is part of a man's life, and that we're being unrealistic if we ask men to change or expect them not to act that way in the first place — unites them.
These ideas shape how our culture raises boys, and how women see the actions of men — including men who sexually assault them. A 2009 study, published in the journal Violence Against Women, found that, after surveying 944 narratives written by female survivors of sexual assault as part of the National Crime Victimization Survey, one in five survivors justified their attack, typically "by drawing on social vocabularies that suggest male sexual aggression is natural, normal within dating relationships, or the victim's fault."
Trump claimed that his comments were "just words." But there's no such thing as "just words." Words are how we communicate ideas — including ideas about who is worthy of respect, and what our standards of behavior are. I'd never say that a sexist comment is somehow equivalent to actual violence — but I do think that they reinforce each other, creating a vision of a world where boys are boys, and women are...well, nothing.