Several prominent men accused of abusive sexual behavior have defended themselves by saying that their comments about what they claim didn’t actually occur was just locker room talk. Meaning that the locker room is a place, both metaphorical and literal, where men can be men and say whatever comes to mind. Vocalizations of manliness that value bragging about real or imagined conquests, particularly in relation to women, are at the forefront of locker room talk. I am fairly certain that there are many interpretations of “locker room talk” depending upon a man’s age and life experiences – including those (especially women) who see the underlying message that the talk is actually a precursor to male entitlement and bad behavior.
Based on my personal history and as a student of masculinity issues I view the locker room as a safe place for men to share their fantasies, aspirations and frustrations and at the same time reassure men that they are not alone in their journey. I understand that looking at this behavior from the outside one might see the hierarchical positioning, including the male tendency to “bust balls,” as somehow reinforcing male empowerment. In reality it is a safety valve where men can share and receive the feedback from other men – often laced with profanity – that is not done to shame but rather to ground the individual in truth. An examination of male behavior in tribal cultures provides ample evidence that men for thousands of years have created environments and practices that enabled men for varying periods to be exclusively in the company of other men. For example, when a male Maasai is initiated into manhood he leaves his mother and along with other boys of similar age are circumcised and taught the ways of being a “warrior” by the tribal elders. For the rest of their lives the boys who were initiated together remain as tight knit group who share their most intimate thoughts and feelings and seek advice and support from each other. In her book about Lincoln, “Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin discussed how Lincoln and his fellow itinerant lawyers used to meet regularly around the stove in a general store to share their experiences and life stories and how much these men valued the time to be exclusively in the company of other men.
The desire for men to be able to be in the company of other men appears to be a natural rather than a cultural imperative and our modern society offers fewer opportunities for this to occur. Traditional male organizations like Kiwanis, American Legion and volunteer fire companies have seen a sharp decrease in participation. Therefore, the locker room and its iterations becomes the place where men have the potential to be intimate with other men. Intimacy among men is complicated and often includes behaviors that to women might seem insensitive and even cruel. However, as long as it stays in the locker room and does not lead to unacceptable behavior, locker room talk can prove to be a needed release that prevents the instances of sexual misconduct highlighted by the “Me Too” movement.