It Isn’t Just Locker Room Talk
Sex is the one three letter word in the English language that has the power to make us turn red and shift in our seats. It is a natural part of adult life but most of our communities haven’t found a way to talk about sex freely and openly. When we’re uncomfortable it’s easier to avoid a subject than it is to talk about it. When we find the courage to talk about sex and sexual violence our conversations are often limited and private but we can’t create an open culture with closed conversations.
Culture is a powerful thing. It influences our social norms, sets collective beliefs, and sets the conscience to our moral compasses. In a world where powerful politicians can refer to conversations about sexual assault as “locker room talk” without consequence, you would think that our culture’s acceptance of sexual violence would be easy to identify. For some it is and has coined the term rape culture. In practice, naming the problem isn’t easy when we’ve been taught to accept it as normal. Rape culture remains a taboo subject. We’ve been taught to accept excuses for sexual harassment and disrespect like “it was just a joke”, “I didn’t mean it like that”, or “she was asking for it”. Even when we don’t agree with it, we have been taught to shy away from the topic of rape culture instead of standing up against it. Anne Bishop said it best in her book Becoming an Ally when she wrote: “All members of this society grow up surrounded by oppressive attitudes; we are marinated in it. It runs in our veins; it is as invisible to us as the air that we breathe”.
For some of us, our discomfort discussing sex and sexual violence comes from attitudes and assumptions about who can discuss sex and how. We accept it as normal when men brag about their sexual conquests and congratulate them for being “manly”, a “player”, or a “playboy”, while women who talk about their sex lives are judged for being “easy”, “slutty”, and lacking social graces. These gender stereotypes are evidence of rape culture which is itself the product of patriarchy: the social structures and beliefs that assume men should have more power than women. Despite the progress we have made towards gender equality, these oppressive beliefs die hard.
The history of patriarchy is long, depressing, and continues to shape our society. Naming patriarchy as the problem does not mean that only men are responsible for it because we can all repeat and promote toxic beliefs in our daily behaviors. We don’t have time for the full history lesson about patriarchy here so let’s jump right to the root cause of the problem: imbalances in power. When we allow men to play by a different set of rules than women, we support the idea that it is natural for men to have more power and imply that they deserve it. When we belief that only one gender deserves sexual pleasure we support sexual inequality and make inequality seem normal. When we justify a sexual assault against a woman because of what she wore, what her body looks like, how she resisted, or her sexual history we dehumanize her and protect her assailant. One of the core beliefs of rape culture is that victims are made responsible for the actions of the people who assault them. That is never true.
Imbalances in power don’t just hurt victims. Before perpetrators hurt and traumatize others they have often experienced pain and trauma themselves. Men who are told to hide their emotions, resist expressions of vulnerability, and ignore the emotional experiences of the people around them lack the skills to participate in healthy, empathetic, mutually satisfying, and intimate emotional and sexual relationships. Saying this does not remove perpetrators’ responsibility for their actions. It does acknowledge that we are the products of our culture. We learn what is normal by watching and listening to the people around us, especially in the private spaces where we gather with peers like locker rooms. It might seem imbalanced to focus on men in this conversation but we know that males perpetrate 99% of sexual assaults against women in Canada. We can’t talk about sexual violence prevention without addressing men.
May is Sexual Assault Prevention Month and in some ways the cure to sexual violence is simple: to make sure that everyone has the skills and beliefs necessary for healthy, balanced relationships with their intimate partners. Healthy relationships are built on trust, respect, honesty, accountability, shared responsibility, and – perhaps most of all – equality. Healthy relationships also require vulnerability, kindness, gentleness, caring, acceptance, and will still come with fear and disappointments. Our conversations about these ideas are important because we model our beliefs about relationships and sex in what we do and in what we say, inside and outside of the locker room.
By Chelsea Donohue and Jon Farmer
On behalf of Violence Prevention Grey Bruce.