Remember when most of the country agreed that men don’t talk about sexual assault in locker rooms, and that Donald Trump’s caught-on-tape descriptions of sexual violence, which he brushed off as “locker room talk,” were an aberration?
Since then, Trump has been elected president and administrators at five colleges, three of them Ivy League, have punished male athletic teams for engaging in Trump-like talk about women in group chats, text messages, and emails.
While it’s true not all male athletes engage in such behavior, many actually do. What ultimately matters is whether coaches, school administrators, and fans take offensive locker room “talk” seriously. College athletics are a source of both campus pride and revenue, and there's a long history of looking the other way when athletes behave badly. But doing so only maintains cultural norms that lead to sexual violence.
Research tells us a varsity swimmer who texts vulgar messages to teammates about his counterparts on the women’s squad is at risk of committing an act of sexual violence. An athlete who is willing to dehumanize women — including women he knows personally — has what the literature charitably refers to as “empathic deficits.” He also has other risk factors, such as hostility toward women, acceptance of general aggressiveness and ideas of violence, and behaving in hyper-masculine ways. This comfort with dehumanization often does not stop with women — it’s not unusual for it to extend to others perceived as vulnerable, including people with disabilities, immigrants, and LGBTQ folks.
When these athletes associate with other “sexually aggressive, hyper-masculine, and delinquent peers,” as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control puts it, they marinate in a toxic brew of misogyny that can lead to violent behavior. The only way to disrupt this pattern is with an unambiguous community response. That’s why it is so important that administrators at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Amherst, and Washington University in St. Louis have told male athletes these actions merit punishment by canceling seasons and suspending offenders.
At each of the schools, the behavior of the male athletes was roughly consistent and typically involved rating the physical appearance of their female peers with graphic sexual language. In one instance, male athletes created a shared Google doc to permanently host their vulgar observations about female athletes. Chat applications like GroupMe preserved texts that, unsurprisingly, also revealed racist and homophobic comments.
Serious sanctions against this kind of misogyny are unusual. More often, the behavior is dismissed as offensive but not harmful — in other words, “locker room talk.” When The Harvard Crimson first broke the story of the men’s soccer team, the school's director of athletics told the paper male athletes’ behavior was “very disappointing and disturbing” but that whenever “you have groups of people that come together there’s a potential for this to happen.” After national outcry at the Crimson’s report, however, the same administrator announced less that a week later that he was cancelling the rest of the men’s soccer season. This is the right outcome, but it never should have been in question.
It would be naive to assume this problem is confined to a handful of universities. Indeed, Columbia’s former wrestling coach told the Crimson “this type of behavior … is happening at every athletic department in the country.” But it would be even more naive to believe sexually demeaning text messages sent out in group chats are harmless. These messages evince an attitude of sexual entitlement and aggressiveness that fosters hostility toward women and others and normalizes sexual violence. Our culture’s long-standing failure to recognize this, and to disrupt the behavior, has been calamitous.
Sexual violence on college campuses is endemic, but prevention programs rarely address athletes' widespread acceptance of sexually aggression. High school and college administrators should take a no-tolerance attitude toward “locker room talk.”
Gina Scaramella is executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.