Consent and the Locker Room: Why Words Matter


By Stephanie Hammerwold

Recently video surfaced of Donald Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women. You have probably seen the video by now, so there is no need to link to the clip of his vulgar language here. Countless hours have been spent analyzing, criticizing and in some cases defending what Trump said in the clip as well as similar comments he has made throughout the course of his campaign. Those that defend Trump, and Trump himself, explain it away as “locker-room talk.” As a feminist and someone who has spent a good part of my HR career leading training on preventing workplace harassment, this explanation makes me cringe.

When we talk about preventing sexual harassment in the workplace, we are trying to help foster workplaces free of these kinds of comments as well as many of the other comments we have heard Trump make about women and a wide variety of people who fall into protected classes. With the election only a few weeks away, and one of the top two contenders for president being a man who does things that could get him fired for harassment in an ordinary job, I think it is important that we take a moment and look at why it is necessary that we call out this kind of bad behavior both in the workplace and when it comes to the highest office in the U.S.

Consent & Respect

The most disturbing thing about the Trump’s comments is not his use of a vulgar word to describe a part of a woman’s body; it was his complete disregard for consent. In fact, he was boasting about sexually assaulting women. As I mentioned in my recent post on harassment training, it is important that harassment prevention education includes discussions about consent, and this should start with how we talk about appropriate behavior with kids in school.

Those who defend Trump ignore the fact that his original message spoke of lack of consent. This points to a big problem in how many people still do not grasp this concept. It is never OK to touch a woman (or anyone for that matter) without their consent. When business leaders and people running for president express ideas that disregard consent, it shows a profound lack of respect for women. This attitude is harmful to everyone.

In a speech Michelle Obama gave in New Hampshire on October 13, she explained what happens if we speak the way Trump did, “We're telling our sons that it's OK to humiliate women. We're telling our daughters that this is how they deserve to be treated. We're telling all our kids that bigotry and bullying are perfectly acceptable in the leader of their country.”

Trump’s words and the words of others who behave like him harm all of us. People like him set a bad example for how to treat women—the message is that women do not deserve to be respected. Now, more than ever, it is necessary that we denounce this type of behavior and demand that our leaders behave in a way that is respectful to all people.

Changing the Idea that “Boys Will be Boys”

Underlying much of the response from those that defend Trump’s comments or dismiss them as “locker-room talk” is this sense that boys will be boys. Most women have come across the consequences of this attitude at least once in their lives. It is the kind of attitude that dismisses sexist comments, catcalling or inappropriate touching. It is time we put an end to this.

In the days following the release of the Trump recording, I was moved by the number of my male friends who were appalled by what Trump said and who said they never spoke with their friends in that manner. Again, it was not about the vulgar word Trump used, but his complete disregard for consent. It gives me hope that there are plenty of men out there, including our current president, who never think it is acceptable to talk about and treat women in the way Trump has. In fact, Trump’s response to the recording was an insult to decent men who respect women.

It is time for all of us to speak up when we hear this kind of damaging talk and to call out those who treat women in this manner. Words matter—especially when they come from someone who is running for president.

Leading by Example

Back in August President Barack Obama wrote a piece for Glamour where he explained why he is a feminist, and a lot of that had to do with the kind of example he wants to set for his daughters. He explains, “Yes, it’s important that their dad is a feminist, because now that’s what they expect of all men.” Just take a moment and let that sink in. Then compare it to some of the things Trump has said about women. A Trump presidency would reinforce the idea that it is OK to speak disparagingly about women and to judge them solely based on appearance and body size. Even more disturbing is that Trump’s words about women often perpetuate a culture where claims of rape and sexual assault are not taken seriously.

Those in charge must lead by example. This includes those who lead from boardrooms, the White House, classrooms and really any leadership position. Words matter, and the way we talk about others can have a profound effect on our society. Remember that when you head to the polls on November 8.