The Historical Locker Room

Locker Room Talk: Men Discussing Women in the Middle Ages and Now

Content warning: discussion of rape and sexual assault.

Lockers in the men’s locker room at an old mechanical workshop in Gåseberg. Photograph by W Carter

In October 2016 audio footage was leaked from a 2005 conversation between then US presidential candidate, Donald Trump, and TV host Billy Bush. Trump spoke explicitly about how his celebrity status made it easy for him to make sexual advances to women. In the tape Bush, along with other unnamed male voices, are recorded responding encouragingly to Trump’s misogynistic remarks:

TRUMP: … You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.
BUSH: Whatever you want.
TRUMP: Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.

When the tape was leaked, the response from Republicans, Democrats and the media was uniformly outraged. Trump’s initial response was conciliatory, but by the day after the leak Trump started walking back his apology:

This was locker-room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. I apologize if anyone was offended.

This statement diminishes the significance of Trump’s comments  by placing them in a long-ago time, and more significantly by locating them in a specific context that Trump expects his audience will implicitly understand.

In modern American usage a locker room is a changing room for sports, usually men’s sports. Since the early 20th century (Merriam-Webster records the first use in 1921), “locker room talk” has meant men’s discourse that displays attitudes typical of that space – particularly vulgar and coarse language. The locker room is not just a literal place, but also a shorthand for a kind of male socialising and the discourse that arises out of that social milieu. The locker room in American cultural discourse is an archetypical masculine space as much as the bar or sports field are – despite the many ways sports and nightlife are of course participated in by women. The locker room is a space imagined not only as accessible only by men, but it’s only by specific men who are all participating in a particular shared sporting activity.

I would argue that there are lots of locker rooms in the world, both real and virtual. If we interpret “locker rooms” in conceptual terms, they are self-selecting spaces that offer men companionship based on common interests. Locker room talk is thus talk which can be expected to be communicated between members and which is not open to those outside the group. We might expect that such talk would reflect the values and priorities of the group in a setting where the members feel safe to express opinions without concern about being overheard. However, as we can see in Trump’s apology, the phrase can be also use to diminish the significance of what has been said. It reduces such talk to performative camaraderie rather than being a reflection of deeply-held values. The way “locker room talk” is used suggests it’s simultaneously harmless and crass.

It is dangerously simplistic to assume that private male discourse of this sort only exists within an anti-intellectual “jock” culture, and that it ultimately has no meaning beyond providing a punchline to a joke. In my own work on homosociality – same sex social relationships – in late medieval England, I have been considering some of the historical antecedents for today’s “locker room talk”, and have found many examples of men talking to one another creatively and in educated terms about women; this can be more sophisticated and less immediately offensive discourse than pussy-talk, but it may ultimately share a similarly dismissive attitude toward women as individuals with agency.

British Library Royal 6 E VII f. 106 Fabula (Talk, gossip). Detail of a historiated initial ‘F'(abula) of men gossiping.

And as to Ovid’s The Art of Love, I shall send it to you next week, for I have not got it ready now; but I think that Ovid’s The Cure for Love were more appropriate for you, unless you purposed to fall hastily into my lady Anne P’s lap, as white as whalebone, etc. You are the best chooser of a gentlewoman that I know, etc.

Thomas Daverse (Danvers) to Sir John Paston, 29 January 1467

In this fifteenth-century letter, Thomas Daverse promised to send his friend, the Norfolk gentleman Sir John Paston, Ovid’s The Art of Love – but slyly suggested that Ovid’s Remedy for Love might be a better option, unless he plans to fall into a certain lady’s lap. ‘White as whales bone’ is a traditional romance descriptor for a beautiful lady, for instance used to describe the heroine in The Erle of Toulous – ‘Her hands white as whalesbone’ – and the heroine’s mother in Emaré, who is ‘White as whalesbone’. In this context, it Daverse was clearly using it to tease his friend, who perhaps had already read enough about love and could do with a lesson or two in how to be rid of it. The ‘&c’ seems like a casual reference to similar language that could be used to describe the lady, and as such this offhand ability to draw upon a literary tradition indicates a good knowledge of romance conventions. This ability to make jokes drawing upon the language of romance and courtly literature would suggest an intimate familiarity with such texts, just as Chaucer’s ability to pastiche romance in Sir Thopas would indicate a good knowledge of the source material.

There’s nothing here that evokes the crudeness of Trump’s pussy-grabbing remarks. And the playfulness of this letter is quite appealing; many letters of this period are formal and stilted, and the easiness of the language here, suggesting a shared social and literary milieu, makes this a pleasurable read for the historian. But who was Anne P? We don’t know; this specific woman is used as a vehicle for a particular literary trope, not for any personal quality of her own. The ‘etc’ is I think illuminating. In my book on medieval fatherhood I discussed this letter in context of John and Thomas’s shared literary reference points. Daverse’s intimacy with Paston could not be better illustrated than by the way he followed a partial reference to romance with a partial reference to a phrase that has the ring of proverb – ‘best chooser of a gentlewoman that I know, &c’. Thomas had the kind of confidence that John would catch his drift that comes not only from close friendship but also close cultural ties. Thomas Daverse and John Paston spoke the same language. They shared a vocabulary that was influenced by what they read, from their Latin school texts to the romances that circulated in their social circle. But an “&c” is not necessarily benign; it can be dismissive, or worse, it can be a coy way of circumventing less palatable discourse while still evoking it.

Rugby scrum. Photograph: Maree Reveley

In 2016 Northern Irish rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were arrested and charged with rape, while teammates Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison were accused of exposure and of perverting the course of justice respectively. All four men were found not guilty after a six week trial in 2018. Whatever the truth of what happened in June 2016, the text messages and Whatsapp messages between these men and their friends revealed a casual contempt for women combined with an emphasis on sexual prowess:

10.10am [Redacted]: How was she?
10.59am Olding: she was very very loose
10.59am [Redacted]: Any sluts get fucked?
10.59am Olding: Precious secrets.

Text messages between a friend (name legally redacted) and Stuart Olding

That the men in question understood that they had better not commit too much to writing is evidenced by Olding referring archly to ‘precious secrets’ and to the deletion of several text messages that the police were unable to recover. Despite their swaggering boastfulness, the members of this social group were quickly made aware that their private conversations could implicate them as participants in sexual violence.

If we compare this to the Paston letters there seems to be a huge gulf in terms of behaviour. I am definitely not suggesting an equivalence between Thomas Daverse’s idealisation of Anne P and the actions of which Jackson, Olding, McIlroy and Harrison were accused! But an important thread running through these examples is the casual disinterest in woman as individuals with full names, personalities and desires. They are used as literary tropes and as the butt of jokes, so that men can show how clever or virile they are.

In 1472, Sir John Paston received a letter from his younger brother Edmond. As Carissa Harris has convincingly argued, Edmond explains how his servant Gregory facilitated the gang rape of a woman with whom he had been caught having sex. Edmond clearly expected his brother – that literary-minded brother with a love of Ovid – to sympathise with him because Gregory had been dismissed from his employment by their mother Margaret Paston.

This week it was revealed that two students expelled from the University of Warwick after their involvement in a text messaging group chat that utilised sexist and racist language to make threats of rape have now been allowed to return. One of the students involved remarked: “I just don’t believe for a second we are any worse than any other lads or girls group chat.” During the University’s investigation, several of the men involved in the group chat claimed to have participated because it was “the only way to sustain friendships with the other students in the group”. As the election of President Trump has shown, dismissing misogynistic discourse to just “locker room talk” has the effect of normalising it, and of reinforcing the cultural expectation for men to participate in it or be “bad sports”. Misogynistic banter between men is as ancient as it is pernicious; there is nothing “just” about it.

The Historical Locker Room explores homosociality – same sex social bonds – in historical context. Read the previous articles in this new feature: 

Missing Voices in the Age of the Beloveds: Ottoman Same Sex Intimacy

Underneath the Arches: Gilbert & George, Homosociality, and Post-War Reconstruction

A Hundred Men Bathing: Male Bonding in the Early Medieval West

“Never in the Presence of Any Woman”: Male Homoeroticism and Elite Education

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