Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Locker room talk or sexual assault? The power of naming and framing.
Today, I respond to a challenge. On Twitter, @GenreResearch challenged me to take up the topic of locker room talk. Fortunately, I had ahead of me a long car ride home from a conference, and I spent an hour of it engaging the topic with two smart friends. So I return this week to an earlier topic for my blog—the power of words. In particular, the power of categorizing, of naming what happened.
By now you’ve probably watched the video and listened to the recording of Donald Trump speaking to Billy Bush on a bus, telling stories of his actions with women. You’ve probably heard or seen many articles, commentaries, broadcasts, tweets, posts, memes, skits, excuses, defenses, accusations, and jokes about it.
Lots of smart, thoughtful stuff said about it, as well as some ignorant, mindless reactions. The one meaningful slice of this event I want to comment on is the power of naming.
Trump calls what he said on the bus “locker room talk.” Others call the recording a confession of “sexual assault.”
@GenreResearch himself offered a thoughtful chain of tweets on why the exchange was not at all locker room talk. (I show you just the start of the chain below.)
He also points to what I wanted to explore in this post—the significance of the name itself.
Those different labels—locker room talk or sexual assault—frame what happened in drastically different ways, and they reveal drastically different pictures of our culture and its attitudes. Along with the name comes a whole script of who is doing what to whom, in what context, with what significance. The name entails a whole frame of reference for understanding what's happening.
In an earlier post, this past June, I talked about how words reflect who we are and also shape who we are. It matters whether newspapers report the acts of a “murderer” or a “terrorist.” It matters whether police shot a “suspect” or a “citizen.” It matters whether she is “a leader” or “pushy.”
It matters whether it’s “locker room talk” or “sexual assault.”
So it’s not just a simple question of matching up the definitions with the actions.
What Trump said may or may not match up with what all the athletes and others, male and female, describe as what’s said in locker rooms.
But calling it locker room talk asks us to accept an image of guys just being guys, buddy bragging about sexual conquests, more talk than action, no harm done.
What Trump said may or may not match up with the legal requirements for charging someone with sexual assault.
But calling it sexual assault frames it differently. It asks us to accept that touching women against their will is attacking them, that men—even men with lots of power and money—don’t have the right to kiss a woman without her consent, that harm IS done.
Just the possibility of calling it sexual assault announces that things have changed. Our culture has changed.
Jessica Leeds told of her encounter with Trump on an airplane over thirty years ago, when “his hands were all over me,” including up her skirt. Things were different back then, she says. “The culture had instilled in us that somehow it was our fault, the attention that we received from men, that we were responsible for their behavior. You didn’t complain . . . If something happened to you, you just bucked up and went on.”
Rachel Crooks reported that in 2005 Trump kissed her on the mouth in an elevator at work. She avoided him from then on, including not attending the company Christmas party, because, she said, “‘I can’t do anything to this guy, because he’s Donald Trump.’”
But today, being Donald Trump isn’t enough. The same actions today are called sexual assault, not something women should just accept as guys being guys but as something everyone should object to. Reviewing the history of what was considered sexual assault, Amanda Taub in a New York Times article notes the cultural change
One three-minute recording of Donald J. Trump boasting about how his stardom gave him license to grope women’s private parts appears to have prompted the kind of change in public consciousness that usually takes decades.”
Whether that change has been long coming, as others in the article say, or has suddenly sped up, the naming of it makes it public, visible, and undeniable.
The power of naming, making different perspectives visible, can change the way we see old and new events. With a new name comes a new frame for understanding who is doing what to whom, and why.
On the video, after the Trump-Bush exchange, we see Trump step off the bus toward the woman scheduled to interview him. His buddy Bush insists that she hug the man who had just been commenting on her legs, objectifying her. She doesn’t know what we know, but we heard the talk behind those actions. Now that the public consciousness has changed, it’s hard not to see that “c’mon, give him a hug” as another powerful man requiring a woman to allow unwanted physical contact to be able to do her job, as an assault rather than something to be accepted as the way things are.
In a Medium essay posted just this week, Jordan Belamire writes about her experience being groped in a virtual reality multi-player game. With the vividness of virtual reality, she writes, "it felt real, violating."
Who has the power, not just in Trump’s encounters with women—where it’s clear Trump asserts his power to dominate women—or in a virtual reality game--where virtual groping makes the space unwelcoming for women--but in categorizing those encounters? As Belamire writes, "As VR becomes increasingly real, how do we decide what crosses the line from an annoyance to an actual assault?" Who gets to say what happened?
The power of naming is that it’s not individual, but collective. One person can insist on framing it as “locker room talk,” but the framing succeeds only if others accept it. That’s the difference between naming and “spin.” Any publicist can attempt to spin a story, to reframe what happened in a different light. But naming comes from the culture that’s there, the beliefs and attitudes emerging from who we are and who we want to be, a framing already present among us.
That gives me hope.
But finally a question (thanks to Feministing via the Mic Network for pointing this out):
Now that the unwanted kiss has been reframed, has that changed how you see the photo at the top of this post?
Whew. Challenge accepted and completed.