fb-pixel Skip to main content
OPINION | Shulamit Reinharz

The White House and the locker room

Top moments from the presidental debate
Top moments from the presidential debate

In the 1950s and early ‘60s, ideas were floating around that justified boys’ sexual aggression toward their girlfriends or other girls. One idea was “boys will be boys.” This phrase attributes bad behavior to genetic inheritance and therefore removes the boy’s personal responsibility. It’s a pass, an excuse. “Boys will be boys” was never used to explain why a particular boy became, for example, the valedictorian of his class, but only why he did something offensive, reckless or just plain stupid. “Boys will be boys” was the defense for bullying other boys and “messing around” sexually with an unwilling girl.

A second prevalent idea was that when a boy began a sexual encounter, such as kissing a girl or “feeling her up,” it was simply impossible for him to stop. He had no control over his actions. If he insisted on “going further,” she had to comply because he was hormonally driven to keep on going. Frequently, the girl was blamed for “getting him started.”


Donald Trump and I were born only three days apart. So he probably grew up learning the same ideas as I did. Sadly, he seems to have been living by them ever since. His take, for example, on the “unstoppable drive” concept was to call it “automatic … like a magnet.” In his words, “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.”

Moreover, “when you’re a star, they let you do it.” In other words, linked to his unstoppable drive is girls’ unstoppable drive to let him kiss them because of his star power. For girls and women, power is an aphrodisiac, another way of blaming women for what the man may be doing. Only in 1987 did researcher Mary Koss invent the term date rape to shift the blame away from the woman.


For girls in high school the star was the captain of the football team. He was the guy around whom somewhat provocatively dressed cheerleaders jumped and screamed with the intention to be watched. High school culture built around football players and cheerleaders reinforces the power of the male star.

When Trump was a teenager at the New York Military Academy, he apparently was a star athlete, particularly in baseball, and so he probably spent a lot of time in locker rooms. Boys’ locker rooms have a culture of their own, which includes what has been labeled “rape culture.” Rape culture’s mildest form is what Trump calls “banter.” This includes sharing stories on Monday about sexual exploits that took place over the weekend. It includes “useful” information about which girls put out (whether or not it’s true), and discussions that rate girls as to their looks and body parts.

In the phrase “I’m attracted to beautiful,” Trump reduces women to an attribute — beauty. He also reduces them to “not beautiful.” In response to a woman who claimed he kissed her without her consent, “Kiss her? I don’t think so.” He mocks women he considers not beautiful: “And then Hillary walked ahead of me. Let me tell you, I was not impressed.” Perhaps the worst was his comment about Carly Fiorina’s looks, published in Rolling Stone: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?! I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not supposed to say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?” Rating women by their looks was something he learned in the locker room and does to this day.


Men and boys writing on the web about their locker room experiences describe highly charged, but suppressed, homoeroticism, along with mutual slapping, degrading teasing, and more. We have to recognize that boys’ locker rooms are one of the most potent classrooms in high school. That’s where boys learn about masculinity, power, physical beauty in the male and female (and by contrast, what is ugly), homosexuality, heterosexuality, friendship, bravado, commitment, appropriate behavior vis a vis girls, and more. That’s where the actual sex education takes place, at least for boys.

The game of baseball may also have influenced him inadvertently. Among teens, the baseball diamond is actually a metaphor for sex. First base, second base, third base, score.

Perhaps things would have been different for Trump if there had been female students in his school. But at the time, Title IX was not even imagined. There was no national law requiring gender equity for boys and girls in every educational program that receives federal funding, the essence of Title IX, until 1972.

Trump gave us an insight into his Weltanschauung when he turned to the locker room as his defense. His phrase, “it’s only locker room banter” removes personal responsibility and replaces it with “space-blaming.” The locker room made me do it. Just like, “She invited me up to her place” means she was letting me have sex with her. Her space made me do it.


Some of his advisors might want to explain to Trump that he can’t perceive and redefine every place he enters as a locker room. The US has changed from the 1950s, even if he hasn’t.

But apparently, Trump thinks the whole country is one big locker room — the bus in which he rode with Billy Bush, Howard Stern’s radio show, the golf course with Bill Clinton, lecterns during the primaries, pro-Trump rallies, the first-class section of a plane, Mar-a-Lago and more. Sexual harassment in the workplace became part of our thinking in 1991 when Anita Hill testified in front of the nation. Even though her critique of Clarence Thomas did not derail his appointment to the Supreme Court, we’ve been analyzing unwanted sexual attention in the workplace ever since. We now understand that “boys will be boys” and “it’s only locker room banter” no longer justify lewd talk/actions or nonconsensual sexual behavior.

Trump should remember that we, the American public, were disgusted when we learned about Bill Clinton’s relations with former lovers and then with White House intern Monica Lewinsky while he was married. Moreover, we now have cameras and audio recorders everywhere showing us what elected officials are doing. They’re bound to get caught.

Most Americans don’t want the White House to be a locker room. Republican leaders’ frantic departure from Trump upon the release of the 2005 tapes made that clear. After all, they didn’t jump ship after other Trump problems were revealed. Boys — even those who are 70 years old — have to take the big leap out of the locker room if they want to sit in the Oval Office.


Shulamit Reinharz is a professor of sociology, and founder/director of the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center.