Snakes, Snails and “Locker Room Banter”: Donald Trump’s Sexism Saga and the Dangerous Practice of Normalizing Misconduct

The upcoming American Presidential Election has captured the attention of mainstream and social media outlets for months. Unfortunately, much of this attention has been focused not on the various aspects of the candidates’ policies, but rather on the consistently baffling comments and actions of Donald Trump.

Politics aside, the narrative created by Mr. Trump’s remarks about women is an important conversation to have during the lead-up to the election. In order to consider the possible impacts of this dialogue, let’s break the issue down into four main points.

1) Leaders model the behaviour they deem acceptable:

Released just days before the second presidential debate, video footage of Mr. Trump on route to a television appearance in 2005 exposes the Republican nominee and members of his team engaged in a vulgar conversation about women. When moderator Anderson Cooper addressed Mr. Trump about the footage during the second presidential debate, he asked Mr. Trump if he understood that the behaviour he was describing on tape was sexual assault. Mr. Trump’s answer was particularly important because it casually dismissed the actions referenced by Mr. Cooper as normal and acceptable. By making light of his comments, suggesting that Mr. Cooper “didn’t understand” what was said, and then claiming that “no one has more respect for women than I do”, Donald Trump showed a shocking lack of understanding of the real issue at hand. In fact, the words and behaviour that Mr. Trump directs towards women illustrate precisely the opposite of the respect which he claims to hold for them, and here lies the problem. The way that Donald Trump consistently speaks about and treats women when he believes no one is watching speaks volumes about the level of respect (or lack thereof) that he has for women in general. Leaders must lead by example. If the example that Donald Trump has set so far is any indication of the type of conduct that he deems appropriate, it is not difficult to imagine what kind of impact this example would have were he to be given a seat in the Oval Office.

2) Dismissing lewd comments about sexually assaulting women as “locker room banter” is “an insult to decent men everywhere”:

During the second presidential debate referenced above, Donald Trump attempted to equate his disturbing comments with “locker room banter”. Suggesting that the lewd and disrespectful language and content of this video is a normal occurrence in “locker room” conversation everywhere is an inaccurate and offensive generalization at best. Furthermore, dismissing this conduct as “all talk” absolves Trump of any responsibility or ownership of the issues that arise when this type of dialogue is normalized. In an impassioned speech delivered by Michelle Obama following the second presidential debate, the First Lady made the critically important point that “…to dismiss this as everyday locker room talk is an insult to decent men everywhere”. Mr. Tump’s justification of his comments and denial of his actions conveys the same sentiment as the phrase “boys will be boys”, and has a self-reinforcing effect. As Mrs. Obama goes on to point out, most men do not speak this way to, or about, women, and this conduct, contrary to Mr. Trump’s opinion, is not normal.

3) Teaching girls and women that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect becomes more difficult with the rise and normalization of Trump’s rhetoric:

Mr. Trump’s narrative also has a negative impact on girls and women. Just as it is important to teach boys from a young age how to treat women with dignity and respect, it is equally important to teach girls that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Whether it be body-shaming messages and images engrained in popular culture, cyber-bullying over social media, the pay gap, or any of the numerous issues surrounding gender equality, women and girls are bombarded constantly with messages which directly and indirectly assault self-esteem and self-worth, contributing to a troubling narrative. Hearing someone who holds a position of power objectify, insult, and brag about assaulting women adds to this narrative, and reinforces in girls that if this is how “esteemed” public figures speak about women, this behaviour is acceptable from anyone. In order to make women and girls believe that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, this treatment, not the opposite, must be promoted and supported as the norm.

4) The United States will struggle to maintain its moral authority globally if its leadership does not hold itself to the same moral standard:

First Lady Michelle Obama also noted in her speech that America has become a model for many others to follow when it comes to issues of freedom and gender equality. If the United States wishes to maintain its position as a moral superpower and continue promoting the empowerment of women and girls, these are the values which must be promoted and advocated for globally. As stated by Mrs. Obama, “…if we have a President who routinely degrades women, who brags about sexually assaulting women, then how can we maintain our moral authority in the world?”

The four points listed above give a basic overview of one important issue that has made its way into the spotlight during this election season. Also worth noting, however, is the fact that Secretary Clinton finds herself in a uniquely vulnerable position surrounding this issue because of the scrutiny that the Clinton family was under while the Bill Clinton scandal unfolded. While it is clear that Hillary Clinton has a strong position on empowering and supporting women in her campaign, her close proximity to some of the issues that Mr. Trump has been under fire for leave her in a delicate position when it comes to being vocal about these issues, because doing so would make her vulnerable to counter-attacks regarding her husband’s previous misconduct. This dynamic sheds light on why it was Mrs. Obama who felt it necessary to deliver her powerful messages, rather than leave this to Secretary Clinton. Regardless of whether you lean right or left in political preference, this is an issue which has transcended the divide between political parties for an important reason: the type of dialogue created and reinforced by Mr. Trump’s vulgar words and actions benefits no one – republican, democrat, male, female, politically motivated or not – and is harmful to everyone, not just women. In an election season characterized by unprecedented division and animosity from both sides of the political spectrum, this is an issue that virtually everyone can agree on, and one we should be especially conscious of as this narrative continues to unfold.

Photo: Donald Trump Speaking at CPAC 2011, via Flickr, licensed under CC-BY 2.0. 


Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Isabel Zucchero

About Isabel Zucchero

Isabel is joining the NAOC team after completing her B.A (Hons.) and M.A in the department of Political Studies at Queen’s University. During her time at Queen's, Isabel developed a keen interest in international defence, security, and the international political economy. While attending school, she was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects and events with the Centre for International and Defence Policy (CIDP). These included conferences, workshops, and various research projects, which further contributed to Isabel’s interest in the field of international relations and security. Isabel is passionate about inspiring young Canadians to take an interest in both Canada’s contributions to international institutions, and Canada's role in international peace and security more broadly. In her free time, Isabel enjoys getting outdoors with her four-legged family members, and playing music.