Locker rooms have gotten a bad rap lately; one half-expects a forthcoming tweet from Lockers.com distancing itself from Donald Trump’s comments and avowing its corporate respect for all women.
First, let’s dispense with what should be obvious to anyone positioned outside of a certain basket: Trump’s claims to Billy Bush, if true, constitute an admission of sexual assault; even if they were said in private, with the disclaimer of their being hyperbolic “locker-room talk,” the sentiments and language are inappropriate for a potential president who would have the world’s most powerful bully pulpit; they’re of a piece with Trump’s countless public denigrations of women, despite his protestations that campaigning has changed him; and the same widespread horror should have greeted his equally distasteful opinions of Mexicans, Muslims, black Americans, his political opponents, their wives, John McCain, etc.
What I suspect is most shocking to people isn’t Trump’s diction per se, but that his private self (or at least his performative private self) is not, in fact, a toned-down version of his stage persona. I long believed this, or hoped it was true; how else could he have survived in liberal-elite Manhattan social circles for so long?
No, what’s surprising is that Trump’s off-camera personality can be even worse than the as-seen-on-TV version. But this makes sense, at least in the context of the Trump-Bush recording, for male-only conversation tends to amplify masculine vulnerabilities.
Real locker rooms, as opposed to the luxury bus Trump and Bush were on, reek of testosterone and sweat and flatulence. Saggy paunches and unruly body hair and flaccid penises, typically sucked in and tamed and concealed, are visible. Straight men often feel able to let down one set of guards—namely, their attempts to impress women—while simultaneously raising a different one: their innate competitiveness with one another (it doesn’t help that they likely just played a sport in which one was declared the victor and one the loser). Their fear that their male rivals are stronger is compounded by their anxiety that, when literally and figuratively naked, with no societal accoutrements of power to prop them up, they will be emasculated. (See Alvy Singer’s explanation in Annie Hall as to why he didn’t take a shower at the tennis club: “I don’t like to show my body to a man of my gender.”) It’s the one place men routinely take stock of other men’s anatomies, and with so many of them on display, sexual braggadocio becomes the compensatory vocabulary of those insecurely eager to prove their virility (and their heterosexuality).
Yet there’s a sweeter-smelling male space Trump has never set foot in. The further I get from high school locker rooms, the more often I’ve found myself in conversations with men who embrace their vulnerability, who speak sensitively about their insecurities, who favor self-deprecation over self-inflation. Many of these dialogues couldn’t take place in mixed-gender company; that instinct to save face in front of women remains hard to shake. But among other likeminded men, who are neither Trumpesque Neanderthals nor Bushian sycophantic enablers, a noncompetitive and introspective atmosphere can obtain.
My guess is that Trump’s pseudonymous Twitter supporters would call these kinds of men “cucks.” If you spend all your time within the walls of a putrid locker room, it can ruin your sense of smell. I published a novel last month, Loner, about a disturbed Harvard freshman named David Federman who becomes obsessed with a female classmate and does increasingly horrible things in his pursuit of her. Nearly every interviewer asked me what it was like to write about such a nasty character. My stock answer was that, though it wasn’t very pleasant to be inside his head, it’s nothing compared to what people who have to deal with real-life David Federmans go through.
I feel for the people who have to deal with Donald Trump—and even a bit for Trump himself, desperate for the approval of not just women but other men, constantly boasting of his prowess, so afraid of what he really looks like to them, out of his power suit and tie, naked.