A lot of the talk surrounding GrabGate has drawn up predictable battle lines – Trump’s comments to Billy Bush are either unexceptional “locker room talk” or a confession of sexual assault. But a few points are worth noting.
First, before accusing Trump of sexually assaulting women, it’s useful to remember that the only evidence we have of this is Trump’s own words. Unlike Bill Clinton, who has been accused by more than one actual, named, flesh-and-blood woman of everything from unwanted exposure (Paula Jones) to unwanted groping (Kathleen Willey) to rape (Juanita Broaddrick), we’ve yet to hear from a woman (other than a dubious lawsuit aimed at Trump and Clinton crony Jeffrey Epstein) or a witness of any kind to say that Trump actually ever did any of the things he claimed. Now, it would not surprise me if he had, given the attitude he displays in the video, given what we know of his sexual and marital history, and given Trump’s broader outrageous sense of entitlement. But if we have learned nothing else this entire campaign, we should have learned by now that just because Donald Trump says something doesn’t make it so. That’s doubly true when Trump is in full Trump mode, trying to impress another man with tales of what an alpha-dog Master of the Universe he is.
Second, there’s been a fair amount of hand-wringing among feminists and other social liberals over the entire concept of “locker room talk” – over men talking to other men about women and sex (especially their sexual conquests) in terms they would not use if a woman was around. Like most men, I’ve been around my share of conversations of this type, mostly in my teens and early twenties in the company of young men who are unmarried and hormonally overcharged. At some level, it’s not a phenomenon we could ever hope to completely eradicate, nor would it be completely desirable to do so (whatever you may hear from people who think masculinity itself should be abolished, we would not have gotten very far as a species without it). Women do have an ineradicable need for times and places to let their hair down and talk girl talk, and while boy talk may be rougher and different, men have the same need, especially when they are young and still figuring out the world and the opposite sex.
That said, there’s no question that a major driver of the “locker room talk” culture (including its most famous grown-up public practitioner, Howard Stern, who not coincidentally had Trump as a frequent guest on his show) is the casual sex culture. The way young men talk about sex inevitably reflects the expectations of the world they grow up in – and most adult men can testify that you hear a lot less talk of this nature from married men, for good and obvious reasons. But feminists and other social liberals often want it both ways: they want a culture of pervasive pre/extramarital and/or casual sex, yet they are shocked, shocked to find that a culture that encourages men to act as if women are disposable sex objects ends up teaching them to think and talk that way too. Young men may talk bigger in private than they act in public, so when society teaches them that bedding a woman requires a lot of respectful wooing and commitment, their attitudes are likely to be more restrained than when it teaches them that sex is out there everywhere and all you have to do is grab it.
Third, even if Trump never did the things he claimed, the tape is plenty bad enough. Trump’s grab-what-you-want ethos is well beyond the scope of what most men would regard as normal “locker room talk” even in the degraded culture of the 21st Century. What comes out of Trump’s mouth is not “boys will be boys” but an overweening sense that being a famous, wealthy celebrity gives him license to do whatever he wants to a woman. That’s not just a poisonous value system and one that has ruined the lives of countless women mistreated by people in Hollywood, sports and other fields of fame and fortune – it’s also exactly the “there’s a different set of rules for us” attitude of the Clintons that Trump is supposedly campaigning against. Moreover, it’s coming from a married father in his fifties who is dumb enough to say this sort of thing while wearing a live microphone. It can’t be “compartmentalized” from who Trump is as a public man. If that combination of boorishness, recklessness and entitlement doesn’t worry you, it should.