You’re in the gym and run into one of those pseudo-strangers who’s always working out when you’re working out. The two of you proceed to have a short, bullshitty conversation about nothing of actual importance. This happened to me a couple weeks ago. I was on my way out of the gym when a guy on his way in.
“What’s up, man,” he said. “How was your workout today?”
“Good,” I replied. “Now it’s time for food.”
“Nice. Go feed those muscles.”
(This is small-talk hell, and I hate myself a little for even writing this out.)
Our non-conversation was quickly distracted by a beautiful woman in the yoga room next to us. She was on her hands and knees, clad head-to-toe in Lululemon, doing core exercises. We watched her in that way where you’re trying real hard to look like you’re not looking.
“She’s gorgeous,” I said.
(Why did I feel the need to share my thoughts out loud with a veritable stranger, instead of just in my head? I have no idea other than it felt like a pleasant, harmless distraction.)
He nodded. “I would do absolutely terrible things to her,” he said. “Just look at her ass.” Then he made a kissy face at her (she didn’t see), and turned back to me, eyebrows raised, like “you know what I’m saying, man?”
I shook my head, let out an awkward chuckle, and took it as my cue to leave. “Have a good workout,” I said. Then I walked out the door.
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“I understand why you didn’t say anything to that guy,” says Erica Smith, M.Ed., a Philadelphia-based sexuality educator. “You didn’t know him and you probably didn’t feel like friends. But you also missed an opportunity.”
Um…an opportunity for what?
An opportunity to not perpetuate ultimately destructive talk about women, also known as locker room talk.
“There’s nothing wrong with finding someone attractive or even communicating that you find them attractive,” says Smith.“But it starts to be harmful when guys turn women into objects.”
I think back to my conversation with Random Guy and start to pick it apart. We both thought the girl in the yoga studio was gorgeous. But it was the way we talked about it that matters.
“She’s gorgeous” is a statement of subjective opinion. It’s admiration.
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“Look at her ass”, “I would do terrible things to her”, and Kissy Face, however, are objectification. That’s what happens when a woman’s body (or body parts, or sexual functions) are isolated from who she is — her whole complex personhood — and treated like objects to be coveted, touched, and controlled.
Before I get all high and mighty thinking I’m better than that guy at the gym, I have to remind myself that I still didn’t say anything to him. I played along. And that is Smith’s point. That’s the opportunity I missed.
There’s a thin line between admiration and objectification, and most of us slip back and forth between them in everyday conversations. It can range from uncouth and mildly offensive to downright aggressive and sexist. With a huge grey area in between.
Locker room talk isn’t quite sexual harassment. But according to some psychologists, it can lead to men “priming” themselves to think of women as sex objects. As Psychology Today notes, even if guys don’t think they have less respect for women when participating in or hearing this kind of talk, our brains are making associations that create implicit bias. This means we may treat women differently…without knowing we’re doing it.
“It’s everywhere,” says Molly Galbraith. Galbraith is co-founder of Girls Gone Strong, an organization that seeks to empower women in and out of the gym.
Like most guys, I want to help. Not be the problem. Yet, other than intervening in obvious sexual assault situations, I don’t always have the best radar to know what’s a problem, or the tools to know what to do.
Along with a cadre of therapists, doctors, and fitness-industry professionals, Smith and Galbraith created a free online course, What You Can Do About Sexual Harassment In the Fitness Industry.
It’s for people who work in the fitness industry, sure. But it’s also for regular guys who go to the gym a lot.
Most of us don’t know what to do what do when you realize some guy is following a woman around the gym? What about when a guy touches a woman without her consent? Or when you overhear him asking for her phone number and he won’t take “no” for an answer?
Answer: You speak up.
A recent meta-analysis of over 15 studies involving 6,000 college students across the US found that “programs designed to prevent sexual assault by increasing onlooker interventions had a meaningful effect on bystander behavior.”
The students who went through one of these programs were more likely to step in, should a situation require it. Plus, the students felt like they had greater ability to intervene.
The authors of this meta-analysis, Heather Hensman Kettrey, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Clemson University and Robert A Marx, a Ph.D. Student at Vanderbilt University, put it this way:
“Simply put, bystander programs are successful at encouraging bystanders to intervene when witnessing sexual assault or its warning signs.”
Smith and Galbraith agree.
“Even just as one guy speaking up to your workout partners, friends, and complete strangers, you can make a big difference.”
But when should you speak up? And what should you say? I asked Smith and Galbraith to walk me through 3 different scenarios.
“All it takes is a split second and the woman can easily move away,” says Smith.
You’re not speaking up in order to shame or blame. Instead, we’re doing it to set a new standard for what’s acceptable behavior. “It may feel like you’re being too uptight or making a big deal about nothing. But the truth is, it really matters,” says Galbraith. “Your voice is powerful.”
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