For it to turn salacious, and then derogatory, is usually just a matter of time.
October 4, 2018 by Jonathan Neeley in Opinion with 0 comments
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I have this memory from a bus ride with teammates last year that I can’t shake. Beers in our hands, ice packs wrapped around knees and ankles, all of us growing road weary. Some Ask Me Anything started up, 10 or 15 of us playing. The first question was something like “what’s the most against-the-law thing you’ve ever done without getting caught?”
We started our tell-all with illegal activity, but it didn’t take long for the topic to settle into an even more familiar place: sex. The questions seemed aimed at being funny, like “where’s the weirdest location your cum has ever been?” And while I rolled my eyes at how the whole thing was all too predictable, I was happy to offer a piece of my own past that has always elicited a laugh or two. I felt relief at having had something cool to say.
But when another answer came in a few moments later—“on a girl’s face”—I cringed.
In my 15 years as a competitive player, sex talk was about as frequent as going to practice or calling a buddy up to toss. From warm-ups to the huddle to the GroupMe, guys share the details and fantasies of their sex lives and pry into those of their teammates all the time. For it to turn salacious, and then derogatory, is usually just a matter of time.
The responsibility of ending male-on-female sexual violence falls almost entirely on those of us who identify as straight, cisgender males.1 To do it, we need need to go beyond just hoping that every individual guy out there decides not to assault women. We need to seriously rethink how, and how often, we talk about sex with women.
Reading this article a few months ago put me back on that bus. Long story short, it’s about a former NFL lineman named Ryan O’Callaghan who had planned to kill himself once his football career ended. This was his plan because playing was all he had to distract himself from confronting the fact that he was attracted to men rather than women. There was a lot that struck me when I read about O’Callaghan, but this was the biggest:
O’Callaghan can’t recall a single time during his six NFL seasons that he heard someone use a gay slur. Instead, he says, subtle pressure came from the constant talk in the locker room about women. Sex with them. Their body parts. Girlfriends, wives. That “sex talk” drove a sense of unease in O’Callaghan that fueled the fears of his truth.
Explicitly hateful language was not what made O’Callaghan feel ostracized. Instead, his experience was a more slow-burning result of a certain phenomenon: constantly talked about sex with women.
Sexual violence against women is a symptom of the same disease. Through the way men in ultimate talk about sexual interactions with women—”girls,” as it typically goes—and the rate at which we do it, we tell each other that to be a man in this community is to be measured by your conquests with women. The result is that we wind up viewing women not as human beings, but as yardsticks.
The summer before I made the team I would spend most of my 20s with, I went to a few of their track workouts in an effort to sew some seeds for the next spring’s tryouts. One night, while at the bar after we were done running, a long-time leader on the team who I had never spoken to—picture one of those “I know exactly who you are and I doubt you’ll remember my name” scenarios—asked me if I had a girlfriend. As soon as I told him I didn’t, he was nudging me and nodding toward the bartender: “She’s cute. You should go talk to her.” I mumbled some kind of “yeah, I should,” kept eating my wings, and went home disappointed in myself for not being “good with women.”
What he said might seem pretty innocuous, but it sent a subtle message: “Hey, there’s a female in our midst. Someone should hit on her.” That he said it within moments of the two of us meeting felt like a good-measure topping of “… and you must want to do that, ’cause you’re normal, right?”
I can recall multiple team retreats where, late into the night, the conversation around the bonfire centered on how many people everyone had slept with. And while maybe that also seems fine at first glance—if you’re not naming names and it was all consensual, where’s the harm?—the slope gets slippery pretty quickly. Where’s the line between those bonfires and the time I heard one of the greatest players of his generation—certainly another guy I looked up to and wanted to impress—refer to a woman as “the free spot on the Bingo board?” What about the emails I’ve read with guys talking openly about being in the so-and-so club? (As in, you’re a member if you’ve slept with this person, who is obviously a slut.)
Consider another story, this one from a pretty standard post-season party a couple years back. You might not have been there, but I imagine you’ve pretty much been there: season’s over, multiple teams throw a combined Halloween-themed rager. It felt like a lighthearted way to ring in the offseason. But at some point in the evening, I noticed a woman pinned up against a wall, looking mortified as a guy grinded on her and kissed her.
I still feel ashamed for not having done something to help her—it could have been as simple as going up and feigning the whole “yo man I’m super stoked to see you!!!” thing so he’d pull his body weight back long enough for her to leave. Beyond my own guilt, I also wonder: what was it that had eroded this guy’s appreciation for the woman’s agency? Is it possible that, somewhere deep in his subconscious, all the sex talk had him more focused on making a hookup happen than on treating this person with dignity? That some part of him was thinking that of course this is what’s happening right now—it’s what’s how this whole thing is done.
And that’s just on a dance floor in some dudes’ cleared-out living room. What if those two had been alone?
I don’t think that the way straight male ultimate players talk about sex creates mobs of guys who are comfortable committing sexual assault. But I do think that the way we talk about sex creates an air of subconscious indifference toward women that makes committing sexual assault—or in my case, turning around and heading back to the kitchen for another beer—easier for some men to do.
Constant sex talk among straight males isn’t good for straight males, either. It tells us to consume ourselves with something very singular, which limits us and wastes our time. More fundamentally, it pushes us to think we need to live up to outside expectations and standards. That’s a lot of pressure to put on ourselves, and the reward of somehow publicly proving our manliness hardly seems worth it.
So where do we go from here?
Let’s start by taking responsibility. Marian Bull says it better than I ever could in this article’s Practice Introspection section, but I’ll take a crack at it: none of us are perfect, and nobody expects us to be, especially with something that’s long been happening on a broad cultural level. But we can own up to how our past actions have hurt others, and we can change our behavior moving forward. One key thing here is that we have to do this work ourselves; it can’t be the job of the women in our lives.
After that, maybe we just…consider talking about sex less. There’s endless possibility for subjects that are interesting, funny, lighthearted, deep, mindless, thoughtful, and everything in between—and that also aren’t sex. At the least, avoiding such a tired subject can freshen up your conversations.
Really, though, I’m not saying to never talk about sex with your friends. It’s perfectly natural for humans to talk about their experiences, and sex is one of them. It’s just that there are healthier ways to do it than what our current framework offers.
Once again, I feel a lot more confident pointing out the problem than suggesting solutions. But I think we could do a lot worse than the basics that Vanessa Marin lays out: talk about yourself, not your sexual partners; don’t talk about other people’s bodies or in-bed preferences; recognize the difference between sharing because you want advice or support and sharing to get attention or entertain; treat others how you would like to be treated (and because I can picture a younger, dumber version of me saying that maybe I’d want her to be talking about me to her friends, I’ll add “Consider male-female power dynamics in our culture, and how sex is one of those things where people judge women by different standards than men.”).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, think it through for yourself. Look deeply. Ask your friends what they think, but also seek out the opinions and perspectives of people who aren’t like you. Observe genuinely, and compare what I’m saying to what you see. Take stock of all the variables and ask, “Is it possible that how often I talk about sex with women could somehow contribute to women suffering sexual violence?”
If you make your way to the same truth that I have, the next step is pretty clear: find something else to talk about, and tell your buddies to do the same.
I want to acknowledge that I don’t have a first-hand understanding of the pain of women who have been assaulted, or of non-straight men who have felt ostracized. I also know that sexual violence is perpetrated against people of all identities, by people of all identities. But in my opinion, straight cis men are the ones with the opportunity to do the most good by changing some all-too-common behaviors. ↩