“Locker Room Banter” and Bad Apologies

At this point, you’ve undoubtedly heard or read about what The Washington Post is calling Donald Trump’s “extremely lewd conversation about women” with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush in 2005. In this conversation, the video of which was obtained by the Post this past week, Trump describes non-consensual kissing (“I just start kissing them… I don’t even wait.”) and groping (“grab them by the pussy.”). He goes on to say that, with his level of fame, “you can do anything.”

There’s obviously a lot to discuss about the conversation itself: James Hamblin makes the important distinction between lewd and misogynistic speech, while Jessica Valenti notes the very real worry for women of being an objectified punchline. Rather than talk more about the abhorrent remarks themselves, I want to focus on Trump’s response to the scandal.

Statement from Donald J. Trump: "This was locker-room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course - not even close. I apologize if anyone was offended."
The entirety of Trump’s official statement responding to the 2005 conversation reported by The Washington Post.

In Trump’s official statement, he describes this discussion of sexual assault as “locker room banter,” chipping away the gravity of his actions with a boys-will-be-boys attitude. (I’ve never had a locker room conversation like this, have you?) By playing off this dehumanizing conversation as a normal guy thing, Trump is confirming the toxic stereotype that male sexuality is uncontrollable and aggressive.

“Locker room banter” like this is more than just uncomfortable; it can create a “false consensus” about what is acceptable within a community. A man in this toxic locker room could hear “I don’t even wait… you can do anything,” and walk away believing that his community doesn’t care about consent – whether or not that’s actually true. This false consensus can easily lead to the illusion of peer support, one of the three conditions necessary for sexual assault to occur, according to Chris Kilmartin. (If that’s not rape culture, I don’t know what is.)

Obviously, we can’t know whether Bill Clinton actually “has said far worse,” as Trump claims. If he has, then he has actively participated in building a community supportive of Trump’s misogyny. Even if he hasn’t, he may have been complicit in allowing Trump to hold onto his own false consensus. In fact, he’s only in the right if he’s called out Trump’s behavior.

In the statement’s last sentence, we get to the actual “apology” part. Rather than accept blame and apologize for both the things he said and the pain he caused, Trump apologizes “if anyone was offended;” he downplays the consequences of his actions with what Stanford psychologist Karina Schumann calls “minimization.”  In fact, Trump’s statement illustrates three of the four defensive strategies that Schumann lays out as aspects of bad apologies: justification (“Bill Clinton has said far worse”), excuse (describing it as “locker room banter”), victim blaming, and minimization.

So what makes a good apology? Schumann breaks it down into eight parts:

  1. Expressing remorse for your actions
  2. Accepting responsibility for what you did
  3. Trying to fix the damage you’ve caused
  4. Trying to explain your actions, without giving an external reason
  5. Promising to be better
  6. Acknowledging how you harmed others
  7. Admitting that your actions were wrong
  8. Asking for forgiveness

A few hours after releasing the statement above, Trump also released a 90 second video in which he admits that he was wrong and apologizes, this time without the conditional if. A few seconds later, though, he characterizes his heinous comments and coverage of them as “nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today.” Instead of continuing with a heartfelt apology, Trump quickly returns to defensive minimization.

Unfortunately, even a perfect apology wouldn’t be enough. Let’s add a ninth part to Schumann’s recipe: actually being and doing better. The attitudes that Donald Trump has shown aren’t unique – they’re symptoms of the toxic masculinity that we teach and perpetuate. It’s up to all of us, especially men, to put a stop to it.