Last weekend I did something I don’t usually do and had my hair cut by a professional. The hair cut was perfectly fine and by Monday I was sufficiently employable.
Less fine was the ‘locker room banter’ that came with it, unadvertised and free of charge. Louis CK is a really funny bloke hard done by. The guy who was with Trump in the ‘pussy grabbing’ video did nothing wrong. Trump himself probably did nothing wrong – lots of women love a good pussy grab. Consent is the stupidest idea anyone has ever come up with and would never, ever, work. All a woman has to do is to shout and a man’s life is ruined. And so on.
I disagreed on each of these points, and they kept coming. Eventually the barber stopped arguing and went fishing for reasons to dismiss my objections. Maybe I was gay and didn’t understand the innate, unspoken workings of heterosexuality. Maybe having a long term partner meant I’d forgotten what life was like out in the real world. Maybe as someone who doesn’t love dancing I just wouldn’t ever get the feeling of bodies moving in motion, no words required, your very presence telling the entitled male stranger who may also be your boss that maybe he should get his pants off and have a wank in front of you, or something.
Beyond my gender, my unkempt hair and my daggy clothes this guy knew nothing about me. Not even my name. Apparently just being a man was enough to suggest I’d be a happy recipient of his afternoon’s rant, a willing conspirator in his misogynistic venting.
I wish it were the first time.
A few years ago we went to a party with some old friends who we hadn’t seen in a few years. A few guys stood in the corner of one room, keeping an eye on the women passing in and out through the doorway. Each one was looked up and down, judged, reduced. “Would.” “Would.” “Wouldn’t.” “Would.” I’d been away for a couple of years, and apparently missed the moment in our development where this became not just accepted by expected. Another quote has stuck in the mind from the same night: a group of women being referred to as “bangables.”
Around the same time I started a new job, a junior role in IT. It’s a famously male-dominated industry, but our team was three women and two men. One day I stepped out to grab lunch with the other guy on the team, and we had barely left the office when he started commenting on the women walking by. I can clearly remember his dismissive reply to my objections: “You can look but you can’t touch, right bro?”, like he was casually reminding me of a bro code funda that had somehow slipped my mind. I asked him to keep me out of his looking-but-not-touching. I worked there for another few months, but I’m not sure we shared another lunch.
My next job was as a management grad in the health system. One of my first assignments involved spending a day in an emergency ambulance, just to see what it was like (I had several of these opportunities, and am still grateful for each of them). I went out for an evening shift with two highly experienced and well regarded paramedics who were clearly very good at their jobs. They didn’t have to save anyone’s life that night, but they were the kind of people I would have wanted trying to save mine. In between jobs they drove the ambulance up to Kings Cross, parked in the emergency vehicle parking and compared none-too-savoury notes on the women walking – and often stumbling – by. In a public vehicle, on public money, in a fucking ambulance for god’s sake. Again my objections were laughed off, and I remember getting home and looking up whether ambulances have recording equipment (they don’t), because I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be believed.
I’m lucky enough to be able to choose my friends, to have strong relationships with women, and as a result to avoid getting caught up in too many of these bro-code moments, which I find both confronting and depressing. But I’ve seen just enough to know that when people talk about ‘locker room banter’ they’re trivialising something much larger: it happens on the street, at work, with strangers and with friends, and it seems the only criteria you have to meet to be included is to be a man.
* I have decided not to name and shame the barber because I am sure this experience could have happened in many different barber shops, and many other establishments, in many places and at many different times. I have no doubt there are many barbers, and many customers, who might see a bit of themselves in this story, and I’d rather focus on the big picture than the witch hunt. Also, and despite the barber’s protestations to the contrary, defamation law is strong and the truth is not necessarily a defence.