Locker Room (Read: Ahwa) Talk – On the Objectification, Exploitation, and Oppression of Women

By: Ali Sakr

Interacting with people can be pretty hard. We often find it difficult to engage in conversations with people we don’t really know, or sometimes people we “know” but don’t really like, and so we can end up saying things that we simply don’t believe in. We can laugh along to a joke we don’t in any way, shape, or form find funny, or perhaps, play along in a discussion that feels quite boring or even revolting to us, purely because we don’t want any trouble. We don’t have the energy to disagree, to partake in any conflict, or to voice an opinion that is opposed to that of the majority of the people around us. We’d rather agree, or at the very least, remain silent.

This isn’t exactly uncommon, but it isn’t always okay either. Sometimes the issue transcends pretending to like a sport that you don’t or acting like you’re interested in some weird topic you know absolutely nothing about. Sometimes, it’s about our core values – the beliefs we seemingly hold onto so dearly, we could never possibly contradict, yet in the right situation, we still manage to do so. This kind of behaviour is more deeply rooted in our very instincts as humans than you might initially believe, and I’ll definitely do my best to explain what I can of those instincts in a bit, but before I do that, let’s talk about something a bit more specific.

Locker room talk, or in our case sometimes referred to as “ahwa” talk, is a type of conversation where a group of males will engage in behaviour that is quite – problematic, to say the least. It’s a “discussion” where they will talk openly and freely about sexual matters, often related to women they know or see around them, but do so in a very vulgar and sickening way. There is a fine line between admiration and objectification, and locker room talk manages to cross very comfortably into the latter, consistently portraying women as sex objects to be controlled and used for the pleasure of men rather than human beings, by including crude remarks and derogatory terms that they would never be able to use if a woman they knew were present in the conversation.

So at first you might think that this isn’t really that big of an issue. If it’s all talk and no action – if all they’re doing is having a friendly conversation, where could the harm in that possibly be? Yes, it’s wrong and all, but does the matter really deserve a discussion? Well, for starters you’ve got the psychological damage that can trigger a survivor of sexual assault, which unfortunately means that most women will be at risk of being triggered if they ever hear this kind of a conversation. And that’s not to mention the effect it can have on men’s thoughts and ideals, simply because they become regularly exposed to certain words. 

We love to believe that we are in complete control of our thoughts and values, quite unaware of the fact that what we say – and hear – has a very significant effect on the way we think. On the way we view the world around us, and in turn, its inhabitants. When you hear a statement that involves two things, your brain will automatically make a connection – an association between them, in this case between women and some form of dehumanized sexual pleasure. You won’t always notice it, but when the connection continues to be strengthened – when your brain is constantly getting assured that it exists, it will begin to affect you on a fundamental level. It will begin to create subconscious biases and beliefs in the back of your head, which will slowly but surely creep their way to the front, and start influencing how you feel, more so than how you think. It can feel okay while still feeling wrong deep down, and that’s what’ll make your views seem inconsistent.

By making your respect for women a matter of context rather than core values – by allowing the way you view them and feel about them to be so foundationally affected by the people around you, you externalize the issue. You allow the triggers for your behavior to come from outside your mind, rather than from within. Your beliefs are no longer set in stone, but rather ebb and flow to best cater to your social situation. No matter how strongly you believe that you consciously respect women and that these mere sentences will have no effect on this fact, there are thoughts that will still continue to be so finely planted in your brain. A sense if ownership. A sense of entitlement. And what appear to be thoughts for you might not stop at just that for others. For those already on the brink, who have had these views in their heads ever since they were little, these thoughts can manifest in the form of action.

The way locker room talk empowers and validates r*pe culture is terrifying, not just because of what it can result in, but because it operates at a most fundamental level – one that appears to be insignificant at a first glance. It works inside out, subconsciously rewiring how you think, normalizing behavior that is in no way acceptable. But it’s not unstoppable. There are ways you can fight back – ways you can do your part to prevent the objectification of women and to ensure that this kind of talk is looked down upon. But in order to be able to do that, we need to first understand why it’s so hard to. We need to understand why, in many cases, it’s so easy to play along. As cliché as it might sound, it all comes down to our instinct to fit in.

There is a phenomenon know as the in-group bias, and put simply, it is basically how we tend to favour people who are members of the same “group” as us, which can often be obvious in how we act towards or think about people who are outside of this group, as compared to those inside. The more similarities you share with the members of your group, the more empathy you are able to display towards them, and the more you will find yourself agreeing with them and tending towards adopting their mindsets and behaviours, even if they initially seem contradicting to your own. Even if you find yourself disagreeing, you will remain complicit. This is what’ll make you will laugh along to a joke you don’t find funny. This is what’ll make you remain silent when you disagree with something being said. And this is what’ll make you resist the gut feeling inside of you that’s telling you this is wrong. You contribute to the issue by not fighting against it, because it seems to you like doing so would be akin to fighting your group – maybe even fighting yourself.

The first step you can take to overcome this in-group bias is to trust your gut, and externalise yourself from the situation. You know something feels off, so allow yourself for a second to take an observer’s point of view. Don’t remain silent out of complacency, but do so out of the desire to criticize and assess. Mentally detach from the group and you lose the bias that’s telling you they’re not wrong. You regain your ability to think logically even if for a few moments, and that’s often enough to get you started on the right track.

Second step is speak up. You don’t need to be all formal and debate-y about it, or to create a big scene or argument. There are ways to be tactful about this kind of issue that play more on embarrassing the people in front of you and breaking their confidence in their views, rather than trying to force these views to change; act stupid. When faced with an offensive r*pe joke, say you don’t get it. A simple “what do you mean?” will be more than enough to bring the awkwardness in the room from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds, and will probably make whoever was making the joke feel too weird about explaining it. They’ll likely realize how much of an asshole they were acting like, or perhaps just make them lose their momentum, both cases allowing for a change in topic, and also some potential reflection time for our group of “bros”.

You could also always disagree jokingly, actually call him out for being an asshole, and say that you think these jokes are stupid. This will bring a different kind of awkwardness into the room, and it’ll also be sure to get you some results. I personally think acting dumb then jokingly disagreeing if they end up explaining is the perfect way to go, though. No way of getting caught off guard there.

The third and final step is get used to it. Being exposed to multiple situations of social discomfort and disapproval will create some form of desensitization towards it – it won’t feel as strange and scary of a behaviour if you’re used to being the odd one out, so you’ll be able to do it more often and more effectively. Whether this is a natural talent you have as a fellow awkward human being, or you decide to simply do your best to always speak up, the more you do, the easier it’ll become. 

That being said, let’s agree to never be silent about the things we believe in again. For our sake, and for the people we love, speak up. Be smart about it, and know exactly what to say and when to say it, but never forget that it’s your responsibility to do so. In this case, you’re not an observer, you’re a human, and that’s something that’s true whether you’re in a locker room or not. 

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