Locker room talk shouldn't be brushed off

Locker room talk is toxic and if ignored is enabling predators, columnist Grant Shimmin says.
Locker room talk is toxic and if ignored is enabling predators, columnist Grant Shimmin says.

OPINION: It wasn't exactly the holiday job of my dreams. Long hours, terrible pay, a Christmas tape that played on a loop through the PA system throughout December.

In truth, though, I was lucky to have the gig in a massive, warehouse-style retailer that sold everything under the sun and seemed to stretch forever.

I was working as a casual in major appliances, everything from microwaves to washing machines and fridges.

I don't remember much about the job itself, but I certainly recall the department's half a dozen fulltime salesmen – yes, all men. Kind, friendly, and almost always massively inappropriate and sleazy in their conversations.

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Which, when they weren't about the commissions they were raking in, were pretty much all about sex, about objectifying women.

Most of them were married, but their wives, and their sexual willingness, were fair game in these conversations, though they canvassed a much wider field, woman customers included.

It was the sort of conversation a certain prominent politician would describe as "locker room talk". The kind of 'banter' that would prompt others (men) to light-heartedly shake their heads and say "boys will be boys". It was toxic, but I don't know if anyone characterised it that way at the time.

I'm not sure if a woman had ever worked in sales in that department. Which is ironic, considering that in the South Africa of the time, most of those 'major appliances' would have been used primarily by women.

I sense, though, that it was fiercely protected male territory, because of the commissions on offer. I also sense life would have been incredibly uncomfortable for any woman who did. And I doubt, if she'd made a complaint, that it would have been taken seriously.

I wonder if she would have felt safe working there, or been driven away by the environment?

I was uncomfortable with the conversation, but had the luxury of brushing it off, and it's to my shame that I didn't see it for what it was at the time. I'd like to think that now, I'd speak up, even at the cost of my poorly-paid casual job.

In a query that carried a tone of admiration, a fellow casual asked one of the married salesmen one day about his attitude to women, based on the relentless 'banter'.

I've never forgotten the answer: "Man is always the hunter," he replied.

I doubt the bloke in question would have considered himself a sexual predator, but when you characterise men and women as hunter and hunted, it's not a huge leap to predator and prey. And as we should all know by now, predatory behaviour can easily be hidden behind a facade of polished decency.

As a friend observed this week, sometimes the behaviour of a predator will be all but invisible to those who aren't 'targets'. To others, behaviour that might raise red flags for potential 'prey' may well pass them by.

That hadn't struck me until her observation. It should have, though. In nature, predators use every means possible to avoid spooking their intended prey, including attracting the attention of bystanders that may sound the alarm, until they're ready to pounce.

I had no idea when I wrote last week about a series of examples in the news of toxic male behaviour, that within hours, news of a crime so disturbing that it would push those other incidents completely into the background, would break.

Grant Hannis, a journalism professor at Massey University, was sentenced to eight months' home detention, community work, and to pay $3000 reparation, for indecently assaulting an 82-year-old dementia sufferer in a rest home.

I don't know Grant Hannis, but I've realised in the last week I know a lot of people who do, and most are reeling at the news.

Not just because of what he did, horrendous as that was, but for some, because of the way it changed their perceptions of someone they'd considered a decent man, a man they were safe to be around.

As Sarah Lin Wilson, a former student, wrote in a compelling blog post:

"What have the women who interacted with this man over the last twenty or thirty years lost?

"The illusion of safety. It is lost.

"We are not safe in public spaces. We are not safe in our own houses. We are not safe in goddamn f***ing rest homes."

Read it, please.

I don't know that loss, I don't know Sarah's reality, but I need to understand it. It has chilled me to think that if it hadn't been for a caregiver entering the victim's room while the offending was taking place, Hannis may well have got away with it. A despicably predatory act would have gone unpunished.

As it is, the punishment is woeful. I don't remember another situation where a convicted criminal got a sentencing discount because he didn't get name suppression. I don't know why he has.

Several women who were his students have since accused Massey of not taking seriously complaints they made about Hannis' behaviour towards them, alleging intimidation, and inappropriate jokes about sexual assault. The university says the complaints were dealt with.

Where have we ever heard of women feeling they weren't taken seriously when they made a complaint before? Just every week.

Guys, we're not all predators, not for an instant. But maybe we just need to consider that when we brush off toxic so-called banter from others, we enable them. And perhaps, somewhere down the road, the toxic bloke whose comments we let slide turns into a predator.

We need to learn to believe women, because why would they come forward in a society stacked against them unless they felt compelled to? And we need to help them push back against the toxicity.