Listening to golf banter taught us teenage caddies that it’s OK to objectify women

By Robert Jensen

Published in Dallas Morning News, January 27, 2017 · January, 2017

Sometimes, sort of by accident, Donald Trump says something insightful. Or, more accurately, he says something we can analyze to gain deeper understanding of the culture’s pathology.

In other writing, I have observed that by his own admission Trump is at the very least an aggressive sexual predator, and we don’t typically look to such men for insight into the nature of men’s sexual violence against women. But after the historic Women’s March, when I re-read accounts of Trumps infamous “grab them by the pussy”comment, I was struck by an inadvertent insight in his response, which was rarely brought up during the campaign.

Let’s remember his statement when the tape was released: “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 coercive sexual activity he was describing can’t be dismissed as mere banter, of course, but Trump was accurately describing how men often talk when they are in all-male spaces, most notably in locker rooms. But his mention of playing golf with Bill Clinton brought back memories of one of my early lessons in this male-dominant dynamic when I was a caddy at a small-town country club in Fargo, ND, in the early 1970s.

In those days, the club reserved prime playing time for men only, and I spent many summer mornings carrying a bag in an all-male foursome. We teenage caddies, like most servants, were invisible to the people we served. The men talked as if we weren’t there, and I learned a lot about how the world really works.

The golfers we caddied for were mostly businessmen and professionals–owners and managers, lawyers and doctors–men I would have looked up to as the leaders who ran the city. So, the crude nature of their sexual conversations was confusing. I had heard other boys talk like that (as a small, effeminate boy, I was too terrified of all things sexual to join in), but I had always assumed adults were different; after all, they chastised kids if they heard us talking that way.

That first summer I spent at the course, I learned there were few differences between men and boys in their approach to sex. Most of the golfers’ conversations were about sports and business, but some of the men commented about women’s bodies and spoke about what they imagined doing sexually with specific women. Not every golfer talked that way, of course, but I noticed that men who avoided the banter didn’t ask the crude-talking guys to stop.

Though I couldn’t have articulated it then, the lesson I was learning was clear: It’s acceptable to treat women as objectified bodies for male pleasure. If you enjoy that kind of thing, go for it. If it’s not your style, that’s ok, but don’t get in the way of other men.

I have no idea what Bill Clinton might have said to Donald Trump on the course, though Clinton said in a 2012 interview, “I like him, and I love playing golf with him.” But my focus is not on these individuals, but on men’s behavior and boys’ socialization. The problem is not simply a few overly aggressive men, but a system of institutionalized male dominance, what traditionally we have called patriarchy. That dominance has long been built on men’s control of women’s reproduction and sexuality.

There’s an ongoing struggle, primarily between feminists and conservatives, about women’s reproductive freedom. Feminists’ struggle with liberals is more often about men’s claims to sexual access to women’s bodies. In that sense, both Donald Trump and Bill Clinton are sex liberals, those who use the slogan of “sexual liberation” to try to justify their abusive behavior.

The final insight comes from Trump’s failed attempt at being a human being: “I apologize if anyone was offended.” Beyond the classic accountability-avoidance of “if,” suggesting that only the hyper-sensitive would be concerned, he doesn’t grasp that it’s not primarily about offensive language but oppressive behavior. Men’s violence and sexual exploitation of women isn’t a problem because of harsh language, but because of abusive behavior that constrains women’s movements and options.

A feminist critique of patriarchy helps explain not only the behavior of the most powerful men in our society, or the most powerful men in Fargo, but also gives all of us a framework for challenging the corrosive culture in which men’s banter expresses men’s dominance.