What Little Boys Learn About Consent in Locker Rooms

Boy athletes are taught that team culture is the key to getting ahead. That's right, but it's not always healthy.

by Andrew Burmon
kids, consent, sports, and locker rooms

Little boys who want to play sports cross their hairless fingers and hope that puberty will do them some favors. They wait for their adult bodies to surface and, when that process begins, they look down on their broad chests or disproportionate feet or curling pubes, sizing up their own potential. No one is more body conscious than a middle school point guard looking for signs of hope in a locker room mirror.

That’s why it inevitably comes as a shock when a boy, a teammate, or a gym class hero realizes that, for reasons of vanity, carelessness, or pride, he lacks insecurities and starts in with the towel-snatching, ball-flicking, and general grabassery. From the perspective of the boy white-knuckling his terrycloth and praying for his pecs to swell, this locker room agitator is to be envied and feared. He models a sexual confidence and social swagger to which most boys can only aspire. He also inevitably spotlights the silent majority, who would prefer to wait quietly in the dark for the hormonal tide to come in, forcing them to act casual, demanding that they play along.

My casual act was thin to the point of transparency. Though I don’t recall being ashamed of my body (it took decades and a lot of office snack food to get there) or even being all that shy, I do remember arriving late to development and resenting that kid —never the best player on the team — who lived for the locker room. He was always louder and nakeder, always urging me to be okay with a type of slapstick give-and-take that made me viscerally uncomfortable.

In America, it’s often this kid, this slapdick 11-year-old, that teaches boys the most memorable lesson in consent they ever get. And that lesson is this: Only bad teammates say stop. Boys don’t have to be abused or harassed to internalize this idea because so many coaches prime them for it by rhetorically separating the physical from the personal: “Sacrificing your body!”; “Pain is just weakness leaving the body!” (that latter poster hung in my middle school locker room). Young athletes are, both by each other and by their adult leaders, indoctrinated into a culture that undermines their ownership of their limbs and hands and heads and genitalia at every turn and rewards them for ceding control. While this neither explains nor justifies the behavior of the seemingly endless stream of notable men accused of sexual harassment, it’s another reality (institutional misogyny, corporate irresponsibility, and straight-up evil are higher up the list) to keep in mind when puzzling over how to raise men who don’t hurt people.

Sports are good for kids, but precisely because they help people succeed, the bad lessons athletes internalize wind up getting burped up at executive lunches.

Think the connection between organized youth sports and sexual harassment by powerful men is easily overstated? If only. Sports success and career success are, just as your middle school gym teacher fulminated, intertwined: Something like 95 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs played college sports. Some 90 percent of the female respondents to a massive poll of high-level corporate executives by Ernst & Young said they played sports. A Cornell University study found that even 50 years later high school athletes displayed more leadership and self-confidence than their non-athlete peers. In other words, locker room culture is team culture and team culture is often work culture.

Indoctrination into team culture is really good for kids, but it’s also pernicious because that indoctrination tends to start just in time for slapdick 11 year olds to have an outsized effect on it. By celebrating the good things about teams — bonding, selflessness, shared goals — Americans often overlook the problems with the culture in which boys marinate. What happens in a middle school locker room by no means renders future scandal inevitable, but it does help define the culture in which abuses persist. Sports are, again, good for kids, but precisely because they help people succeed, the bad lessons athletes internalize wind up getting burped up at executive lunches and written between the lines of HR handbooks. The dangerous idea that only bad teammates say stop becomes persists in the minds of feckless climbers.

It is, unfortunately, a sticky idea.

The notion that “boys will be boys” is powerful without being particularly specific. When used to explain the inevitable violations that occur when grabassery becomes shorthand for social intimacy, it implies that the fault rests with all concerned and, therefore, with no one. In truth, a small number of boys will be boys while many other boys will be very uncomfortable.

By teaching kids that teams consist of individuals with individual needs, we can help young athletes become more empathic and thoughtful leaders.

I fell into that latter group. I remember opting to change at home and the feeling of sweat drying into salt along the neckline of t-shirts. I don’t remember feeling sexually victimized, just uncomfortable. I also remember seeing my own discomfort on the faces of the other boys who also, for whatever reason, wanted to keep their distance. We never talked about it and, over time, we almost all figured out how to act more comfortable than we were. Truth be told, I’m still acting that way.

So why aren’t coaches explaining consent and respect during the first practice of every JV soccer team in America? Some likely are. There are plenty of great coaches. But I’m still confident it’s not a common conversation because it is addresses the sort of truths that make it harder to create a cohesive teams. The ugly truth is that its way easier to run a team of individuals who haven’t been given the tools to advocate for themselves. Create a silent, aggressive culture and it gets way easier to focus on the championship. Boys get used to it. Men come to love it. They think it’s normal. They are, at this moment in history anyway, correct.

Even now, more than a decade after I stopped half-assing my way through team workouts and embracing what might be called a “Softball lifestyle,” admitting my desire not to be casually or jokingly pawed at feels transgressive. Also, hypocritical. You adapt to norms. You start doing the stuff that bothered you.

That’s a problem posed by the weird American insistence on organized sports being the root of meaningful friendships. Boys want to have friends and they eventually internalize the idea that homosocial prudery is weird and that being loud and physical is good. They come to believe that teammates and buddies and frat brothers should have access to each others’ bodies. They subconsciously hand over their power to consent. Do they all expect women to do likewise? No. Do they all go and whip their dicks out in the office? Of course not. But it’s naíve to think that powerful men are harassing the woman on their teams at work simply due to proximity. That’s part of it (selfishness and laziness go together like a wink and a lear), but surely not all of it.

Create a silent, aggressive culture and it gets way easier to focus on the championship. Boys get used to it. Men come to love it. They think it’s normal.

Too often when we talk about locker room culture outside of the locker room, the discussion seems to be premised on the idea that locker room culture is, in essence, rape culture. That’s not really true. I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of locker rooms and had a lot of conversations about girls and women and occasionally men. I’m sure that there are a handful of those conversations that would, if played back on national television, embarrass me and my family. But the majority are just human conversations about desire. In America — at least outside of country clubs and Billy Bush’s bus — locker room culture really is team culture. And it’s hard to understand, for people brought up in that milieu, where they are supposed to stop and the team is supposed to start.

Do I think youth sports confused my understanding of boundaries? Absolutely. I can’t go back and eliminate those experiences so it’s impossible to compare and contrast, but I’m sometimes rougher with people than I should be and I suppress the urge to say, “Don’t touch me” as a matter of course. Old habits die hard. Did all those years wrapped in a towel, sitting on a wooden bench change my behavior towards women? I don’t think so or, better put, I’d like to believe that it didn’t. But it no longer feels reasonable for a straight man like myself to confidently assert his own virtue. Surely I could find ways to be more respectful.

So could today’s youth coaches and so could young teammates. By teaching kids that teams consist of individuals with individual needs, we can help young athletes become more empathic and thoughtful leaders. By teaching boys to care for their quieter teammates, we can maybe prepare them to be of service to those in positions of weakness going forward — or just not to abuse positions of strength. Are middle school boys still going to be assholes from time to time? That’s for damn sure. But we can ask them to do better. After all, that’s what good teammates do.