Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer

The Locker Room Has Always Been a Site of Sexual Terror

Filed By Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer | November 21, 2011 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: gay kids, gym, locker room, McQueary, Paterno, Penn State, Sandusky

I've been wondering why no one here at TBP has posted anything about the Penn State scandal except Sara Whitman, and I wonder if it's locker-room.jpgbecause our feelings about this case, with our particular sexual biographies as gays and lesbians, have been so layered and complicated and hard to make sense of. I've been trying the last several days to figure out the strangeness of my reaction: Why am I more sad than shocked, more resigned than surprised?

As a teenager, the locker room was a scary place that I was helpless to negotiate. There's nothing revelatory to me in finding out that Sandusky got away with sexually abusing so many boys over a period of decades in an environment where sex and humiliation are woven into the culture. For me - and this feeling can't be mine alone - locker rooms are saturated with desire and terror in a way that makes it still, all these years later, sometimes difficult to tell them apart.

I lived for those mornings when I would see naked and up close the boys whose bodies I wanted so badly to touch, and I cried myself to sleep the night before in dread of exposure of the shame of my desire, the exposure of my own body which could not possibly be desirable to them.

Forced, at 14, to strip naked in a roomful of boys so that they could taunt me about my lack of pubic hair and athletic prowess, compelled to participate in games and activities the rules of which I didn't know, then marched back to a steamy, windowless chamber and forced to strip again in order to shower with these boys whose touch I secretly craved.

I think I had it easy. The terror was mostly psychological. No one ever physically assaulted me. The teasing was mild compared to the treatment of other boys who were pushed down, punched, their underwear yanked up into their crotches, etc. None of this abuse was called out or stopped by the adults in charge, the teachers and coaches. I can't imagine that I'm the only kid who felt alone, without protection or recourse.

I look back at that ritual of adolescence with two strong but contradictory attitudes: 1) a willingness to concede that it was just one of those "life is unfair" things - like the myriad inconveniences the left-handed deal with every day in a right-handed world, it's no one's fault that gym class and locker rooms are often a nightmare for homosexual kids - just the friction of living as a minority in a world that was made for the majority, and 2) a need to condemn a culture that encourages behavior that I think is abusive, that hurt and scarred me.

This attitude comes out especially when I hear people, in conversations about the so-called obesity epidemic, lament the loss of physical education in public schools. To argue for reinstating phys ed in schools that have discontinued it feels to me like arguing for a return to corporal punishment or racial segregation or warehousing the disabled. It's a return to the dark ages.

I have to admit that there's something about locker room culture that is and may always be incomprehensible to me. Why all the obviously sexual behavior (grabbing and teasing and pulling each other's pants down, etc.) in these groups of presumably mostly heterosexual boys and men? What are they doing? Obviously it occupies a different psychological space for a confidently straight teenage boy than it does for a gay kid just becoming uncomfortably aware of his same-sex desire. But, still, what's it about?

I'm not unwilling to consider that it might have some component of a natural and healthy initiation into "manhood." But it didn't work that way for me. One of the things about this behavior that was so disconcerting to me as a kid was that it seemed to come so naturally to the other boys but not to me. Like football or basketball or any of the games we played in gym class, if I had known the rules and been allowed to participate, I might have enjoyed it. If this was an important ritual, I was excluded from it.

Here's what I'm left thinking about the Sandusky scandal:

Is it possible to see McQueary's reaction as unsurprising considering he witnessed this incident in a place where the sexual humiliation of boys is normal, expected, and routine? He saw a crime, the rape of a boy, which disgusted him but which was apparently not far enough beyond the pale to report to anyone outside of the circle of men familiar with the culture. He decided that the protocol of the locker room is best left to specialists. The rules are too arcane for laypeople. In other words, "You wouldn't understand."

We've all fixated on the one particular crime, the shower rape that McQueary witnessed and didn't report to the police. But this was only one incident in decades of sexual aggression toward boys by Sandusky, behavior that he is calling "horseplay." In other words, normal.

All these incidents of unwelcome touching, hugging, and grabbing, when we see them in hindsight as part of a long career which included the rape of a 10-year-old, are clearly criminal, but how do we draw a clear line between the behavior of this man and the everyday roughhousing among boys and men in locker rooms and on athletic playing fields, much of which is aggressive, unwelcome, and sexual (smacking asses, grabbing crotches, calling boys "girls" or "faggots," taunts that take the form of sexual demands, and questioning the virility and sexual prowess of targeted boys)?

The scene McQueary witnessed was aberrant not by category but only by degree.

(imgsrc)


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I think the difference between the Sansdusky trial and locker room antics of "smacking asses, grabbing crotches" is that Sandusky was a grown man engaging in penetrative anal sex with a child and teenage boys smacking each other's asses are not.

I am wary of "surely I am not the only one" statements, so I will recognize, as should you, that my experience in the locker room is personal: As an overweight child, I felt some shame changing in front of others. Likewise, I felt the mixture of desire and curiosity at being in close contact with other naked boys my age and grown men, but fortunately for me, those men at the YMCA were more interested in swimming or cleaning up after swimming than they were in molesting or raping a child.

In my own experience as someone who enjoyed extra-curricular sports, and the one that requires the most locker time, swim team, I did not view the locker room as a site of terror. The guys on my team were my peers, even after I came out to them. Yes, towel snapping and "gay chicken" went on among them, but I don't perceive those as being "sexual terrorism" in any way categorical to Sandusky raping a child. This is primarily because those who engaged in those antics did so consensually and playfully and NEVER was any adult privy to participating, which would certainly cross a line. If a boy felt that something was bothersome or made him uncomfortable, everyone respected that. But our two co-captains would prank one another under the rational understanding that it was just fun. In my experience, the moment something crossed the line or if we sensed that someone was seriously uncomfortable, we knew and we respected it and no one was ever harassed because of it.

I respect that for some people--an important qualification to make--locker rooms have always been a site for terror". The difference in my swim team experience is that we were comrades--a team. But during my freshman year of all-student gym class, that context is gone, and yes, you share a locker room with a bunch of people, some your friends, and some who are bullies, and yes, I felt the sense of unease being in the locker room. When you're changing, you're vulnerable, and any snide remark, or asshole next to you can be unsettling. And likewise, I respect that some people didn't have the kind of situation where "everyone's a team", where people who should be your team mates abuse their authority to bully you into submissions with all the aforementioned actions. Ultimately, the difference between the bully pantsing me or one of my teammates who I am friends with pantsing me is about our relationship and the intent: The bully is malicious and I give no consent; my teammate is my friend and I give consent insofar as they know I appreciate the prank, know they are not malicious, and that they are free to fall victim to my pranking them back at any time.

I suspect that your traumatizing experiences with these assholes and bullies (and quite shockingly to me, adults?) taking advantage of the locker room to engage in sexual torment is what colors your opinion of these spaces. Clearly, you're less certain that physical fitness in public schools is important when weighed against the threat of sexual torment and shame in the locker room, and yes, the very real, and not "so-called" obesity epidemic is a small price to pay to avoid that torment.

But for me, I was able to see the locker room as a space of many aspects: a sexual taboo for my budding queer adolescence, an uncomfortable, vulnerable space for my nerdyness, a comfortable, common room for me and my team where we chatted and joked before jumping in the pool, and a necessary place where I could change into work out clothes before I got some exercise in my day. For me, a locker room is not a definitive place of sexual terror, but I recognize that it IS a place where certainly, sexual terror COULD arise, given certain people, and certain dynamics, like the street you walk down during the day to get home. But for me, I don't associate it with terror, and I don't brand my experiences with these sorts of horsing around as sexual terror nor do I categorize them as in the league of Sandusky's child rape (or his thinly veiled excuses of calling them "horsing around". To me, even if kids horse around, snapping towels, pantsing, or slapping asses consensually, and not maliciously, no adult should ever be engaging in those activities with a child. Ever. That immediately takes it from "horsing around" to "inappropriate").

So I sympathize with your sentiment that the locker room can be a place of terror for youth, especially queer youth, but I hate to see a person's bad experience become the basis for re-branding all locker room spaces, all non-malicious, quasi-consensual childhood antics, and strangely, all school-based physical fitness and exercise itself, as being the "dangerous" framework for a lifetime of traumatized children, sexual terror, and equatable to the horror of pedophilic rape.

As a male teen of trans development, locker rooms were torture rooms, rooms of fear, and being of lesbian orientation, was not at all interested in what the other guys looked like, and didn't want to touch them. I reallly felt like I was a girl in the boys locker room. Very terifying. My school district did not have middle school, so high school covered 8th thru 12th grade. Throw in that 8th grade was when the school was integrated, it was my first interaction with people of color in a school environment. I failed 8th grade PE so got to take it 4 years instead of 3.

Restrooms also did not have doors on the toilet stalls to prevent smoking. I could not and cannot use a urinal or toilet in front of other people. The only reason I was able to survive high school was I found an unlocked single person bathroom out of the way that others would not use that I could use.

We don't often agree Steven, but I thank you for this thoughtful post. You've nailed it. That this isn't just isolated abhorrent behavior, but part of what an oppressive, homophobic/transphobic culture so often permits and perpetuates. If we can't uniformly support the safety of ALL children in environments like this, it's rather hallow to turn around and make a big stink about Mr. Pedophile/Rapist Football Coach. Yes, I hope he is prosecuted to the fullest, but the culture which permitted this and other assaults and tortures of queer/trans (and just vulnerable) children in group environments must be challenged or this will have been for nothing.

I appreciate the compliment, Gina. Reading the first para when it was posted, I wished that I had written "gays and lesbians and trans people," because this locker room distress is something many of us all share. I was expecting you to call me out on that omission! :)

Trans women tend to avoid male locker rooms, as do girls generally. Those with obvious Intersex conditions doubly so.

That may be so when they're adults, but my post was about teenagers, for whom these experiences are usually compulsory.

Rachel Bellum | November 21, 2011 9:13 PM

I started martial arts when I was young which required changing on site. When I was young I got good at changing with my face to the wall so that my chest was hidden (it just felt wrong to be exposed), as I grew older I used the privileges that come with rank to arrange to be in the locker room when no one else was. No one there ever behaved inappropriately, but I was reflexively uncomfortable. In school I almost entirely avoided the gym class locker room using medical excuses. They were very aware that I learned/taught martial arts at night. This made many of the teachers think I was both a liar and a slacker, but that seemed better than enduring the public school locker room environment.

The saddest person I have ever seen in my life was a transfer student in middle school who I now believe was transgender (at the time I didn't believe there was a real possibility of encountering someone my age, and I really didn't understand myself much less have the wisdom to recognize others). On one of the rare occasions when I couldn't get out of gym, she [I'm not aware how this person currently identifies, but assuming the feminine seems the most respectful to me.] was hiding in the corner of the locker room behind a rack of lockers, as far as she could get from everyone, while the boys made jokes and told stories about her. Part of what they were discussing was that she had just recently tried to change in the girl's locker room. I started trying to defend her (mostly out of general habit) when she turned and looked at me over her shoulder. The look on her face stunned me into silence. As a martial artist I literally practiced generating (and enduring) levels of pain that would cause a person's consciousness to shut down, but I have never, before or since, seen someone in such pain. I started silently praying that no one (her, myself, or anyone else) ever had to feel that bad. If, as an adult, I can still be said to pray at all, it is merely a remembered echo of that one.

I found it very strange that there's been so little news ANYWHERE about this happenstance, and I wonder just how correct your theory might be.

When I think back to my own experiences in the locker room, I guess I got off lucky. In high school, I was always very scared to change in the locker room and was thankful that our physical education was lacking enough to avoid mandatory showering. We lacked a lot of the typical bullying at my school that's portrayed on TV- race was a much bigger issue in Cincinnati public schools around 2000 than jocks and cheerleaders- and I don't always understand the real terror that many of the gay men I know experienced. I was scared, sure, but always just felt shy about my body, never knowing the same threat of bullying or assault that many others faced.

Despite the anger that I feel about the abuse here, I don't really know of a way that could discourage it other than a very harsh punishment for the offenders. In the end, locker rooms seem inevitably to be a weird mix of public and private space that are so injected with shyness and shame that silence will always oppress the truth.

What Zoe said. I was tossed out of the boys locker room the first day we dressed out...um..OK I didn't dress out, they tossed me as soon as I got down to socks. I never figured out how to put a jock strap on.
Come to think of it, I wonder what ever happend to that thing.
So, between Junior High and High school I think I had 5 minutes in the boys locker room and probably close to 20 minutes in the girls locker room in high school. (and no, I didn't see no boobies its where they kept the archery butts and gear)

Why do boys engage in sexually violent behavior that is both misogynistic and heterosexist? This isn't a mystery. It's because misogyny and heterosexism are all about sexual violation.

Boys are taught that females and feminine people are inferior. They're taught that men and masculinity are superior. They're taught that maleness means being the subject, the observer, the doer. They're taught that femaleness means being the object, the one observed, the one whom things are done to. They're taught to dominate and fight for top status in the hierarchy.

So of course they're going to assault each other, of course they're going to establish hierarchies of power and throw bigoted slurs and attack each other. They're following the rules of survival the adults around them have taught. Mainstream male socialization is based on abusive, violent behavior meant to prop up male superiority. Until that is addressed, this form of bullying will not stop.

And that's not even getting into the role cissexism plays. As a trans female, I was a girl forced into the boys' locker room. An alien. A spy. I refused to undress fully, and I refused to take showers. I also barely participated in class. The whole experience was torturous, painful, dysphoric, crushed my soul, and erased who I was.

Only a few times did any of the boys attempt to bully me. I showed them I would fight back, and they left me alone. Their bullying stopped. But that was just one kind of bullying that ended, because the entire system bullied me. The essentialist, cissexist system of gender bullied me. Every word my classmates and teachers said that reinforced gender essentialism bullied me. Every trip to the bathroom, every lesson in health class, every single-file line divided into girls and boys, every conversation in the hall bullied me. There was no escape.

I hope I don't get tarred and feathered for saying this ... but here goes.

The Penn State scandal is a very serious matter that needs to be dealt with fully, but the media is feeding on all the sensationalism which they themselves stir up.

Clearly, Sandusky apparently committed crimes that he should be prosecuted for, and his victims should receive mental health services if they need them. OTOH, Sandusky is not a "monster" -- he is a human being with a serious psychological problem. I object to the way he is being demonized in order to blow this story up to proportions it does not deserve.

It is difficult for me to judge what sort of psychological damage this type of child rape might inflict on a young straight boy, because I have never been a young straight boy. I'll be honest, if one of my coaches had gone down on me, I would have been confused about what's going on, but I also would have been delighted. At that age I lusted after adult men, I fantasized about seducing them -- and I also had no inkling of the legal devastation I could have unwittingly precipitated, because I had no knowledge about statutory rape laws and the viewpoint that the adult is always liable in such instances. But I did know that most of them were married, and since I knew their wives I certainly didn't want to cause those kind of problems. And finally there was all the religious brainwashing that I hadn't worked myself through at that age. Even so, my fantasies were what they were, and looking back on those years I am so thankful that I made the choice to be a "good boy" until I got older.

What are the current social standards about adult men showering with young boys? I don't want to get anyone in trouble, but when I was in grade school and high school, the adult male coaching staff did shower with the younger males, and we thought nothing of it. But that was 40 years ago, and public awareness about such issues had risen radically.

My coaches were all handsome men, and to this day I feel a special closeness to them simply because they were willing to get naked with me and my teammates at shower time. The good part about the locker room scene is that it is unmistakably an opportunity for male bonding whether one is straight or gay. The locker room is about the only remaining male-only vestage of the male tribalism that was intrinsic to life in ancient times. The other ancient institution of male tribalism was military service, and today that has changed, somewhat but not completely, because of the inclusion of women (and rightfully so).