“We’re Standing Up for Respect”
These teens made a simple but powerful statement to show they honor their female classmates—and they want you to do the same.
Their locker room looked just like countless other ones around the country: ordinary metal lockers painted blue, fluorescent lighting, a gray concrete floor.
Yet the six male athletes standing in the picture that made history this fall weren’t doing anything ordinary. Standing solemnly in shirts that said WILD FEMINIST, they were sending an important message to their classmates and the world: “Locker room talk” is not only unacceptable and disrespectful. It’s also dangerous.
“That’s not how guys talk in the locker room—at least not any I’ve been in,” says Junel Jeannis- Ostin, 18, a varsity football player at Centennial High in Gresham, Oregon, who was pictured in the photo that went viral.
What Jeannis-Ostin is referring to is President Donald Trump’s claim that comments he made on tape in 2005 about touching women against their will were simply “locker room talk.” Used as a defense, the phrase has struck a chord, not only with Jeannis-Osten and his classmates—but in schools nationwide.
Many of the teens Choices spoke to for this story say they finally feel free to talk about an unspoken culture of disrespect between the sexes at their schools—jokes and rumors about hookup experiences behind closed doors, group texts that rank students on their attractiveness, and other forms of lewd language that end up taking a toll on their sense of self-worth.
“I don’t think boys realize how much their ‘funny’ jokes actually hurt girls,” says Ally, a 15-year-old high school freshman in New Jersey. “As a young female, it can be so hard to stand up for yourself. But it is time for the disrespect to end.”
STOP THE MADNESS
Zoe Virta, now 19, knows exactly what it feels like to witness locker room talk. She went to a high school in Washington state where the senior boys oversaw a yearly online ranking of girls’ looks called May Madness.
“It bred this whole way of talking about women in a really negative way,” Virta says. Instead of valuing a girl’s intelligence or athletic abilities, for example, “it takes away all of the merit of the things you work really hard for and just reduces you to how hot you are.”
Frustrated, Virta and some classmates started a movement protesting the ranking. They formed a gender equality club, distributed T-shirts that said “Be Above the Madness,” and involved teachers and administrators in their advocacy work.
Still, many students (guys and girls) disagreed with Virta and her crew. “They’d ask us, ‘Why do you care? This is harmless, it’s just boys being boys, this is fun, it’s free speech,’” she remembers. “But it does matter. It’s derogatory and misogynistic [prejudiced against women].”
These “hot lists” aren’t a problem just in high schools.
Even some of the country’s most prestigious colleges are being forced to address similar scandals. In the past year alone, college athletes at Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, and Amherst were suspended after it was revealed that they had created rankings or circulated emails that were vulgar or judged female students on their attractiveness.
According to language expert Deborah Tannen, it’s not just that the rankings are offensive. It’s the potential connection between speech and actions that’s dangerous. “If men get together and talk about women in ways that are disrespectful, it encourages them to treat women with less respect,” explains Tannen, a professor at Georgetown University. “And in extreme cases, it can lead people to actually do physical harm.”
So are all guys guilty of locker room talk? Of course not. But as a male, you don’t have to engage in these conversations to risk being hurt by them. “Not everybody talks that way in the locker room, so I feel like we’re all being stereotyped,” says Terrance Williams, 17, a senior football player at South Garland High School in South Garland, Texas.
That’s why experts say it’s so important for boys and girls to work together to change this culture of demeaning talk. Speaking up about a friend’s comments when it feels safe to do so is one line of attack (see Can You Stop Locker Room Talk?)—but you don’t have to fight back alone. Experts encourage you to find adults at school who can help.
Take Williams’s football team, for example. At the start of every season, his coach, Josh Ragsdale, has his players think about how they can support women. Then each player writes a pledge on a piece of paper and posts it online—strong, heartfelt statements like: Real men are accountable for their actions. It’s a commitment to end a dangerous culture of disrespect that can lead to violence. “When the subject of locker room talk came up, it became an opportunity for my players to tell people this isn’t what we do in our locker room,” Ragsdale says. “This isn’t going to happen here.”