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When Noah Brand hangs out with his buddies, their "locker-room" talk consists mainly of sports, current events and "just shooting the bull."

"Sure, we talk about women, but there's less outright complaining than you might think," said Brand, editor-at-large of The Good Men Project, an online magazine about masculinity in the 21st century.

Locker-room talk has a social purpose: You can let your hair down and your gut hang out.

Whether it's a guys-only pub crawl or raunchy bachelorette party, "One of the advantages of gendered spaces is – and both men and women can agree on this – you can talk a little more freely and relaxed when you're just around members of your own gender," Brand said in an interview from Portland, Ore. "Locker-room talk's about having a shared context and a shared understanding of experience, thus being able to mess around within that context without having to constantly establish its boundaries."

For 13 Dalhousie University dentistry students, the notorious Facebook group "Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen" may have served that bro-y, reparative purpose. As information leaked about the online group, which teemed with sexually violent remarks, the men complained about its discovery.

"The guys group has always been a place for everyone to cut loose," one wrote in excerpts reviewed by a Globe and Mail journalist. As for the offensive content, it was just "locker-room talk," the young man explained.

"Such coarse talk is not atypical of young male group behaviour," wrote The Globe's Margaret Wente. Some readers echoed her, playing down the references to rape and chloroform as "traditional" male banter, the "essentially harmless" dialogue of "caves, frat houses and locker rooms."

The wide-ranging reactions suggest real polarities in how we view modern masculinity. It also reveals a hazy understanding of how typical men talk about women when they're alone. What actually constitutes locker-room talk today – is it sports, or rape jokes? There is the sexually explicit and casually crude, behaviour that women are also deftly capable of in private company. And then there is the disquietingly violent, on display on the "Gentlemen's" group page – from which they also defended the right to collectively fantasize about rape and anesthetizing solvents.

"These guys are basically saying: 'Is there no place for us to be completely politically incorrect and not be policed?' And the answer is increasingly no, sorry," says Michael Kimmel, author of Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. Kimmel believes that places where men can "act like jerks" are rapidly disappearing.

It's a point that grates some men: While interviewing male college students for his 2009 book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, Kimmel heard the same disturbing phrase on every American college campus he visited – "bros before hos." With women increasingly outnumbering men on campus and entering fields once dominated by men (including dentistry), Kimmel said that this brand of coarse talk can provide solidarity for guys who feel besieged and help them to feel superior.

Charlie Glickman, a sexuality educator who teaches masculinity workshops at universities across North America, argues that much of locker-room talk is performative bravado: "Sometimes it really just is men playing the game of 'let me perform macho.' It's a game like when kids play wrestle. That doesn't always have to be a problem but it definitely can be because … what happens is you get these guys competing to demonstrate who's the most manly and you get an escalation effect."

Brand says that despite what men are taught, "There's this often countervailing toxic element saying that certain kinds of aggression toward women are expected and required to be manly. Which of those strains is dominant in any given group is going to vary a lot. If someone is really bringing in the toxic stuff, it can poison the whole atmosphere of any given group."

Inside their ostensibly private online club, the dentistry students cracked crude dental jokes and quipped about moulding submissive housekeepers and babysitters. Then it got darker: "Bang until stress is relieved or unconscious," read the caption to a photograph of a bikini-clad woman. Another photo showed a woman intoxicated at a party, the words, "Does this rag smell like chloroform to you??" scrawled over top. And then there were the "hate fucking" polls that asked members to rate their female classmates; excerpts seen by a Globe journalist suggest that eight women were named here.

To the question of whether men talk like this when they're among themselves, Brand challenges, "Which men? There isn't a monolithic male hive mind." Chloroform gags, he and other authors on masculinity said defiantly, are not your average locker-room chit-chat.

"It is actually empirically true that in most locker rooms, men do not sit around half-naked and talk about raping women. They don't. I've been in locker rooms and in steam baths and showers and that's not what we talk about," Kimmel says. Rather, the Dalhousie men have co-opted locker-room talk "as a shoddy defence for their sexually violent comments," Brand says. "It's a good opportunity for a conversation because saying that it's just locker-room talk is to imply that this kind of sick language is typical. It isn't. It's creepy. It is a toxic group. To imply that this is typical male behaviour is an insult to typical men," Brand said.

Even if the men did believe they were harmlessly blowing off steam with no intention to act out, experts say groupthink can impact how the participants view their targets: "There's a lot of normalizing of pretty bad behaviour in frats that wouldn't be normalized if people weren't in a group," says Hanna Rosin, journalist and author of The End of Men.

There was a certain testing of waters involved in the Gentlemen's group – of gauging your community's norms with publicly unmentionable content, and seeing how far the bystander effect would extend. "Who left the group? Who felt uncomfortable? Who kept silent because he didn't want to be called a wimp?" Glickman asks.

For women reading through the group's posts, there has been understandable despondence: Despite the vulgar ways women trash-talk men and their various shortcomings when in private female company, is this implicit violence – chloroform? – really how men talk when women aren't around?

"Of course women and men do this, we all size each other up when we walk into a room. … But creating a private club that has membership on campus in a situation where you're working with these women day after day is disturbing," Rosin says. "It creates a hostile environment for women when women find out about it."

There was one heartening point for some watching the fallout at Dalhousie: that the men's vile comments were enshrined online in a space where they self-identified as future dentists – not whispered anonymously in a bar. "There's a 'now we know' reaction, as in we had no idea this was still there," Kimmel says. "Just when we thought we're equal, we can do anything, we hear something like this which reminds us, not so fast. We've got a ways to go."