If you follow me on Instagram, you saw the picture. It was a Tuesday, midday. I’ve been eagerly absorbing some of the new books out on training for climbing this season, and had gone to the local gym to do an “ARC” workout. This basically involves doing 2-3 sets of 25-30 minutes of climbing (traversing) with the goal to stay just under the “pumped” feeling in your forearms. You do work up a light sweat. Which is why half way though my first set, I got to a rest spot and removed my shirt to continue on in a sports bra and the yoga capris I had on. After finishing my first set, I was doing my prescribed 10 minute rest when the gym’s owner struck up a conversation with me. It started off benignly enough, and then he slipped it in the conversation like a mom hiding veggies in her kids’ meatloaf: he said that what I was wearing was fine for now (I was the only person there at the time) but if any children came, I would need to cover up because what I was wearing was not appropriate for children.
He might as well have walked up to me and slapped me across the face.
I asked him (nicely) how my outfit was inappropriate for children when I was much more covered than a woman in a bikini at the beach, a setting that families with children often go to. His argument was that a family is more prepared to see that at the beach than at the gym. Not prepared to see women in gym clothes at the gym? Really??? Perhaps sensing that he had just pissed off the big, bad, feminist, he back-paddled, stating that it was simply the gym’s policy and that if a guy was climbing shirtless, they would also be asked to cover up.
Shell-shocked and wanting to finish my workout, I acquiesced by agreeing to cover up if kids suddenly materialized in the gym, but continued my work out in the offending outfit. However, I was so bothered by the whole exchange, I couldn’t focus. I felt body-shamed. I felt uncomfortable. I felt wrong. I felt like I had been sexualized without my consent while doing an activity that I don’t equate with sexuality at all. And I was angry that those feelings had been put on me at a climbing gym.
‘Cuz here’s the thing. There is nothing inherently ‘inappropriate’ about a woman in a sports bra and yoga pants at a gym. And there is nothing inherently ‘inappropriate’ about a woman’s body for children. Children come from, and are initially sustained by, a woman body’s for crying out loud. Children don’t sexualize a woman’s body, adults do that for them. That is why I felt so uncomfortable after the exchange- by claiming it was for the protection of innocent children, children who weren’t even present at the time, this guy had just gone there. He had made it a sexual thing.
Some of the guys reading this may be saying, ‘so what?’ Well here’s the problem: how is sexualizing my gym outfit I’m wearing at the gym different from telling a woman she has to wear a burka because seeing her wrist or ankle might ‘tempt a man to sin’? It’s not. Its the same logical framework. In both cases, self-control is co-opted from the (in this case) heterosexual male, with responsibility being forced upon the female victim. Aside from the sheer unfairness of this, if I were a man, I would be appalled that society thought so little of me as to equate me to an unneutered dog, simply following my urge to hump everything in sight. Did you really climb to the top of the evolutionary ladder to create excuses to act like an animal? Was all the energy nature put into evolving human beings to have the largest frontal lobes of any species before or since, all for naught? Isn’t this exactly what we are saying to males in our society when we use ‘boys will be boys’ as a justification for rape? Or when we take away from a girl’s education to enforce a dress code so as ‘not to distract the boys?’
Don’t get me wrong, if I had children, I would police what my daughter wore in public. Why? Because the unfortunate reality is that we live in a culture where this garbage happens. Where victim-blaming is pervasive and where a woman’s outfit still garners the reaction, ‘she was asking for it.’ And if I had son, I would teach him self-control. That there is nothing wrong with his sexuality, but as a human member of society, it is HIS responsibility to control the expression of his sexuality. That all women should be treated with respect and as fellow human beings, not simply objects of his own sexual gratification. And most importantly, I would teach him that bodies in workout clothing in a gym, or bathing suits at a beach can be viewed without attaching any sexuality to them.
In the end, I ended my workout early and asked the owner (politely) to show me where in the waiver it explicitly outlined the dress code. He could not. It was not in the rules posted on wall (though the rule specifying shoes must be worn was important enough to warrant mention there) nor was it in the written form I had initialed and signed acknowledging the gym policy’s at the outset. Citing my extreme discomfort with how this non-policy seemed to be capriciously enforced, I asked for, and was granted, a refund. Perhaps sensing the big pile of bullshit he had just just stepped in, the owner meekly reassured me that I was still welcome back anytime I wanted, provided I wear children-appropriate climbing attire of course.
As I walked out to my car, still reeling from the byzantine exchange I had just experienced, the man followed me out to my car with a copy of the operations manual (available to employees) in hand to show me where it was a written policy that shirts were required by all gym-goers. Pro tip for the guys out there: if you have just been a creepster, sexualized a woman’s outfit and shamed her body for being inappropriate for children, following her out to her car is NOT a good idea as this will serve only to maker her feel more vulnerable and further violated. I pointed out to him that if he was so adamant about this policy, it would behoove him to post it on the wall and also rewrite his waiver so that it is explicitly stated to climbers upon their first visit to the gym.
Luckily, I think this incident was an out-lying data point within the climbing community. I think most climbers are completely comfortable with seeing members of the opposite gender climbing shirtless. We can see it and appreciate the pleasurable visual representative of their strength without going to Creepy-town about it. But I tell this story because I am not so naive as to think ‘it can’t happen here, not in our community.’ The fact is that I climb with a lot of women. Every last one of us have of our stories of male partners making unwanted, un-encouraged sexual advances while climbing or on climbing trips- the lean-in for a kiss before you take her off belay, the ‘extra-special’ spot while bouldering that involves an unsolicited grope of her bum, or the ‘oops I forgot the second tent, guess we’ll have to share my one-person tent’ trick. Sometimes it more insidious: telling a woman that you only lowered yourself to climb at her level because you thought you were going to get laid or getting angry and making passive aggressive comments when she insists on booking separate rooms for your climbing trip. (The first one happened to me personally, the second to a climbing partner of mine.) This is how rape culture presents itself in our community- when female climbers are treated like objects of sexual gratification instead of fellow climbers. Furthermore, unwanted kissing, groping and touching constitute sexual assault.
What I am NOT trying to do here is hate on climber-dudes. As a heterosexual woman, I love and appreciate all my male climber friends, but as climbers and friends. My intent here is to show that facets of rape culture exist even in our little sub-culture, but even more than that, I want to see more women climbing. I want to see more women being comfortable in the mountains, taking the lead and really growing as people because of their participation in our sport. Climbing has taught me so many wonderful things, I’d like other women to have that same opportunity. But it’s going to be hard to create those opportunities if one of the objective risks of the sport is sexual objectification and possibly even assault. Since most of the climber guys I talk to seem very keen on finding a romantic relationship with a female climbing partner, it behooves them to also see more women participating in the sport. So fellas, here’s some quick tips to do your part:
- Use common sense. If you wouldn’t spot your buddy with a hand on his ass, don’t do it to a woman. If you would like to touch a woman beyond what would be normal in climbing, simply ask permission. It hopefully goes without saying that if she denies you permission, do not go ahead with it anyway.
- If you meet a climber chick you are interested in dating, do not ‘climbing date’ her. You can go climbing together to get to know her initially, but if you develop romantic feelings toward her and find yourself wanting to touch her or have contact beyond what you would with a male climbing partner, ask her permission, and take her on proper date. We’re psyched about climbing too and when we’re climbing, we want to focus on the climbing! So let’s save that awkwardness of a date for a non-climbing time and venue.
That’s it. My two rules for weeding out rape culture in the climbing community and making it a more, fun, welcoming, positive place for us all.