Sasha DiGulian, Joe Kinder, and the Reframing of Normal

How a male professional climber created a fake Instagram in order to bully at least two young women, and felt supported in doing so.

Melise Edwards-Welbourn. Photo: Andrea Sassenrath

Last week, Sasha DiGulian wrote an Instagram post that broke the Climbing Internet. For those who somehow haven’t heard of her, Sasha DiGulian is one of the most accomplished climbers in the world and continues to break trail for a new generation of intelligent, supportive, fun-loving, and strong climbers. While the climbing community has slowly circled around the issue of gender-based harassment for the last few years, Sasha’s post cut straight to the core of the matter, and did so in a way that was unfortunately relatable for so many people of marginalized genders. In her post, she alerted our community that a fellow professional climber, Joe Kinder, had been bullying and harassing her. She described the situation as malicious and ongoing. A few years ago, I saw instances of this harassment myself, where Joe would create degrading memes on Snapchat in an attempt to shame Sasha. In her post, Sasha expressed that she had privately contacted Joe in the hopes he would stop harassing her, but to no avail. Shortly after Sasha posted her story, Courtney Sanders, another female professional rock climber, came forward and said that she too had been bullied by Joe. The nature of the bullying described by both women focused on the apparent flaws that Joe found with their bodies.

Eventually Joe apologized to Sasha, in the way that most men who are publicly called out like this seem to do. In a statement that vaguely resembled taking responsibility, he blamed a variety of strange things for his behavior. He said that because he was a “skater-kid punk” with a “harsh sense of humor” that he was sort of just used to making harmful jokes all of the time, which is a notion that I find insulting to skaters, kids, punks, and senses of humor everywhere.

He also articulated a strong desire to not be “connected” to bullying and harmful content, which is a generally unhelpful preference to express after you’ve been publicly exposed for bullying and harmful content.

There are other aspects of his statement that we could dissect, but that is not the main purpose of this article. This is bigger than one person. In fact, if I ignore his presence within the larger culture of climbing, his actions are unfortunate but generally uninteresting to me. And perhaps most importantly, using a narrow and individualistic lens when looking at these issues creates a dynamic where we focus on the symptom and not the cause. So this really isn’t about him. His behavior simply acts as a portal to examine something that is usually hidden away in the dark underbelly of this community.

Or maybe picture this—you’re climbing El Cap. You’re fifteen pitches up and you’ve been fiddling with gear for a few minutes, examining this one tiny section of the crack. You’ve studied it so well. You finally get the gear just right, and then something shifts. You suddenly remember that the small section of rock you just spent so much time analyzing is only one part of the entire pitch. You remember that this pitch is just one of many on El Cap. Even further, you remember that El Cap is just one cliff in all of Yosemite. I invite you to zoom out that far with me. Let’s look at this with a lens as big as the Valley.

From out here, what becomes important is not that a 38-year-old man created a fake Instagram in order to bully at least two young women, but the fact that he felt supported in doing so.

Joe did not act alone. His choice to bully people needed to be supported in order for it to seem like a viable way of behaving. Climbing culture is the thing that gave him that support.

Although Joe eventually lost his main sponsors because of his choices, he is one of the only professional climbers to actually be held accountable for harmful behavior. There are many other instances where prominent members of the climbing community have acted hateful towards the land, women, or other marginalized groups, were publicly called out, and have had absolutely nothing happen to them. Joe probably saw these dynamics happening and felt justified and safe in his own actions. It’s also likely that he experienced the safety of his privileged position firsthand, and assumed he could continue to act badly without consequences. I am making these assumptions because I can’t imagine that he would knowingly risk his career to tell women what he doesn’t like about their bodies.

I also assume that there were people in close proximity to Joe who knew about the harassment and did nothing. In fact, more than one of Joe’s high-powered male friends publicly defended his actions and shamed Sasha and Courtney’s. It took two women coming forward and an entire wave of disgusted and enraged climbers for his sponsors to drop him. Before this happened, these brands were actively supporting Joe in his pursuit.

Let’s peel back another important layer here—rock climbing is a white male dominated sport. Only 29% of sponsored rock climbers are women. Only 4.5% of climbing guidebooks are written by women. We use a grading system that was created by men and is still predominantly upheld and maintained by white men. White men create most of the routes in climbing gyms. White men hold most of the powerful positions in the climbing industry. White men write most of our content and create most of our media.

Rock climbing is also a pursuit that relies heavily on things like privilege and access to indigenous land. It tends to glorify a colonialist attitude and conquering things. It promotes the shirking of responsibility. And just like society at large, this community actively promotes misogyny, white supremacy, ableism, rape culture, homophobia, transphobia, body shaming, and the erasure of native narratives. If you’re unsure about any of this, just read through the comments on pretty much any given Outside Magazine post.

It is also interesting that upon hearing of Joe being dropped from his main sponsors, hundreds of male climbers felt that it was okay to publicly express their continuing support for a man who harasses women. They also felt comfortable voicing their hatred for the women who were victims of his behavior as well as the brands that dropped him.

This is why he could do what he did.

It’s important to note that Sasha and Courtney’s call outs do not exist within a vacuum either. Just like Joe’s behavior, their choices were supported by something larger as well. Their posts stand on a foundation that was created by the many grassroots feminist climbing initiatives currently happening, many of which are run by women of color. Their stories also occur within the broader context of #metoo, a movement that was created by a black woman. So because of the efforts of other women, mostly women of color, their posts were well-received by many people and taken seriously by the industry in ways that mattered. Sasha and Courtney are also white women, so they have resources that are generally unavailable to people of color and privilege that provides them with the ability to not only make these kind of public statements, but have their stories believed. Of course none of this takes away from the incredible bravery that both of these women have displayed; it would just be disingenuous to not mention the things that contributed to an environment where they were able to do what they did.

So now we’re left with this question: what do we do about this? Remember that we’re zoomed way out right now, looking at all of Yosemite Valley. From here we can see that this isn’t just one chossy flake, but an entire rotten crack system that’s dangerous to the members of our community.

When we’re dealing with widespread, poisonous frameworks like this, one effective way to create change is to reframe what is considered normal. I don’t want it to be normal in the climbing community for an adult man to be supported in creating a fake Instagram made to bully climbers. I don’t want it to be normal for hundreds of men to feel comfortable expressing their outrage at companies that decide to sever a business relationship with an employee who did not act according to company standards. I don’t want it to be normal for people to blame Sasha and Courtney for the failure of Joe’s career. I don’t want it to be normal for people to not believe women. And I don’t want it to be normal for a large portion of a community to heroize a person who harms others.

I want it to be normal for women to be supported in our community. I want it to be normal for us to acknowledge our reliance upon indigenous people and their land. I want it to be normal for marginalized people to be sponsored by climbing companies and published in magazines. I want it to be normal for white women to acknowledge the ways that they benefit from the efforts of women of color. I want it to be normal for us to believe women. I want it to be normal for us to be nice to each other.

In order for these shifts to happen, we need the powerful entities in this community—brands, professional athletes, media makers, and white men—to start using their privilege to promote something better.

Sasha and Courtney felt that being bullied was not normal and decided to do something about it. Black Diamond and La Sportiva helped shift our idea of normal with their decision to drop Joe. We need more of this. We need climbing companies to take a hard look at who they sponsor, because by giving a harmful person access to resources, gear, and media, brands are actively supporting harm. We need white men to loudly denounce harassment and other forms of oppression in their public and private lives. We need media makers to start representing people who are not able-bodied white men. We need women of color in positions of power. We need women to be able to set routes in gyms without being harassed by their coworkers. We need women’s stories to be taken seriously. And when I say women, I am not just talking about prominent white women. Women who are not well known, women of color, and women from other marginalized groups need to feel like they too can safely come forward and have their words be taken seriously.

Joe Kinder, Sasha DiGulian, and Courtney Sanders are all products of climbing culture. From this, we can see that there are some positive things about this community but that there is a structure in place that supports the oppression of certain people. This cannot be normal anymore. This must change. We need to envision something new, something better for all of us.

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