When Feminism Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Why are we still wondering if female climbers are oppressed?

Here’s something we’ve been seeing everywhere recently—women claiming that sexism doesn’t exist.

They go about this in an interesting way. They admit that sexism exists in certain places and times, but that some areas of society are immune to it. I am unsure as to how they came to this conclusion, because I have yet to see any factual evidence that would prove this claim to be true.

This phenomenon is incredibly perplexing to me. One would think that women everywhere would agree that sexism exists, especially given the current political climate and vast amount of research done on this subject. I was especially concerned when I saw this argument being made in my own community. In a recent article on Evening Sends, Davita Gurian argues that sexism doesn’t exist in rock climbing.

The dangerous and untrue suggestions from Evening Sends

To claim that sexism does not exist in climbing, Gurian reports that “99 percent of the time that a man (or a woman) has spotted me, it seems to be with the intention of preventing me from falling and landing in a dangerous, injurious way.”

While there are many aspects of Gurian’s article that I feel to be damaging and problematic, this was perhaps the most alarming section of the article. She claims that one percent of the time that she is spotted while bouldering, she gets sexually assaulted. Let’s say you’re on a bouldering trip over a long weekend, and you are spotted 100 times. By Gurian’s math, this means that she will be sexually assaulted one time over that weekend.

Now apply these numbers to a year of a female climber’s life. Now apply it to her twenties. Now apply it to her lifetime.

This is not normal. This is not okay.

In a follow up article, Andrew Bisharat argues that this whole disagreement can be chalked up to semantics. He states, “The debate, it seems to me, is primarily over what do we call these examples, and who gets to decide what they are called?” This is confusing to me because our country agreed on the answers to these very questions about half a century ago.

Who “gets to decide” what these examples are called? The law. While these laws vary from state to state, sexual assault is broadly defined as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”

In Gurian’s article, she describes these situations in this manner: “Yes these actions are inappropriate, but they are actions by individual people and they do not reflect systematic oppression.” First of all, it’s “systemic” oppression that we’re talking about here, not “systematic”. Systematic oppression is not a thing. Secondly, using the word “inappropriate” does not accurately describe the reality of the situation. When a man or woman touches another person in a sexual way without consent, it is sexual assault. I didn’t “decide” to call this sexual assault. It is the legal definition of the phrase.

So yes, the situation that Gurian describes in her article is not just inappropriate—it’s illegal.

When Donald Trump bragged about grabbing women by their vaginas, many politicians, news reporters, and media outlets called this sexual assault, which is its correct name. Other people, including Trump himself, falsely called his behavior “locker room talk” when in reality he had just admitted to committing a crime.

It’s important for me to state here that the criminal justice system often fails the victims of sexual assault. These laws are incredibly flawed and complicated, but one would think that Bisharat, a man who often writes articles and comments about women and sexism, would at least be aware of the fact that these terms and situations have been legally defined.

What this says about how women view their bodies

All of this speaks volumes about how American women view their own bodies. It’s as if we don’t think being touched or grabbed without our consent is really that big of a deal. We can see this illustrated in a multide of ways, from Gurian’s article to the 2016 exit polls. In the most recent election, 41% of women voted for Donald Trump, a man who openly bragged about sexually assaulting women. 53% of white women voted for Trump, where as 95% of black women voted for Clinton. What this means is that for many white women, it’s not a deal breaker if a presidential candidate openly admits to sexually assaulting women.

This is incredibly disheartening. In our country, it’s an act of radical feminist rebellion for a woman to view her body as something other than an object for men to control. We have to attend marches and protests holding signs that say “my body, my choice” as if this is some kind of earth-shattering idea. Women are seen as “complainers” or “feminazis” when they suggest that perhaps men should not rape them.

On the flip side, women who claim that other women who write or speak or march against these issues are overreacting get called “laid back” and “brave” and “down to earth”. But what’s really going on is that these women not see their bodies as something that ought to not be sexually assaulted.

To women and men everywhere: Your body is not allowed to be touched in ways that you don’t want it to be touched. And when this happens, you are allowed to be upset and sad and angry. You are not being oversensitive or dramatic. You do not have to get over it or somehow use it as inspiration. You were assaulted. You are a victim of a crime.

And by all means, you are allowed to call this by its correct, legal name — sexual assault.

Why would Gurian claim that sexism doesn’t exist in a sport where 1 out of every 100 times she is spotted while bouldering, she is also sexually assaulted?

Women who side with patriarchy gain access to male privilege

Something else happens when women excuse sexual assault and harassment, claim that sexism doesn’t exist, tell other women that their concerns are based on oversensitivity and resentment towards men—something really interesting.

They are granted access to one of the most powerful clubs in the world—male privilege.

These women are not seen as a threat to the patriarchy and other males who rely heavily on their privilege for their professional success or sense of self, and they are rewarded heavily for this. They are gifted with things that male privilege provides—large media platforms, access to powerful jobs and positions regardless of their qualifications, the ability to hold opinions that are not based on factual information, the spoils of ignorance, the ease of living an unexamined existence, the promise that they are not at all responsible for any of this.

This goes the other way, too. Privilege is disavowed when people stand up for marginalized groups. Just like how white people lose access to some of their white privilege when they listen to and stand in solidarity with people of color, women (and men) who vocally support women lose part of their male privilege.

The women who oppose sexism see the protections of male privilege as more desirable than solidarity with other women. I am not judging them for that. The gifts of male privilege are very attractive, and it’s really easy to access. Women can do this with one article, one Facebook comment, one sentence, one word. Femi-nazi usually gets the job done swiftly. But this absolutely needs to change. Male privilege is a small thing to give up considering what’s at stake.

By placing the blame on women, they excuse men. By excusing men, they promote sexism.

My experience

Writing about feminism and rock climbing has been one of the most sobering experiences of my life. When I started doing this a few years ago, I had no idea just how bad this problem really was. Upon writing my very first article on this subject, something interesting happened—I started receiving messages and emails from female climbers. These messages contained stories. Their stories. Female stories. Stories of being raped on a climbing trip, of being physically abused by their climber boyfriend, of feeling threatened and afraid in remote areas with a male climbing partner, of being sexually harassed as a route setter, of being paid less than their male counterparts at the climbing gym, of comments about their body while climbing, of being called a cunt by professional male climbers, of being harassed and attacked by editors of climbing magazines for speaking about sexism. As of this morning, I have received over 100 messages like this.

If any of that is surprising to you, you haven’t been listening. Wake up.

I can only imagine how it must feel to the many women who have been the victim of sexual assault and rape in rock climbing when they read the thousands of comments and numerous articles on social media about how what they experienced doesn’t even exist.

These women should not have to tell us their stories. These stories are painful and they should not have to share them in order for the climbing community to know that sexism is real. This community should trust its female members when we say that sexism exists here. That should be more than enough.

It’s a matter of education, and it’s on all of us

To be honest, it is embarassing that prominent members of the climbing community are questioning if sexism even exists, citing conservative think tanks as sources, and using phrases like “complaint feminism” (this is not real) when the rest of the world is entering into a complex conversation about intersectionality. I take responsibility for the fact that my community is not educated about these issues. In my opinion, this is part of my job as a member of society and as a human being.

Not only do I take responsibility for the undereducation of my community, but I also want to address the fact that feminist movement in climbing has sometimes failed female climbers of color. I am very sorry. Please let me know how we can do better. I will listen.

This is not a matter of semantics or political correctness. This is a matter of education. We can take heart in that, because it means that the issue is changeable. I truly believe that this community, like the rest of the world, is filled with well-meaning people who are all very confused about what the hell is going on right now. We are all scared for different reasons. We are trying desperately to make sense of what’s happening in our country, in our communities, and in our own minds. But if we want to come to sane and smart conclusions about all of this, we need to educate ourselves and our communities.

For the climbing community, this is going to be hard and uncomfortable work. But the energy behind these conversations means that we care and have the heart for this.

It’s time that we take feminism further—far enough to reach us all.