I’m stuck at the Port of Rochester in New York, waiting to take off on a research cruise for my job as a water resource scientist. It’s too windy to leave so to burn the afternoon, I wander down to the pier. I see 15 wetsuit-clad kiteboarders cruising along the shoreline. I watch them shift and pull their weight against the wind in their sails above. It looks so fun.
I try a few Snapchat videos, failing to capture the surfers in the right moment they hit a wave and catch air. They fly up, and pause, and then some expertly set themselves back down like dolls walking on water. But more often, they fly up, pause, and then crash down into the water with a splash, their sails still high in the sky to pull them back up. I am captivated by the melodic lines they draw back and forth across the crashing waves, and even falling looks fun.
I start wondering how I can try this. There must be kiteboarding my hometown of Duluth, with the waves and the wind and the big lake. The muscles you use are probably the same ones I use rock climbing, so maybe I’d be half good at it. As someone sits down in shallow water and lets the wind pull his sail and body upright and out into deeper water, and think, I could do that.
Then I realize that of the 15 neoprene-clad bodies anchoring 15 sails in the sky, none are women. In fact, most of the surfers appear to be older men at that. It’s a Sunday, the wind and waves seem to be perfect for surfing, and the only people here doing it are old men.
I finally get a decent video and annotate it, “This looks seriously fun. Why are they all men?” I send it to a few of my climbing friends, and I get several responses from female friends to the tune of, “Yeah it does, get out there and try it!” Then I get a response from a male friend, “What’s stopping you from getting out there with them?”
My fingers are too cold to type so I ponder as I walk back to the research vessel. The comment isn’t all that different from the other responses, which felt encouraging. But his response irritated me so much that my heart started racing. As my fingers warmed back up, I typed out my response, thinking it clever, though snarky for sure: “Presumably the same institutional barriers that created the current situation in which none of the 15 kiteboarders out there are female.”
I reflected a bit on why his response bothered me so much. Clearly my physical reaction seemed more than warranted, but why?
When I was in college, I studied abroad in the island nation of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean. I was in a very foreign country, fully alone for the first time, mostly faking it and pretending I was an adult (Since then, I’ve learned that this is basically what everyone does their entire life, but that’s another story). Along with 6 other female expats, I started scuba diving lessons with Pascal. As time went by Pascal invited me to secret lunches, loaned me his bike, flirted with me, and confided in me; and asked me not to tell the others. When we were scuba diving, he would take my hand and intimately rub his thumb on my palm, and show me something magical, a puffer fish swimming by or an eel coming out of a crack in the bedrock.
Scuba diving was well outside my comfort zone. It was the first time in my life that I experienced real anxiety. I used all my mental power through the descent, using mantras and focusing on long, slow, controlled breaths. My ears would hurt and refuse to pop as I went down, and I would go back up to the surface in a panic, my heart beating like crazy. Pascal coached me and told me that the pain was in my head, a mental symptom of my anxiety. I trusted Pascal.
Once, this happened and I listened to Pascal and pushed through it, eventually popping my ear as we went down. Wow, it all was in my head, I realized as I enjoyed the rest of the dive. When we came back up to the surface, Pascal watched me as blood poured out of the nose piece of my mask as I took it off my face. I had popped a blood vessel in my nose at depth, probably from some congestion in my sinuses. My ear pain was real after all, and if it had been a different blood vessel that popped, it could have turned out much worse. I should not have dove that day at all.
Pascal recommended I take a couple weeks off until my congestion cleared. I did, and then I resumed diving with Pascal. That was about the time the girls started telling each other what Pascal said to each of us in private. We realized he was saying the same things to all of us, petting each of our palms intimately during dives. We also found out he just had a newborn a few weeks earlier, not to mention that he was married. The other ladies, a few years older than me, maybe were wise enough to see through it all from the beginning. Or maybe not. Either way, they brushed it off, so I acted like I did too. I felt manipulated, foolish, distrustful. Our cultural differences made the situation even more confusing. Yet I continued to dive with him until I left the country.
No one in our community called out Pascal for his actions, but others had to have seen it. I was young and naive and didn’t know better. We were in a vulnerable position; he was in a position of power. We are all in that position at some point, and it’s not only when we’re young. I want to believe that when I go outside my comfort zone to face a fear and learn something new, I can trust my teachers; both to respect me and to ensure my safety. Pascal did neither.
Outside Magazine recently conducted a survey that found 70% of over 4,000 respondents had been harassed in the outdoors or while working in the outdoor industry. Alpinist magazine recently conducted a systematic study that found 47% of women and 16% of men have had experiences while doing climbing-related activities that could be classified as sexual harassment or assault. Outside of outdoor sports, four in five women has experienced and reported sexual harassment (compared to 43% of men). One in five women will be raped in their lives.
These statistics are alarming and make me want to cry. And they are considered low estimates because of stigmas associated with reporting sexual harassment or assault.
In addition to my experience with Pascal, I have experienced assorted other forms of sexual harassment and assault. Once when hiking in the woods, a man passed me, waited for me, and then grab my breast as I passed him. When I was waiting for a bus to leave a bus station, a man boarded the bus, sat directly next to me, pull out his penis, and started jerking off. A man followed my housemate and I home one night and circled our house as we called the police. And like every other woman, I have been catcalled many more times than I can remember. These are just the strangers; this list does not begin to account for the transgressions of men I’ve dated. These experiences don’t just fade off into the depths of my memory and disappear. They affect how I see the world, and how I act and react to situations, especially those in which I am vulnerable.
I have not gone diving since I was in Mauritius. My experience learning to dive reverberates in my life as extra fear and intimidation to do adventurous things, despite still having that itch to do them. I am especially nervous when it means putting my life in the hands of men. And more often than not, it is men that hold the key to entry to adventure sports. Only 13 percent of PADI Master Instructors are women. In the American Mountain Guides Association, women account for just 11% of ski-guiding personnel, and 9% of rock, alpine or ski mountaineering guides.
Both women and men should hold equal keys to entry. Now, I find it liberating and often easier to learn from women. I should not have to search far to see other women doing what I want to learn to do. I should not have to search far for female guides teach me how to do it.
My other experiences getting into outdoor sports since I learned to dive have had more subtle notes of gender bias. I tried rock climbing three times before it stuck: first at a YMCA summer camp where I was a counselor; then at my university’s climbing wall; then with my climber boyfriend in graduate school. Each time, I felt awkward, weak, stupid, and incredibly intimidated around the other staff and climbers involved, the majority of whom were men. Each time, I liked climbing, but felt so uncomfortable and intimidated that I never went back. Then three years ago, a friend and I tried rock climbing again. I needed a new hobby and a new community after finishing graduate school. But I knew that if I was going to try again, I had to go all in. With 10 years-worth of wisdom since my first try, and a good dose of faking it, I overcame my insecurities enough to start climbing regularly. Three years later, I am fully addicted to climbing.
Of course, most of my climbing mentors and friends have been guys. And, most of the men I climb with are close and wonderful friends. Many of them have taught me much of what I know about outdoor climbing. Not to mention they loan me their trucks and tools, help me repair my house, watch my dog, allow me to show them my disgusting feet, distract me from work, and often make me laugh uncontrollably. They support and encourage me and now that I think of it, I probably owe them all beers, handknit hats, cash, or at the very least, thank yous. I am grateful to each of them.
I know it is a fine line between stereotyping men and talking about things that need talking about. This needs talking about.
Because in addition to the supportive, wonderful male climbing friends out there in the world, there are also others who are just greasy as Pascal. My own experiences include interactions with climbing gym staff who pulled similar tricks as Pascal, paying uncomfortable compliments and playing secret favorites with me and a close friend. Another made jokes objectifying women. Harmless? Perhaps harmless to me now that I am a little wiser, but no more appropriate than Pascal.
All of my fellow female routesetters at our local climbing gym received awkward resistance when we became routesetters, despite many of us having numerous years of technical outdoor climbing experience. When we started, we weren’t evaluated based on our technical knowledge of climbing, but we were asked to publicly state our climbing grade, a notoriously subjective measure of how hard of routes we can climb. We are not given the same autonomy that male routesetters with equal experience have. Its hard for me to maintain my desire to keep setting. My male friends attribute this to a difficult personality. This is a problematic, dismissive attitude, because women systemically face more “difficult personalities” than men do.
These experiences accumulate over years in each of us, and many drop out because it is easier and less frustrating. Or in my case with scuba diving, because of particularly bad experiences. These subtle (and in some cases not-so-subtle) barriers make it difficult for women to advance their skills and abilities. They’re often hard to describe and easily dismissed as one-offs. But they are pervasive, and they lead to fewer women pursuing more advanced objectives and careers in the outdoor industry, and thus the dearth of female professional guides. And this, of course, is the same trend seen in all historically male-dominated fields out there: fewer females present at more advanced levels.
So, why does it piss me off when a male friend asks me what’s stopping me from getting into kiteboarding, like it isn’t blatantly clear?
It is because his words are a challenge, implying that if I let something stop me from doing it, I am somehow to blame. It places the blame of social and institutional barriers to enter outdoor sports on the women that are systemically excluded. His comment neglects to acknowledge that there are reasons that no women are out kiteboarding on Lake Ontario this afternoon, neglects to acknowledge that those things need to change, and neglects to acknowledge that he needs to be part of that change. His comment neglects to acknowledge my experiences, which are not unlike the experiences of many, many other women.
Women alone cannot be expected to break down the barriers of gender bias.
For things to change, men can no longer ignore or dismiss that these barriers exist. That means that fundamentally men must believe and acknowledge women’s experiences. And then, to truly be supportive, men must do more than be good listeners and good friends. They must share the responsibility to break down barriers by calling out friends, coworkers, bosses, and strangers when they see or hear about inappropriate behavior.
And why are similar words coming from other women not offensive? I’m not sure. Maybe it is because I have talked with many of them about their similar experiences. I wish I could share some of the similar stories I have heard from them, but they are not my stories to tell. Or, maybe it is because I know without words that we are in this together. Those women are out there already helping break down walls.
Don’t worry, I found a friend of a friend who can take me kiteboarding. And she’s a she! Maybe this time I’ll just jump the barrier. But don’t worry, I don’t intend to let anything stop me this time.