Sexism, Racism, Exclusivity, and Privilege in Climbing

In no way do the thoughts or ideas expressed in this article reflect the opinions of Moja Gear. We do, however, support a platform for freedom of expression and open discussion within the climbing community.

We climbers are lovers.

We’re hungry.

We’re ice ascenders, gym rats, swear-by sport routers, bouldering maniacs, outdoor enthusiasts, highball addicts, top rope tough guys, weekend warriors. Our subcultures will make your head spin, but we belong to the same club. And we are usually proud of that.

But I want to talk.

Because after all of our first ascents, free ascents, and failed attempts on the rock, in the gym, and on the ice, there’s still one aspect of our collective culture that seems to flail—and it has nothing to do with hauling our bodies up granite.

It’s how we do (or don’t) do exactly that—talk. About the difficult things I mean. The uncomfortable ones.

How do we talk about sexism in climbing? Racism? Exclusivity? Privilege?

In a community of mostly really good and well-intentioned folks who just love the outdoors, we also need to realize that most of us are white, and the majority are still male. Climbing is a sport that was, with some exceptions, established by white men. This is important (and recent!) historical context when we talk about sexism or any other type of oppression in climbing today.

That means, among other things, that we’re not very good about talking about oppression in the first place. It usually takes a lot of work to recognize our own privilege. Most of us have been and continue to be an integral part of an oppressive machine, and that’s a hard thing to come to terms with. Especially when we feel like we’re good people, and climbing isn’t about oppression!

The terms white fragility and male fragility are really important here. Stay with me, because these terminologies are manifested in an overwhelming amount of conversations I’ve had about sexism or race issues in climbing. Robin DiAngelo, who is credited with coining the term white fragility, defines it as this:

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.

The same definition can be applied to gender.

Okay, so considering that the vast majority of anyone either white or male will have demonstrated this type of fragility at some point, and considering that this is also a large demographic of climbers, I think it’s important that we acknowledge that climbing does not exist in a vacuum.

I’m a white female, and I’ve been a climber for 8 years. I worked as a climbing instructor and desk staffer for Berkeley Ironworks, a San Francisco East Bay climbing gym, for two of them.

In that time, I’ve faced many subtle and a few outrageously sexist experiences in the gym and at the crag. The little things, like when climbers assume that the man I’m with taught me to climb, bother me. The bigger things bother me too; like when I was told by a man roughly my age that

a little girl can’t tell me how to lead climb

after failing him on his lead test for unsafe practices. Or when I signed up for membership a man in his 50s who, upon learning that the membership price at the time was $69, asked me if that was how I liked it. He then asked me if I liked it “tight,” like how climbing shoes were supposed to fit. Then he grabbed my ass, and then he was escorted out of the gym.

I have tens upon tens of stories like that. Add the experiences of other female climbers I’ve spoken with, and you’ll get thousands.

An accomplished climber and friend of mine once said that the experience of sexism (or any other type of oppression) can be like wearing a trad rack. One piece isn’t that heavy. But start adding them up, and it changes completely your ability to climb up the wall. It’s awkward. It’s suddenly massive. And it’s a pain in the ass.

Here’s what I’ve noticed:

There has been a quantifiable lack of public discussion about what sexism really means and how it presents in the context of climbing on a large scale—because that requires a close look at what sexism means and how it presents in general. We’ve heard plenty of interviews with badass female climbers who touch on what it means to be a “successful” woman in the world of climbing, like this one with Alex Johnson or this interview with Hazel Findlay.

Occasionally there’s an article about sexism in climbing media prompted by an article title like this Enormocast episode, or an article about how the climbing media isn’t sexist, you are in response to some random photo Sasha DiGulian posted about herself on her Instagram page. It’s not that these articles are wrong or that they fail to engage in the discussion, but they do miss an overarching point.

We’re quick to throw one or two examples out there and say “this isn’t a problem” or “it is,” but the fallacy of any jump to conclusion is that it fails the diligence test. We need to look at all of the moving parts, within and outside of climbing. That includes the climbing media, non-climbing media, how we as climbers react to that media, gym culture, dirtbag culture, sexism, and racism, classism … and the list goes on.

As climbers, we’re not immune to the same institutional biases and discrimination that are present in every other aspect of our lives. In fact, all of these things are interconnected, and it’s time that the climbing world acknowledged that we may, in fact, still be part of the problem.

Take this opinion article on Female First Ascents. It was written by a male. That in and of itself is interesting. It’s not inherently bad, but it should certainly address the discussion of subject matter and it’s relationship to the space one chooses to occupy. As a white person, for example, it is not always my space to talk about race. It’s a fine line to walk, because that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t think about it and I shouldn’t have meaningful conversations about it. It certainly doesn’t mean I shouldn’t acknowledge it.

However, neither am I qualified to postulate on what is holding black people back or allowing them to push themselves forward in a public space, because I’m white. That means that whatever perspective I’m coming from, my whiteness has informed it in some way. Oppression is historically based on speaking over the oppressed, so my voice as a white person shouldn’t dominate the discussion. This is uncomfortable, but it is also true.

This article should acknowledge that as a man it is impossible to separate the maleness that informs the bias and experience of the author, and that it would be impossible to fully understand the reasons why FFAs are problematic or not. That’s up to women. And frankly, it’s up to each individual woman faced with that choice, though it’s an interesting discussion on a broad scale as well. But it’s important that as an entire community, across all of our subcultures, we can talk about these things respectfully, and with the knowledge of our own contexts.

Perhaps it goes without saying that it’s not just sexism. Every time I walk into the gym or I’m roping up at the crag, I can’t help but ask myself:

Why is it that climbing is such a racially homogenous sport? Who should even be answering that question? Whose responsibility is it to be proactively inclusionary anyways?

There are a million questions like these. And they’re loaded. What is exceedingly crucial to me as a climber that we are able to talk about these issues non-violently. When the climbing community is faced with issues of identity, morality, and responsibility, we need to be able to take a deep breath, to remember where our privileges are, and to try and stand up against our own fragility in reacting to them.

Us climbers, we are lovers. We’re thinkers, problem solvers, we’re hungry for the next thing. We’re hungry for the send, for our friends, for the campfire, for the quiet of the boulders or the noise of a comp. We should ask the tough questions, and we should take the same time, respect, and diligence that climbing demands to determine how to ask them, when to ask them, and how to go about answering them.

Agree? Disagree? Have a question for Amanda? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.