Climbing Bros, Your Ironic Sexism is Still Sexist

Photo: Kentaroo Tryman / Getty Images

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During the 2021 USA Climbing National Team Trials, I watched in awe as male and female speed climbers scaled walls in less time than it takes me to do a single burpee. The athletes shared videos of their successes on Instagram after the event, and I watched them on a loop, flinching when someone would slip, exhaling when they recovered gracefully and slapped the timer at the top.

Emma Hunt, a young Team USA climber and Evolv Athlete posted a 7.56 second run, setting a women’s American speed climbing record three times over. You can hear spectators screaming in the background, and Emma clenches her fists and kicks her feet in happiness as she’s lowered. I don’t know her, but I felt elated for her.

I went to the comments section to see what her followers were saying. Kyra Condie replied with “I haven’t gotten over how sick this was,” with emojis of heart-eyes and flames following. So many more congratulated her.

There was one comment that stuck out to me, though. A comment that men and women both had liked read, “Wow you ascended that wall like Alex Honnold, do you know who that is? Have you seen Free Solo?” It was clearly a joke; Emma had reached new heights in women’s speed climbing. Of course she knew who Honnold was. Of course she had seen Free Solo.

The comment was supposedly harmless and masked by great applause by other peers or fans, but this wasn’t the first time I’d seen this behavior in the climbing community. 

I’ll be impressed when I see sub 7, but nice I guess.” “Have you tried climbing something a bit easier?” “Looks like you might need my help on this one…”

I see ironic misogynist jokes on female rock climbers’ Instagram accounts consistently. Alissa Quart coined this practice hipster sexism, writing that it, “consists of the objectification of women but in a manner that uses mockery, quotation marks, and paradox.”

Men decide it’s funny to act like misogynists and correct a woman’s training regime, give unwanted advice, or leave a comment on an impressive send in hopes that she understands he’s mocking other guys, who do, say, and act the same way as he does. This kind of rhetoric is regressive to our goals as a climbing community if we truly want to achieve a space where everyone feels welcome, and everyone’s achievements are acknowledged.

I know that when I see these as an average rock climber, I don’t laugh. I see that I could be a professional Olympic climber and there would still be men trying to turn my accomplishment into a joke. No matter what, my perception of myself and my accomplishments would still be held hostage by a man’s perception of me and my ability.

Emma Pitman wrote in The Lifted Brow about women retaliating against these ironic jokes. “Where it can no longer afford to operate through violence or coercion, patriarchy operates via emotional manipulation . . . [irony] repositions women’s objections to sexism back toward the role historically cast for them as being hysterical, sensitive and better seen than heard.” No space is left for women to stand up for themselves during these “funny” interactions and say, “Hey, could you not make this accomplishment about men who have diminished my talents?”

Climbing comes with so many struggles, like eating disorders and body dysmorphia which are both prevalent issues across our community.  How can we feel free to climb and make mistakes when we feel constantly scrutinized and at the whim of male commentary on our bodies and abilities, which only perpetuate these issues? A study by Michael Inzlicht and Talia Ben-Zeev published in Psychological Science demonstrated that women perform problem-solving tasks worse when men are in the room. The authors concluded that, “merely placing high-achieving females in a stereotyped setting, in which they are in contact with males, causes a decrease in their performance. This phenomenon highlights the indirect environmental effects of negative stereotypes on the targets of these stereotypes and adds to the growing literature on the social and cognitive effects of belonging to a stigmatized group.” With the rise of social media, it’s like we are now always in a stereotyped setting and subject to these comments, both ironic and sincere.

I personally compare myself to the male climbers around me because of comments like this, and consequently, prove them right because of my feelings of inadequacy that they have created.

Climbing is supposed to be a communal sport that mostly lives on public land and is accessible to all climbers, but for me, it’s the space in my life where I’ve felt the most self-conscious. I have to fight to stay climbing, and I shouldn’t have to. I remind myself that the days I say “I don’t like climbing,” I mean, “I don’t like the culture of rock climbing.” 

The language that we use in and outside of the crag have consequences. Women climbers need allies in this community. So, next time you see the accomplishment of a woman in climbing, support her with your words and actions. Don’t spend time copying the men who still perpetuate misogyny, because you’re only contributing to the problem.

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