Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mixed Messages: What’s a Woman Rock Climber to Do?

I’ve always been amazed at how social dynamics in the climbing world reflect and often exaggerate the rest of my world. Should be no surprise really. We recreate social dynamics in every facet of our lives so climbing should be no different. The funny thing is that I tend to overlook the dynamic when it’s happening outside of climbing, or maybe just accept it as status quo, and then look more closely at it when I see it repeated in my climbing life.

One of those social dynamics I see recreated in the climbing world are the mixed messages I get as a woman rock climber.

One social dynamic tells me that as a heterosexual woman that men will find me attractive if I appear vulnerable and needing their protection or support (yes, I’m broadly generalizing to make a point). While the feminist social dynamic tells me I have to be strong and independent regardless of who finds me attractive. So in the climbing world does that mean that if I am a strong and independent female climber then men won’t find me attractive? I see strong women rock climbers hooking up with male rock climbers all the time, so obviously some men find a strong female rock climber attractive.

Or maybe they find me attractive but the relationship is a disaster because of the opposing expectations? In a relationship it’s very hard to be both vulnerable and strong and independent.

My own personal dating history can be boiled down to this: man finds me attractive as a strong independent rock climber and then doesn’t know what to do with me when I’m vulnerable and needing emotional support. Relationship eventually crumbles because they expect me to be strong all the time. Or I dated non rock climbers who were attracted to me for my vulnerable feminine side and then didn’t know what to do with me when they saw that I was a strong rock climber. They were intimidated by it.

From another perspective you could also say my dating history can be boiled down to this: I was trying to figure out for myself what mix of vulnerable vs. independent worked for me as a modern western woman and had a difficult time attracting a man with a balance of those expectations because I wasn’t even aware that I was doing it. I’m sure I too was sending out contradicting messages of vulnerable vs. independent and those men had a hard time understanding what was expected of them. What about the men? Are they aware of what mix of vulnerable vs. independent they want in a partner? When you have two partners unconsciously trying to find a balance between levels of vulnerable vs. independent it’s going to create friction eventually either on or off the rock.

As a therapist, I see this vulnerable vs. independent dynamic playing out all the time in couples who seek therapy trying to save their relationship. The way I see it, you can’t fix anything that you aren’t aware of doing in the first place.

If you are a woman rock climber and you are having conflict with your partner (same sex couples apply here too!) either when you climb together or outside of climbing, take an honest look at this dynamic of vulnerable vs. independent and see if it is affecting your relationship. Are you giving out the same mixed messages to your partner that you receive from society?


  1. For more information on how gender plays out in the climbing world, read Jackie Kiewa's research article "Stepping Around Things: Gender Relationships in Climbing" - link posted below in my resources list.

  2. Good research article. I step back and wonder if that same researcher with same protocols conducted it in the US on west coast climbers, especially women, if the views presented by the US west coast women might differ from those female Australians? I will guess the Australian women might present less vulnerability and more task oriented behavior. That's been my direct personal experience as well as observations with female climbers from Australia versus the west coast of the US.

    I am male and I enjoy climbing from dawn to dusk, there I fit nicely into the masculine paradigm as described by the research article. And, I don't enjoy pushing myself and I don't enjoy it when a partner pushes me. Rather than push myself I far prefer a fun day shared with plenty of socilizing, fitting into the feminine paradigm.

    I would actually sacrifice 16-hours of successful and efficient climbing with a misanthropic partner, for the company of a fun partner if even only for a 6-hour climbing day. Reviewing my experiences, I think that I laugh more every hour while climbing multipitch than while doing any other activity, including sitting around an evening fire.

    Climbing for me, as a man, is about having a really great time, laughing lots, and spending as much time possible having this fun experience.

    Most men I've climbed with have been fairly goal oriented and certainly wanted to bring their game up. The women I've climbed with were not on average as aggressive in reaching a higher grade.

    Most women I've climbed with valued hiking together and taking a lunch break together and easily offered clothes, gear, food or water if they thought I might appreciate it. The men I've climbed with were not on average as skillful or as interested in building community.

    And even with those consistent personal experiences I do not have assumptions when climbing with a new partner that is female or male. I look for the qualities that I enjoy, in either gender. I suppose if a continuum were described as beginning with ultra-feminine and ending with ultra-masculine, using the gender characteristics that were discovered as generally accurate by the research article, I would prefer a climbing partner with significant qualities of masculine and with significant qualities of feminine. Perhaps, somewhere in a "balance", whatever that might mean.

    1. Who are you and why aren't you living in Colorado and teaching the men out here your philosophy??!!

    2. Hi Lisa,
      I'm pretty sure this post came from my good friend, David (based on how it was written and the content but I could be wrong!). If so, David is a Seattle climber who lives and breaths to climb every day he can. I've never encountered another male climber like him and doubt I will. He's truly unique in his gender equality approach to climbing.
      I lived in Boulder, CO for a year and observed a paradigm there between male and female climbers that was different from other areas like Seattle. I often thought of writing a blog post on my observations but then I realized my observations of male climbers in Boulder weren't all that positive and I didn't want to get flamed for being a hater. Let's just say the male climbers I met in Boulder were not like David. Sigh...

  3. Hi everyone,

    I recently got an interesting email about this post from Michael. With his permission I am posting his comments with my reply at the bottom. Feel free to weigh in!


    Hi Rana,

    I stumbled across your article about social dynamics in climbing:

    As a male rock climber dating a female rock climber, I found it rather intruiguing.

    However, I think your emphasis on vulnerability vs. independence is incorrect.

    From an evo psych/evo bio. point of view, men find indicators of fertility attractive in a short-term encounter, and value intelligence most highly in a longterm mate. I don't see how an attraction to 'vulnerability' could have any adaptive advantage, and thus I don't think any such preference exists in the male mind.

    I personally find gnarly, strong female climbers exceptionally attractive (if they are young and fertile, of course!) and harbor no particular longing for a vulnerable or emotionally needy woman.

    If some men do find emotional vulnerability attractive, it is probably a culturally induced preference based on media caricatures of desirable women as emotionally vulnerable, needy, etc. In other words, it's a social proof phenomenon, rather than a genetic mental algorithm.

    More problematic is your willingness to entertain the idea of compromising your own individuality and personality to attract a mate. Don't sacrifice your sovereignty to your selfish genes.

    Michael Boone

    my reply:

    Hi Michael,

    Thank you for your comments. I agree with many of your points and am happy to hear that you find gnarly, strong female climbers exceptionally attractive. There needs to be more evolved men like you!

    However, I think you are confusing me "raising the point" with me "missing the point." I outlined my own path of evolving awareness to help raise the awareness in other women who may be or may have made the same mistakes. I see women unconsciously battle between the social messages they are receiving through the media, etc. and the genetic messages they own. Without awareness into these opposing messages one cannot conquer them and own their sovereignty. My goal with the post was to encourage women to be the gnarly, strong climbers that they are. Perhaps I will be more directive in my approach to make that point next time.

    Thanks for keeping it real,


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