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#SafeOutside: A New Initiative to Combat Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault in Climbing

#SafeOutside is the first in-depth effort to examine and work toward positive change related to sexual harassment and sexual assault in the climbing community.

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The climbing community is no haven from sexual harassment and sexual assault** (SHSA)—or such were the findings of two researchers: Charlie Lieu, an MIT-trained data scientist, and Dr. Callie Rennison, a professor of criminology at the University of Colorado Denver. After launching #SafeOutside—an initiative to fight SHSA in the climbing and greater outdoors communities—in early 2018 with a survey to gauge the prevalence of SHSA in the climbing community, the pair presented their findings to members of the climbing media on June 28, with the results embargoed until today.

The impetus for conducting the survey was to learn more about SHSA in the climbing world. “Because a lot of people have never encountered sexual harassment or assault in climbing, they don’t believe it exists,” the researchers noted in a joint PowerPoint presentation. “So the primary question we’re asking is simply: ‘Do people experience sexual harassment or assault in climbing?’” The answer, based on the survey’s results, is an unequivocal yes.

#SafeOutside is the first in-depth effort to examine SHSA in the climbing community. A coalition of media and climbing organizations—including Rock and Ice, Alpinist, Climbing, Outside, Elevation Outdoors, SNEWS, Outdoor Retailer, American Alpine Club, Access Fund, the Mountaineers, Appalachian Mountain Club, Colorado Mountain Club, and Mazamas—has come together to form a united front in backing the initiative. Rock and Ice joined some of these outlets in publicizing and sharing the initial survey. According to Lieu, an NPR member station will cover this unprecedented cooperation across the outdoor industry with in-depth programming.

The initiative is the brainchild of Lieu, who was aided by Alpinist’s Editor in Chief Katie Ives in editing the campaign’s material and coordinating the media response.

The findings from Lieu and Rennison’s survey—which circulated in April and May of this year—paint a picture of SHSA that doesn’t spare women or men, young or old, gym climbers or trad climbers. Once bad data was filtered out, some telling facts and figures were culled from the completed surveys of 5,311 respondents (51% female and 49% male), about experiences had in a climbing context:

—47.3% of female respondents and 15.6% said they had been the victim of at least one instance of sexual harassment or sexual assault while engaged in a climbing activity

—53.4% of respondents reported catcalling

—51.5% reported verbal harassment

—35.6% reported unwanted following

—38.2% reported unwanted touching

—3.3% reported unwanted sex acts

—6.4% reported forcible kissing

—9.5% reported flashing

—3.3% of respondents—42 women, 11 men and 1 individual who did not identify their gender—were victims of rape

And there are more results still. Some 998 individuals expounded upon their multiple-choice survey answers in a free-form comments section, and their stories further underlined the issues. Some respondents described unwanted kissing and unwelcome physical contact. Some women in their written responses described harrowing stories of attempted rape, with men climbing into their tents uninvited.

Dr. Rennison did say during her and Lieu’s June presentation that “many people are finding climbing to be better than the real world when it comes to [SHSA].” But just because it’s better, does not mean it’s not a serious problem.

So where do we go from here as a community? One another of the two researchers’ slides summarizing free-form responses, one bullet-point read,  “Respondents report being dismissed or ignored when sharing their experiences with leaders in the climbing community. If action is taken, often it amounts to a slap on the wrist.” So the first steps are clear: recognition that the climbing community is not immune from SHSA and that it must be proactive in addressing the problems is critical.

But that is just the start. The #SafeOutside initiative goes beyond simply identifying SHSA as a problem in the climbing world. Using the findings, the initiative’s organizers now aim to identify and implement strategies to reduce incidents of SHSA, increase understanding, and provide a better support system for all climbers. Should #SafeOutside secure enough funding, the hope is to develop longterm plans to educate the community on SHSA and prevention through various channels; to conduct research on best practices for addressing SHSA; and, eventually, to create a “playbook” with the findings and proven tools to help other industries combat SHSA.

As Lieu and Rennison wrote in the Powerpoint, “It’s not enough just to commit, you have to implement for impact.”

For information on how to intervene to protect and help those who are or were targets of SHSA, read Bystander Intervention Can Put the Kibosh on Sexual Harassment.

To learn more about the #SafeOutside, visit the initiative’s landing page at the American Alpine Club website. 

**Sexual Harassment: unwelcome sexual advances, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature (including catcalls).
Sexual Assault: non-consensual physical contact or penetration (including groping and rape).