A group climbing “Panty Wall” at Red Rocks, Nevada. (Photo by Jennifer Wigglesworth)

Tampon Applicator. She Got Drilled. Pussy Whipped. Slippery When Wet. Quick and Slick. The Reacharound.

Any guesses as to what I’m talking about?

Believe it or not, these are the names of rock climbing routes on public land in Canada.

In outdoor rock climbing, it is customary for the first person who successfully “sends” a route (the first ascensionist) to choose a name for it. A culture of adolescent sexual humour permeates climbing and some first ascensionists name cliffs and routes with sexist puns—this can take the form of sexual innuendo, gender stereotyping, male sexual gratification and overt gender violence. It is because of the strong tradition of first ascent naming rights in the climbing community that these route names persist with little to no confrontation.

The aforementioned route names are located in one climbing area in Ontario, Canada. However, from informal conversations at the 8th International Outdoor Education Research Conference (IOERC8) and a scan of online climbing guides, these naming practices appear to extend across the globe. It is also an issue with a long history, as TA Loeffler wrote about sexist and racist naming practices in climbing guides across the United States more than 20 years ago.

In this article, I offer a snippet of my larger doctoral research project that explores women’s experiences in rock climbing. At the time I proposed my dissertation, route names were not on my radar. However, questions about route names started to percolate in my mind after a climbing trip to Red Rocks, Nevada in February 2017. I travelled and climbed with the local university club, and after leading and top-roping a cliff called the “Panty Wall,” which was comprised of numerous routes named after women’s undergarments, I began to wonder if similar naming practices were used elsewhere.

I wanted to know how women negotiated these route names, so I specifically asked about this in my research interviews. In particular, I conducted 17 individual, semi-structured interviews and four focus group interviews, speaking with 34 women aged 19 to 31. The majority identified as white. Most of the women had completed undergraduate degrees and several were completing graduate degrees. The women reflected a wide range of climbing experiences and abilities. I use pseudonyms when citing their comments below.

A woman climbing “Panty Wall.” (Photo by Jennifer Wigglesworth)

Women’s Reactions to Sexualized Route Names

Six themes emerged from my research interviews with respect to how women in rock climbing negotiate sexist route names.

  1. Frustration: Most of the women were frustrated by the overt objectification and sexualization of female bodies. Several mentioned that they would be embarrassed to share the names of the routes that they climbed: “I would feel weird being like, ‘wow, I climbed this great route. Have you climbed Tampon Applicator?’”
  2. Helplessness: Many of the women expressed disappointment with the sexist route names yet felt that nothing could be done to change them. They explained that there is no outdoor rock climbing governing body with oversight of route names and that a strong tradition of first ascensionist naming rights exists in the climbing community: “Sadly, you name it that, it gets in a guide book, and it ends up there. It’s an unwritten rule.” Several informants agreed that if women were to speak up against these route naming practices, their climbing merit and reputation would be criticized, and they didn’t want to receive that unwanted attention.
  3. Exclusion: A few informants described the sexist route names as a way of systemically excluding women. They advocated renaming sexist routes and rewriting online climbing guides as a way of creating a more considerate culture in climbing. For these women, their climbing or abstention from climbing was a political act, and they would not climb these routes until they were renamed.
  4. Internalized Sexism: On the other end of the spectrum, some informants found the route names humorous. Layla rationalized that the sexist naming practices were “jokesters just trying to be funny.” Mikayla laughed and declared the route names did not offend her. For Mikayla, the route names were a non-issue and did not represent a more systemic existence of sexism in climbing. When Deana, another woman in the same focus group, challenged this notion of the route names being only an individual problem, Mikayla emphasized the tradition and sanctity of first ascents and naming privileges. Mikayla explained that climbing culture equates the first ascensionist with being god-like, so you don’t touch what a god has created.
  5. Pushback: Upon hearing that a few women felt the listed route names should remain unchanged, several informants pushed back against this acceptance. These informants maintained that the defense of first ascent naming rights was nonsense. Felicia articulated that laughing off these sexist route names had been the norm for a long time, but that women deserve not to be minimalized or made to feel uncomfortable in a space that they have every right to be in. Lilith said that she would never feel entitled to name let alone sexualize a cliff, and she suspected that this conquering of a mountain equated to the conquering of a woman. Her question still rings in my head: “Whose consent do you have to name this in this way and does conquering require consent?”
  6. Intersections: A couple of the women connected the misogyny of these naming practices with settler-colonial relations in Canada. Faidra acknowledged that any kind of exploration is rooted in colonial dominance and imperialism, and Lilith struggled to imagine a way to not reproduce settler colonialism by renaming the routes.

The research participants’ responses have left me pondering a number of questions. How do we grapple with this narrative as outdoor practitioners, teachers and researchers? Do these route names create an intimidating leisure environment? In what ways might gender oppression exist as an ever-present tool of state violence? How do we untangle the relationship between gendered oppression and colonization in an attempt to decolonize our land-based education?

Such questions have relevance beyond rock climbing. For example, these route names reminded me of the hashtag “#ThisIsNotConsent” that was created to highlight victim blaming during an Irish rape trial in November 2018. In the trial, the perpetrator’s defense lawyer held up the victim’s underwear in court and declared: “Look at the way she was dressed.” This social media campaign occurred while I was presenting my research at the IOERC8 conference, and I couldn’t help but think of the Panty Wall and Lilith’s question about whose consent we need to “conquer” and, in turn, name a route. Simply put, the acceptance and cultural reproduction of sexist route names are symptomatic of how we approach consent and handle women’s claims of sexual assault and harassment more broadly. If we hope to address the ways in which sexism and misogyny often permeate our culture, we should think critically about how everyday practices, such as sexist names in rock climbing, may reinforce the marginalization of women.

Jennifer Wigglesworth (@Jenn_Wiggles) is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. Her dissertation project explores women’s rock climbing using feminist perspectives on the body, and she has written a chapter in the Palgrave International Handbook of Women and Outdoor Learning.