New Survey Finds Nearly One-Third of Respondents Have Experienced Sexual Harassment or Assault While Climbing

Catcalling, verbal harassment, unwanted touching, following and kissing, flashing and rape—these are the forms of sexual harassment and assault women and men said they have experienced while climbing, according to a recent survey.

The survey was administered last spring by #SafeOutside, a new grassroots initiative that aims to combat sexual harassment and assault in the climbing and outdoors communities. More than 5,000 people took the survey and 31.2 percent said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault in a climbing environment.

The survey was spearheaded by a group of climbers, including Charlie Lieu, an MIT-trained data scientist and operational strategist who has been climbing for nearly 25 years and is on the board of the Access Fund. About eight months ago, Lieu had learned about multiple instances of sexual harassment and assault in the climbing community, but the victims were too afraid to come forward and speak openly about their experiences.

“I had been one of those people who said ‘What’s the big deal? This is the way things are—you gotta get tough and learn to set boundaries.’ But listening to these stories, hearing the pain, the fear, was a wake-up call. I started to understand why [sexual harassment and assault] is a big deal. This has been happening for as long as I could remember, but people are too scared or ashamed to say anything,” said Lieu. “I realized if we don’t do something, the next generation is going to live through the same experiences. And that is not OK.”

When broken down by gender, 47.3 percent of women and 15.6 percent of men said they had experienced one of those forms of sexual harassment or assault. Although, when asked directly if they had been harassed or assaulted, only 23.8 percent of all respondents answered yes. Fifty-four of the respondents—42 women, 11 men and 1 respondent who didn’t identify their gender—said they had been raped. Those numbers are likely low estimates as about two out of three incidences of sexual assault go unreported, studies show.

“What we’re talking about here isn’t sex. We’re talking about violence. Violence happens to men and it happens to women,” said Dr. Callie Rennison, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver who is an expert in policy and criminal justice and victimology support. “So this isn’t a women’s problem that women need to fix. This is a problem of all people, and we all need to get together to fix it.”

The #SafeOutside online survey was distributed between last April and July by a coalition of media publications and organizations, including the American Alpine Club, Flash Foxy, the Access Fund, and Alpinist, Climbing and Rock & Ice. Most of the respondents who opted into the study were from the United States—California and Colorado, especially—and Canada, as well as Mexico and Australia. The organizers behind #SafeOutside released the survey’s results today, partnering with a spectrum of climbing and outdoor media, to publicize the findings and draw awareness to issues of sexual harassment and assault.

“The whole goal is to create a safe place for people to talk about their experiences and to spur action from the industry and sport leaders in order for us to start addressing these issues,” said Lieu, who is spearheading #SafeOutside and initiated this survey with Rennison. “#SafeOutside is a response within the outdoor community to a bigger social movement, which is #MeToo,” said Lieu. “We are taking it one step further though, by providing tools and policy work.”

The #SafeOutside survey responses were submitted by women (48.3 percent), men (49.2 percent), those who identified as agender (0.1 percent) and those who did not identify their gender (2.4 percent). They were trad, sport and gym climbers, but Rennison and Lieu kept climbing definitions flexible to keep the survey accessible. Rennison said that they intentionally framed the questions so that former climbers would participate in the survey. “There is a group of people who were active climbers and stepped out because of experiences like this. It was important to hear their voices,” Rennison said. On average, participants had been climbing regularly for 9.4 years.

The most frequently cited types of harassment in the survey were catcalling, verbal harassment and unwanted touching, though it was common to experience more than one form. Nearly 60 percent of the women who reported having been harassed said they had experienced more than one type.

A margin of error was not calculated, as the survey organizers collected a convenience sample (comprised of those who saw notifications about the survey and chose to respond) rather than a representative sample (a group that accurately reflects the greater climbing population). Rennison and Lieu acknowledge the results represent only a small portion of climbers nationwide. In 2017 in the U.S., more than 2 million people participated in sport climbing/bouldering and more than 5 million participated in indoor climbing, according to the 2018 Outdoor Participation Report.

In addition to specific questions, the survey also provided space for users to write free-form comments. The 998 comments collected in the survey illuminate what sexual harassment and assault can look like for climbers. Respondents described people climbing into tents uninvited, groping and unwanted kissing, and being assaulted at home, at work or while visiting climbing friends. The incidences of sexual assault also included attempted rape and being raped while on an expedition at camp. For those climbers who rejected sexual advances, some said the perpetrator retaliated physically. Others said they had been followed from the crag. In climbing gyms, respondents described customers asking them inappropriate and vulgar questions about sex. Sexism, including fat shaming women and hostile comments on social media, was also evident based on the responses.

These types of sexual harassment and assault happen throughout the climbing world, but the gym is a “key location,” the survey said. The responses also identified perpetrators, including “famous climbers or sponsored athletes, brand ambassadors, friends, acquaintances, climbing partners, customers of gyms/expeditions, coworkers and complete strangers.”

After experiencing sexual harassment and assault, 45.4 percent of respondents—and 54.5 percent of women—said the incident changed the way they climb. Some victims reported isolating themselves. Respondents said they were less likely to talk to people they didn’t already know at the gym or the crag. They stopped going on climbing trips. They expressed hesitation to speak up, out of fear for retaliation but also because their concerns were often downplayed or dismissed.

“This is a data point and it’s a really important data point that shows whether it’s half of all women who responded or one incident, to date there has been an unchecked part of the culture in climbing in which people feel unsafe or harassed,” Deanne Buck, executive director of Camber Outdoors said. “When we think of what it means to be a climber, we think about conservation, technical skills and safety. But can we also integrate the fact that we look out for each other beyond that? Can we look to make sure that all of our fellow climbers feel safe, included and welcomed?”

Equipped with data from the survey, Lieu is already working with individuals and companies to develop effective policies and protocols that are designed to stop sexual harassment and assault.

Lieu has also been in contact with some of the victims who shared their identities and their experiences, making sure they have support and resources. “It’s hard, right? As anybody who has any amount of empathy, if you listen to these kinds of stories, eventually you just start crying with them,” said Lieu.

Listening, believing and genuinely validating someone’s experience goes a long way toward healing, says Lieu. But we also have to educate ourselves and our community on the actions to take when we see harassment and assault taking place, or hearing about it happening.

“Honestly, nothing is ever going to change unless everyone gets together,” says Rennison. “It’s not just going to be people who experience [sexual harassment and assault], who answer surveys and who share numbers. It takes people who haven’t experienced it, but maybe witnessed it or are hearing about it, to step up and go stop it.”

To learn more about #SafeOutside and how you can support the movement to stop sexual harassment and assault in the climbing and outdoors industries, visit their website.

Read the #SafeOutside survey results

How do you respond when someone tells you they have been sexually harassed or assaulted?

#SafeOutside says to start by listening and believing. Some great things to say are: “Thank you for trusting me with this”; “I believe you, it took a lot of courage to share this”; and “Can I connect you with someone who can help?”

If you see an instance of sexual harassment and abuse, or you hear about it happening, #SafeOutside says to intervene—direct, distract, delegate and delay.

  • Direct: Step in directly to intervene, whether speaking out or giving social cues.
  • Distract: The perpetrator and remove the victim from the area. Then, report the incident.
  • Delegate: See something inappropriate? Talk to someone with more social or functional power than you have and ask them to step in.
  • Delay: Check in with the victim of the incident after it has occurred to see if you can do anything to help them. You can say, “Hey, are you OK?” or “Can I do anything?” Then, report the incident.

In addition, if you have been a victim of sexual harassment or know someone who has, there are resources available to you: