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Out from the Shadows: Sexual Harassment and Assault in Climbing Communities
Posted on: August 27, 2018
[This story was updated August 30. All figures are courtesy of the American Alpine Club.—Ed.]
[Photo] Derek Franz
From April 16 to July 4, in collaboration with other national climbing organizations and magazines, we undertook a survey on the topic of sexual harassment and assault in the climbing world. In this article, below, we share some of the results.—Ed.
For Anne*, the memory remains vivid, but fragmented, like reflections across a broken mirror: the sun on the vast rock slabs; the shock of his unwelcome touch, so strange and unexpected that she thought at first it was just the wind. She was rappelling down a multipitch route in the backcountry, with a man she'd been climbing with for several months. He was an older, more experienced mountaineer who knew the kinds of obscure alpine climbs that Anne had always enjoyed. They'd reached an anchor, where the two of them were forced to stand close on a tiny ledge below a cluster of old webbing. At some point, he stopped setting up the next rappel and began groping her chest, and then forcing his lips on her. She froze, at first, not knowing what to do. The ledge was too small for her to get away. No one else was within shouting range. She knew there was no way she'd get off the mountain without sharing a rope with him for the rest of the rappels.
Then he finally stopped touching her, and in silence they continued their way down. When Anne returned to town, she confided in a mutual acquaintance—another climber whose opinions she respected—but the person didn't make eye contact with her or acknowledge her words. The memory of that day left Anne with feelings of shame and confusion that she still struggles to articulate. "It didn't fit into the narrative of a life I imagined for myself," she says. She had wanted to believe that the deep trust between climbing partners was something unshakable, that the beauty of the mountains could offer an escape from the rest of society. So she buried the memory in more silence for over a decade—like an axe fallen down a darkened fissure in the glacier and sealed in ice.
[* a psuedonym for one of the survey respondents]
Figure 1: Approximately 1 in 6 male and 1 in 2 female respondents have had experiences that could be classified as sexual harassment or sexual assault while engaged in climbing or climbing related activities.
The Development of the Survey
Incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault (SHSA) are like crevasses: the existence of this threat can hide beneath the surface of an environment without obvious signs, catching people off guard. While climbers often discuss the objective hazards of mountains, they don't usually talk openly about SHSA. Dr. Walter S. DeKeseredy—the Anna Deane Carlson Endowed Chair of Social Sciences, and Director of the Research Center on Violence at West Virginia University—isn't surprised. "Who are the victims going to talk to about it in a male-dominated environment? And when someone who has experienced SHSA does report the incident to someone they believe will help, whose word is going to be listened to? Victims learn quickly—especially in hyper-masculine environments—not to share."
Research by Henrietta Filipas and Sarah E. Ullman (See: "Social Reactions to Sexual Assault Victims From Various Support Sources," in Violence and Victims, 2001) and others demonstrate that between 25 percent and 75 percent of trauma survivors (including sexual assault victims) experience negative reactions from members of their social support system. This lack of support prevents survivors from reaching out further and leads to feelings such as self-blame.
Hidden issues like SHSA are insidious. If you've encountered it personally, you can become sensitized to the problem. You may be more likely to notice its occurrence, and be more willing to believe others when they report it. If SHSA has never happened to you, you may not even be aware that it happens in your own community. Dr. Kathryn DuBois, an associate professor at Washington State University Vancouver states that this kind of issue blindness is a ubiquitous finding in the research literature. In fact, even individuals who have experienced SHSA directly may have trouble acknowledging it for a variety of reasons. Dr. DuBois points out that "quite often, women who have been raped while incapacitated by alcohol or other drugs will not acknowledge the violence as rape." (See the 2003 article by Arnold S. Kahn and colleagues in Psychology of Women Quarterly. Also see the 1996 work of Melissa J. Layman, Christine A. Gidycz, and Steven Jay Lynn in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.)
Prior to the development of the survey, when we spoke informally to other climbers about the topic, we heard a wide range of responses from "this shit happens all the time" to "this can't possibly be a problem." We quickly realized that gathering data systematically could provide a helpful resource. After all, climbing communities—with their traditional emphasis on beta, guidebooks and statistics—tend to be information driven.
As we carried out survey launches across the globe, we were met with some resistance. Those who strongly believed that SHSA didn't exist in the climbing world declared that a survey was unnecessary or stupid. In social media comments below the survey link, people insisted that they had never seen or heard of anyone experiencing this issue, or they claimed, as one Facebook user argued, that the survey was "attempting to create an issue" where they believed that there is none—a common reaction to researchers who are investigating the nature of sexual assault and relationship violence. On the other end of the spectrum, some commenters were concerned that the very idea of a survey seemed to raise the question of whether or not SHSA was an issue, as if placing it in doubt. In short, these commenters objected to running a survey at all when they already knew SHSA negatively impacted those in their climbing communities, and when concrete action seemed to be the most obvious next step.
Many people, however, saw value in the idea of a survey, and much of the direct feedback we received was positive. Unsolicited emails and survey comments included expressions of gladness and gratitude that someone was conducting this research, declarations of support for the idea of providing a safe space for people to tell their stories and for survivors to feel heard—as well as other conveyances of the importance of this work.
Figure 2: Breakdown of incidences of sexual harassment and sexual assault by type
The multi-disciplinary team that created and launched the "sexual harassment and assault in climbing" survey consisted of Dr. Callie Rennison—a nationally recognized criminal justice professor; Charlie Lieu—an MIT-trained data scientist and operational strategist; and Alpinist Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives.
The survey was designed with several goals in mind. First, to assess the extent to which SHSA is a problem in the climbing world. Second, to understand better the nature of these experiences. Finally, to collect data to inform, develop or refine policies to reduce incidents, increase awareness and provide better support systems for all climbers.
The team created a survey that is short, focused and non-graphic to ease the potential trauma of participation for survivors. One of the biggest challenges for researchers of traumatic experiences is that victims often do not participate in activities that cause them to recall their experiences, leading to under-representation and under-reporting. As one survivor of assault explained to us: "I would be hard-pressed to take a survey [on SHSA]. It was traumatic enough living through my experience, the last thing I want to do is to relive it."
To encourage participation, the survey required respondents to answer only 3 central questions, along with 9 other related questions that were listed as optional [a link to the survey questions can be found here].
As with any ethical social-science research, participation for our survey was voluntary. We launched the survey in three versions: English versions deployed in the United States and Australia, and a Spanish version deployed in Mexico. The survey was officially shared via e-blasts, webpages, and social media by nearly 40 climbing related organizations, including all major US climbing magazines, a dozen outdoor magazines in the US, Australia and Mexico, and general media such as KUOW (an NPR member station in Seattle). Major national and regional climbing organizations, as well as many local climbing alliances and clubs, also distributed the survey along with a handful of gyms, retailers and manufacturers, such as Outdoor Research, and the industry trade association, Outdoor Retailer. Each instance of the survey was administered using Google Forms, and remained available for approximately 6 weeks between April 16 and July 4 of 2018.
The survey approach was based on "non-probability convenience sampling"—that is, we created and distributed open invitations to self-identified current and former climbers to take the survey. Researchers commonly use this method when a population of interest lacks a "population sampling frame," or a master list from which to draw respondents. By contrast, "probability sampling" means that the sample is taken from a master list, and that each respondent invited has a known, non-zero chance of being asked to participate. Examples of a population sampling frame would include a roster of all employees in an organization, all students at a university or all members of a particular club. Since there is no such official list of all climbers in the US or in the world, "non-probability convenience sampling" is the most pragmatic approach.
To ensure that the results represented as broad a section of all current and former climbers as possible, we strongly encouraged all people to participate whether or not they had experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault themselves. The data collected were anonymous—although respondents had the option of volunteering their name and contact information.
[For additional analysis of this methodology, see the Appendix to this article, as well as the essay "Notes on Methods" by Dr. Larry Hamilton that follows.—Ed.]
Figure 3: Breakdown of gender of respondents
A total of 5,339 responses were received, including 4,862 for the English-language version driven by Alpinist, Rock and Ice, Climbing, Outside and other publications from United States, 166 responses for the Spanish-language version hosted by Mexico's Freeman Outdoors and 311 responses from a separate Australian version hosted by Outdoor Australia.
After removing clearly nonsense responses, we ended with a final sample size of 5,311, representing respondents from over 60 countries around the world. Nearly 70 percent of the respondents (3,594) were from the United States, and included a broad cross section of US climbers with the highest concentrations in California (16 percent), Colorado (14 percent) and Washington (9 percent). Other countries represented among the respondents included Canada (9 percent), Australia (7 percent), Mexico (3 percent), the United Kingdom (3 percent) and Germany (1 percent).
Measurements of engagement in our survey were exceptional: 926 (17 percent) of the respondents provided contact information (23 percent of women, and 13 percent of men). In addition, 998 respondents, or nearly 1 in 5, provided open-ended comments about the topic. Respondents to other surveys generally don't take the time to fill in open-ended questions, and the rate at which they did on this survey suggests high engagement and interest. They had ideas and experiences that they wanted to share.
Social media comments in response to our survey indicated some concern that only women who had been victims of SHSA would complete the forms. That was not the case: both victims and non-victims filled out the survey. Our overall sample resembles the demographics of respondents to a 2015 online outdoor recreation survey conducted by the Outdoor Foundation. In their Individual Activity Reports, the Outdoor Foundation found that 51 percent of the people who chose to fill out their survey were women and 49 percent were men (of these Outdoor Foundation survey respondents, 38.3 percent of those who reported participating in traditional climbing and 46.9 percent of those who reported taking part in sport climbing were women).
About half of the overall respondents to our own survey were men (49 percent) and half were women (48 percent), with a small proportion not sharing their gender. Among the US respondents who completed the survey, 48 percent were men, and 50 percent were women. While the survey received several responses from climbers who identified themselves as gender nonbinary, there were too few available to draw broad conclusions related to the climbing population. It is clear, however, that in the general population, transgender individuals experience higher rates of SHSA than cisgender people do. Dr. Kathryn DuBois emphasizes that "being transgender exacerbates the risk of being the victim of sexual violence. Those who have some of the highest risks of victimization—young women of color living in economically disadvantaged communities—face even greater danger if they are transgender" (https://www.ovc.gov/pubs/forge/sexual_numbers.html).
Most respondents of all genders who completed our survey identified themselves as gym climbers (83 percent) and/or sport climbers (73 percent). Slightly more than half (55 percent) of our survey respondents identified as trad climbers. (Note that respondents could check more than one type of climbing). The average respondent began climbing in 2007, and had been climbing regularly for around 10 years.
[Photo] Derek Franz
What did the respondents tell us? About 40 percent of women and 9 percent of men answered "yes" to our question "Have you experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault while engaged in a climbing activity?" The survey also asked about more specific behaviors: have respondents experienced specific types of SHSA (e.g., unwanted touching, forced kissing, etc.). These more detailed questions revealed that 47 percent of women and 16 percent of men have experienced interactions that could be classified as SHSA while engaged in a climbing activity, even if they do not report it as such. When we look at the survey data from the United States alone, the numbers are similar in range to the global data: 42 percent of US women and 9 percent of US men answered "yes" to the question "Have you experienced SHSA while engaged in a climbing activity?" Likewise, 50 percent of US women and 15 percent of US men described experiencing interactions that could be classified as SHSA while engaged in a climbing activity, even if they did not report it as such.
The discrepancy between these "self-reported" numbers and "allocated" numbers (based on responses to action-specific questions) supports previous research that SHSA is often underreported and that survey question wording matters. Some respondents may not realize their experience is considered SHSA. For example, when Ms. Lieu conducts group exercises in both for-profit and nonprofit settings, she has found that the majority of people attending do not realize groping is sexual assault if it leaves no apparent signs of physical injury. Similarly, some may not realize that a single severe instance of unwanted sexual comment can be a form of sexual harassment, as many believe the action always has to be repeated multiple times to be considered harassment. This lack of understanding of "what is SHSA" is in line with Dr. Rennison's experience in her research. Dr. DuBois adds: "those who experience strangers' catcalls and come-ons...may not see the behavior as sexual harassment, but it is."
Male respondents to our survey most often reported catcalling and unwanted touching. Female respondents most frequently reported verbal harassment, catcalling, unwanted touching, and unwanted following. Fifty-four respondents (3 percent) shared that they had been raped (defined as nonconsensual penetration) by another climber or in a climbing-related environment.
Figure 4: Breakdown of types of climbing that respondents engaged in
What did the experiences of SHSA look like? Some respondents described experiencing sexual assault from other climbers while on mountaineering expeditions or other organized trips. Several noted that someone had tried to enter their tent uninvited. Other victims said that attacks took place at their own home or on the property of their friends. These assaults included rape and attempted rape. The majority of the reported incidents, however, fell into the category of sexual harassment, including behaviors such as unwelcome sexual advances, stalking and catcalls. According to our survey responses, both men and women experienced SHSA—though men experienced it at lower percentages than women did; and the men who experienced it described a lower sense of immediate threat to their physical safety than the women reported. Dr. DuBois points out that "sexual violence is especially prevalent in circumstances where there are power imbalances in interactions, and it is in these circumstances that the least stereotypical violence occurs."
Survey respondents explained that perpetrators of SHSA included professional climbers, friends, acquaintances, climbing partners, customers of gyms/expeditions, business partners, coworkers, vendors, customers and complete strangers. Individuals working in the climbing industry shared experiences of being asked inappropriate or vulgar questions by customers and coworkers, as well as unwanted kissing and unwelcome physical contact.
Sexual harassment described in survey responses was not restricted to the physical space, it was also spread and enabled by social media. One single woman described receiving constant sexual advances and comments about her body on an online forum—and getting called vulgar names when she pushed back. Someone later took her climbing photos and posted them to a porn site with her real name, an act that created difficulties for her in her public-facing profession. Social media was also a source of fear for another woman, who reported that her rapist had stalked her for months over Facebook and Instagram. Both women no longer engage in climbing sites, and they severely limit their exposure to general social media. Dr. DuBois notes that it is typical for all new technologies to be used nefariously: "Universal telephone service brought with it the problem of obscene phone calls. So, it is unfortunate, but not surprising, that some men have come to use social media as a tool of harassment and control." (See also Melissa Villa-Nicholas's 2018 article "Terror by Telephone: Normative Anxieties around Obscene Calls in the 1960s" in First Monday.)
After experiencing harassment and/or assaults, respondents sometimes found little support within their community when reporting or speaking out about their experience. One woman who reached out to a friend for support—after an attempted rape by a mutual acquaintance—was shocked to hear her friend respond: "What do you expect, you're single." Another respondent recalled telling a female leader of a climbing organization about her experiences with SHSA, to which the woman replied: "What's the big deal? It's just the way it is." This type of response points to a serious disconnect: some influential members of climbing communities—who are well positioned to make a difference—don't appear to recognize SHSA as a problem because they don't see it, they don't acknowledge it or they've normalized it.
More than half of the women (58 percent) and one of five men (21 percent) who had experienced SHSA reported that they altered the way they engaged with climbing communities and activities afterward. Changes came in three primary ways: (1) disengaging from climbing, (2) no longer traveling for climbing purposes and (3) climbing only with a particular group of people.
For some, disengaging from the climbing community meant not talking to or interacting with strangers—even fellow climbers—while climbing. For others, it meant putting the climbing world behind them altogether. A former volunteer trip leader reported that more than one participant in her local climbing club had quit climbing because of harassment and threats of assault. For a few respondents, this disengagement was involuntary: they became shunned by other members of their climbing community as a result of reporting or intervening in SHSA.
Many who experienced SHSA subsequently made different choices about their climbing partners. After years of trying to be accepted as one of the guys, and being harassed and groped, one woman began climbing "almost exclusively with women, and would only climb with men I knew." Despite this tactic, she still found herself forcibly kissed by a friend of a friend after a day of climbing in the desert. By climbing only with women (or by setting strict parameters for partners) other female respondents noted that they felt safer. Many believed that the right partners could help keep potential perpetrators away. Yet this strategy comes with disadvantages, such as limiting the number of partners or mentors available.
"Experiencing SHSA can negatively impact people regardless of the context in which it occurs," states Dr. DeKeseredy. "Even something considered minor like catcalling can lead a person to feel unsafe and vulnerable. It can lead the victim to avoid an area, or groups of people, and change daily routines. Worse is when no one intervenes on the victim's behalf. This increases the victim's sense of fear and vulnerability leading to physical and psychological harm." Climbing is inherently dangerous, and there are plenty of objective hazards—such as inclement weather and rockfalls—that might make climbers feel vulnerable. Adding human elements such as the danger of SHSA may be particularly jarring to the sense of safety within the climbing context. Dr. Heather L. McCauley, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, notes: "Repeated exposure to SHSA in an already risky environment has pervasive effects on victims' mental health, with many victims experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Importantly, post-assault mental health is shaped by the factors beyond the assault itself, including the victim's perception of threat in their environment and whether those around them respond after an assault in stigmatizing or supportive ways."
While the survey did not ask about sexism in general (outside of SHSA), dozens of respondents reported it as a major problem in their climbing communities. They recounted unwanted comments about their weight, their clothing and their bodies. Others recalled hearing sexist remarks about their capabilities—assumptions that women would be slow on routes, that they would have poor climbing abilities or that they could not provide beta about climbs. A common statement was that men would frequently provide spotting (sometimes involving unwanted touching) when it was not needed or requested. Climbing social media sites were called out as places rife with sexism. Respondents described the effects of all these experiences as limiting women's access to climbing free of fear, anxiety or discomfort.
Like society at large, climbing communities are not homogenous, and variations in experiences may exist from region to region, even within different groups from a single gym. While some have traumatic experiences of SHSA while engaged in climbing or climbing-related activities, others found that the climbing community offered them a respite from the SHSA they more frequently experienced in the "real" world. Several respondents said that climbers—and the outdoors community in general—seemed friendlier, and less threatening than members of the general public did.
Since the survey numbers as a whole suggest that approximately 1 in 2 female climbers and 1 in 6 male climbers have had experiences that could be classified as SHSA while engaged in climbing activities, the problem is clearly real and substantial. Moreover, our evidence shows that many climbers have changed the way they engage in climbing (or quit the activity altogether) because of SHSA. If we leave this issue unaddressed, it will continue to keep some people from engaging in the adventures on cliffs and mountains that many of us cherish, and it will prevent climbing communities from being truly welcome and inclusive places. Today, many climbers pride themselves on focusing on important issues affecting our sport, such as public lands advocacy and environmental stewardship. When they are confronted with the fact that SHSA is another significant problem that impacts our community, it seems logical that climbers might feel compelled to act.
Figure 5: Breakdown of countries where respondents reside
Navigating the Landscape
As some climbing community leaders reviewed the results of the survey, they acknowledged that SHSA is an issue, and stated their intention to address this problem. Bill Zimmermann, CEO of the Climbing Wall Association, said: "The result of this survey has brought the climbing community together to begin addressing the realities of sexual harassment and assault in our community. This research has uncovered important information that underscores the need for coordinated action." Kenji Haroutunian, President of the Access Fund, added: "The experience of climbing needs to be free of whatever impediment that is in the way, including barriers that aren't physical but interpersonal—be it sexual harassment and assault or racism. As a community, we must work to minimize legacy problems, whether it's the placing of 1/4-inch buttonheads as fixed protection or using inappropriate language or touching in the climbing environment."
At the same time that we recognized the need for action, we also realized that the topic of SHSA is fraught with pitfalls and discomfort for many people. To help us all navigate this complex issue together, here are some guidelines.
As an individual, the most important thing you can do if you see someone being harassed or assaulted, is to intervene—if it is safe for you to do so. Remember the "Four Ds" of potential responses, which came from the research of Drs. Victoria L. Banyard, Elizabethe G. Plante and Mary M. Moynihan (2005); A. Berkowitz (2002); and Ann L. Coker, Patricia Cook-Craig, Corrine Williams, Bonnie S. Fisher, Emily Clear, Lisandra Garcia and Lea Hegge:
— Direct: If it's safe to do so, intervene by confronting the perpetrator through speaking out, or stepping in to stop the incident (See: http://mencanstoprape.blogspot.com/2012/04/snack-food-intervention.html).
For more information, see the Rock and Ice article "Bystander Intervention Can Put the Kibosh on Sexual Harassment."
Dr. Gillian Pinchevsky, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, notes that "many people say that the reason they do not intervene in some situations is because they do not know what to do. Bystander intervention programs can equip people with the awareness of what to look for in situations and the skills on how to appropriately—and safely—act." Bystander intervention programs are increasingly available to the public. A common one used at universities and school settings is Green Dot, which was developed by Dr. Dorothy Edwards (http://www.calcasa.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Curriculum-Summary.pdf). The goal of such programs is to reduce and eliminate power-based violence.
If someone tells you that SHSA has affected them, your response can dramatically shape how that person deals with the experience. Dr. Megyn Augustyn, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, notes that, "If a person has chosen to disclose a victimization, the first response should always be asking the victim whether or not he or she is OK. Human compassion is a must!" Further, "It is important for people to know that victims often seek informal sources of support prior to or in lieu of formal disclosure after victimization. If an individual has chosen to disclose a victimization, a person's response will certainly affect the ultimate response to the victimization including formal help-seeking and psychological processing."
Some good replies to disclosures include: "I believe you; I know it took a lot of courage to share this," "This is not your fault," "You did not deserve for this to happen to you" and "Thank you for sharing this with me / trusting me with this information." Don't point out what you think a victim could have done, blame them for experiencing SHSA or minimize the experience. Some examples of what not to say include: "He/she was just kidding," "I'm sure it was just a misunderstanding" or "You're [pretty/young/single/well-endowed], what did you expect?" Keep in mind that it is not easy to relive trauma and share a SHSA experience. Your reaction can mean the difference between a survivor closing off, blaming themselves, feeling isolated, and never mentioning it again or feeling supported and cared for; your response may also bolster their willingness to report the incident or pursue justice if that's something they wish to do.
For members of organizations, it is ideal to prevent SHSA before it begins, but this objective is challenging. As a start, manuals on impeding sexual harassment widely recommend eliminating the spread of discriminatory and harassing materials, including jokes, graffiti, posters, emails and photos. Such precautions can demonstrate a commitment to a safer and more inclusive organizational culture. A public statement of intent can also communicate the organization's view on SHSA. It is critical to create and implement codes of conduct to ensure that members know that SHSA won't be tolerated.
As a best practice, there should be written policies and procedures focused on SHSA that define what it is and how it will be dealt with—including clear processes for reporting allegations, conducting investigations and carrying out expected disciplinary actions.
No one should be exempt—even famous climbers, large donors, longtime members or leaders. Organizations must also ensure that they support those who have experienced SHSA and protect them from retaliation or shunning. It is helpful to create a team of advocates or allies within the organization who are empowered, capable and willing to respond swiftly and effectively. These recommendations reflect best practices used in many organizations and institutions, and they can be similarly instituted in the climbing community.
The Way Forward
The Sexual Harassment and Assault in Climbing survey is only the first step in a larger grassroots initiative called #SafeOutside. The survey results have already spurred or informed policy development and refinement among partner organizations, and fueled the August 27 #SafeOutside day of action. Dozens of climbing organizations and outdoor publications are participating with public-facing policy statements or media coverage. Alex Kosseff, Executive Director of the American Mountain Guides Association, said: "Our community is part of the larger society, and those who loudly claim that harassment and assault do not occur within climbing no longer have legitimacy. Climbing is a sport of interdependence and [we are] committed to strengthening these ties, improving our own professionalism and partnering with others to build a stronger, safer and more inclusive community."
Members of many other outdoor communities (including ones focused on snowsports, mountain biking, etc.) and people from different parts of the world have reached out to us, expressing a desire to join the initiative and replicate similar data collection and policy efforts. In order to help anyone who wishes to combat SHSA, we have created an open resourced toolkit for the public, which can be found on the #SafeOutside landing page hosted by the American Alpine Club at https://americanalpineclub.org/safeoutside. In the long term, we hope to continue research that can help guide expanded policy work and education programs to keep climbers and everyone who wants to go outside safe and informed.
By uniting around this issue, climbers and the outdoor industry can lead by example and spark change in the world at large. While it's unlikely that we will ever fully stamp out sexual harassment and assault, this is an important first step in the right direction. The toughest work is still ahead.
SHSA is a societal issue. It is no surprise to see that it affects climbers as well. You can do your part in combating SHSA by pledging to intervene or share your story with the hashtag #SafeOutside. Our voice has power, and each of us can use that power to make climbing safer and more inclusive for everyone.
A seasoned researcher in sexual misconduct, Dr. Callie Marie Rennison is a professor of criminology in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado-Denver. A former member of the Department of Justice, she has spent more than two decades studying violence and has authored multiple textbooks on criminology, criminal justice, research methodology and victimization.
A trained data scientist and operational strategist with two decades of big data and decision analytics experience, Ms. Charlie Ann Lieu is the founder of Lieuca Advisors, a management consulting firm focused on complex data-driven strategic operations and program development. She currently holds an appointment as an affiliate researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
[Photo] Derek Franz
A Note on the Methods
by Larry Hamilton
July 30, 2018
Survey researchers often hear feedback from people who want to share their opinions about what a survey reveals—or to make suggestions about what questions should have been asked instead. Both are quite reasonable reactions. As a climber and an academic who has designed many surveys, but who was not involved with this one, I've been asked to provide an outsider's perspective on some questions people asked about the methods and representativeness of this study.
The obvious limitation, mentioned straightaway in the article, is that it was not possible to draw a random sample of respondents from the population of "all climbers." The definition of such a population could be endlessly debated, and there exists no definitive list of all climbers in the US or the world from which to draw. As a practical alternative—rather than settling for no data at all—the study's authors collected a "convenience sample" comprised of people who saw notifications about the survey and who chose to respond. Their survey design cast a wide net of notifications, through many respected organizations, resulting in a large sample with around 5,000 usable responses. (If we did have a random sample of this size, the statistical "margin of error" for individual percentages would be about plus or minus 1.5 points.) In terms of gender, geography, climbing preferences and experience, the US survey respondents look like a reasonable cross section of US climbers, even if we can't precisely define that population.
Sampling admittedly was nonrandom, but a more important question is whether the self-selection led to bias, producing seriously overstated or understated results. Both men and women responded, giving a full range of answers on the sexual harassment/assault questions; we are not hearing from "only one kind." (Some respondents declined to indicate their gender, or gave nonbinary responses, but this group is too small for separate analysis. That might be one direction for future research.) Generally speaking, the results fall into the same ballpark as those of many other studies involving populations such as college students (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/22/us/a-third-of-college-women-experience-unwanted-sexual-contact-study-finds.html), or US women (https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/2/21/17036438/sexual-harassment-me-too-assault-hollywood). While individual climbers' experiences vary, depending on such matters as their own partners, geographic areas and peer groups, I suspect that gym managers, trip organizers and other people who oversee interactions among many climbers would not be surprised by the survey's high percentages.
So when this survey finds, for example, that about 40 percent of female respondents report that they have had experiences related to climbing that they themselves define as sexual harassment/sexual assault, and 47 percent report more specific encounters that might be considered as such according to widely used definitions, we do not conclude that precisely 40 percent or 47 percent of all female climbers (however defined) have been harassed or assaulted. But we can safely say the proportion is quite substantial, and people who think the problem is rare among climbers are badly mistaken. The survey data reported by Dr. Rennison and Ms. Lieu cast new light on this important topic, as intended, providing a solid takeoff point for discussion. The exploratory methods employed were necessary and appropriate for this task.
Larry Hamilton was an early Red Rock climber, making first ascents of routes such as Triassic Sands (1972) and Rainbow Wall (1973). Over the years he's kept climbing, while becoming professor of sociology and Senior Fellow in the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire. Dr. Hamilton's recent survey research includes a 2018 paper, "Cold Winters Warming? Perceptions of Climate Change in the North Country." (https://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/WCAS-D-18-0020.1)
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