Sexism in Climbing. I’m Going There.

Here’s why.

Is this a joke? Unfortunately, no. Yes; they REALLY said, “TheGymIsEverywhere”. Yes; Reebok really is selling climbing. Yes; women really are objectified in the climbing industry.


Sierra Blair-Coyle (SBC) is a professional rock climber who pushes the line between Sports Illustrated, and Sports Illustrated – Swimsuit Issue. This has a lot of male and female climbers’ undergarments in a bunch (I may be one of them). Many people have commented upon this subject. Evening Sends did a piece, Mick Ryan did a 4-part series called Climb Like a Girl, Climbing Narc commented on “sexiness in climbing”, and Julie Ellison wrote a somewhat scathing response to climbing media haters for Climbing Magazine.

My goal is not to do a historical analysis of the debate. I just want to tackle the subject head on. It seems like people are afraid to just come out and say the obvious thing that we are all thinking. So allow me to volunteer.

The sexual objectification of women through climbing media is lame, and we shouldn’t support it.

Is anyone out there scratching his or her head on this one? Seriously. This is a no-brainer. Perhaps I owe my viewpoint to my upbringing. My mom is an astrophysicist (which I can barely spell), my sister is an epidemiologist (ditto), one of my favorite climbing partners (female) routinely whoops me on any route we climb together, and my girlfriend can beat me up any trail, and often carries the heavier pack.  It’s not the freaking 1800’s, people. Gender equality is not a theory, it is a given. If you need a climbing context to help you wrap your mind around this concept, look up Lynn Hill, Kitty Calhoun, Ashima Shiraishi, Miriam Underhill, Kei Taniguchi, Silvia Vidal, and Ines Papert, for starters.

A woman is more than her body, period. 

This is like some third-grade shit that everyone should know by now. There’s more to a woman than how she looks. In climbing, the performance gap between men and women is closer than in any other sport I know of. Lynn Hill grabbed arguably the greatest trad climbing prize ever with the first free ascent of El Cap, via the Nose. Ashima is the best climber under 15 years old ever (better than Ondra was at the same age). At the 2005 Ouray Ice Festival, Ines Papert not only won the women’s division: she even smoked the top male climber (Will Gadd – ever heard of him?) by a whopping three minutes becoming the overall winner in the difficulty event. The annals of alpine climbing history are full of accounts of women dragging men up climbs all over the world. Climbing is the poster child for gender equality in sports; to sexually objectify women in climbing, of all sports, is utterly reprehensible.

The question is not what’s wrong with SBC.


Which of these items does not belong?

SBC is no different from Alex Honnold. Seriously. They are both playing a game, and they are both winning. The goal of the game is to use whatever advantages you have to make a living as a professional climber, so you can get paid to do what you love: climb. The picture above strikes us a bit funny because we are not used to Honnold being sold as a sex symbol. We are used to him being sold as a daring free soloist. Now SBC may be a top athlete, but that is not how she is typically sold. She is typically sold the way she is seen in this photo – and in this photo, we all know what they’re selling. We could critique Honnold for selling the idea of soloing to make his living (aspects of that are certainly problematic), but typically we don’t. So let’s not hold a double standard and criticize SBC for selling her… assets.

The question is what’s wrong with the rest of us.

Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Right? Well, guess what. The game sucks. Once I pitched an article about climbing in the Dominican Republic to a magazine I’ll leave unnamed, and they told me just to be sure to get lots of pics of chicks in bikinis. No joke. The climbing media should be better than that. We have so many badass female athletes whose abilities are so far superior to the average climber (male, female, trans, or whatever) that we don’t need to use sex to sell them. Yet we do precisely that, and SBC is proof. The onus is not on girls like SBC who dress up in their skivvies for crotch, butt, and boob shots (though they are complicit); the onus is on consumers to reject that shite, and the media not to sell it in the first place.

Whatever dude, that’s how it’s always been, and how it always will be.

I’ve heard this attitude a lot. There’s a name for that kind of reasoning. It’s called “appeal to tradition”, and it’s a logical fallacy.  In this case, the tradition we are appealing to is a dumb one.  Presenting women as eye candy to sell climbing products reinforces – in layman’s terms – a shitty paradigm.  We shouldn’t do it, and we don’t have to do it. As a consumer, your voice is powerful. If a shoe company is selling their products with crotch shots, call them out in social media. If enough people do it, they’ll listen.

But males are objectified, too.

The climbing industry objectifies all their athletes by branding, packaging, and selling them to consumers.  That’s nothing new. You have the humble climber, the conservationist climber, the artist climber, the community climber.  You all know what I’m talking about. What that copy does is it makes someone more than just a ‘monkey with big forearms’. If we make SBC the model for how we brand female climbers, then the brand we sell is a ‘monkey with boobs’. And that doesn’t reflect values that the climbing community has traditionally held, and certainly not ones that we hold currently.

What happens when you search google images for ‘monkey with boobs’. Not exactly the message we want to be sending.

So what can we do?

If you’re a climbing company, don’t sell distasteful products. If you’re going to whine to me, ‘but sex sells’, then why not just delve into the sex industry outright, and get into pornography? Just because you can make a dollar doing it doesn’t mean you should. If you want to support the climbing community, promote athletes in a way that reflects traditionally held community values: athletic prowess, exploration, courage, and conservation.

If you’re a consumer, speak out. When you see things that raise your hackles, say something. Marketers read comments, they listen to hate, everybody is afraid to put his or her foot in his or her mouth, and lose brand credibility. In the end, it’s not that difficult. If you don’t like the way women are portrayed in the climbing media, just be transparent. Don’t beat around the bush. Say what you are thinking.  Trust me: you’re not alone.


What google images shows me when I search for “woman.” It’s not just about climbing, sexism is ubiquitous. But I like to think of the climbing community as somewhat more enlightened. Let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard.

[Note: I contacted SBC a few weeks ago via her PR rep to ask if she would consent to an interview for this article. I did not receive a response.]

[For more reading on this, check out the following links: (which is kind of an indirect response to the article above)
(which is kind of a direct response to the piece in climbing)
(which is a well-rounded article on the subject by a woman)
(which considers the idea of climbing babes, and how they fit into a feminist context).]



  • The only problem I see with this article is that SBC is not really an elite athlete, at least comparatively. Alex Puccio or Alex Johnson or Sasha DiGiulian would have been better examples. SBC is almost more model than climber.


    • That’s an interesting point. I chose SBC for precisely that reason. Two things about SBC are true: 1.) she’s not on the same level of Puccio, Johnson, or DiGuilian; yet she maintains almost as large an industry presence; and 2.) SBC is a lot better of an athlete than people realize (and this is true because she is never portrayed as an athlete, she is portrayed as a model). I think those two facts really highlight why she is an example of sexism in climbing, and that is why I chose her as a case study.


      • You are both fools.

        Look at her performance in the World Cup last year and tell me she isn’t an athlete.

        In one event she beat Akiyo Noguchi and consistently placed in the top 30 female competition boulderers… IN THE WORLD.

        Not an athlete. You would not know an athlete if you fell over one in the street.


  • Search for man on Google; results are good looking men. I think it’s a weak example to end on in an otherwise strong article. It’s funny,a few of these articles have popped up recently and I haven’t related because in my circles, sexism isn’t an issue. As you point out, all things being equal, no gender has a distinct advantage in climbing and the culture typically reflects that. Climbing media seems a little different.

    About sex: I don’t think showing skin is a bad thing. Should we cover women up? Let’s not be prudes. SBC, Honnold, Lynn Hill, etc etc are sexy. This sport creates amazing bodies and movement; why not show that off?


    • Good insights, Stamati. I hadn’t googled Man – but you’re right. Of course, our notions of what makes man man and woman woman are inherently flawed, and that goes across gender race and cultural boundaries.

      As for showing skin; read carefully. I’m not suggesting SBC do anything different. I agree with you, everyone should do/wear whatever they want. That said, if we dress women (or men) up specifically to show off their bodies in a sexualized way – in other words, if it is staged – then I think we reinforce a negative behavior.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Why is “Yes; they REALLY said, “TheGymIsEverywhere”” sexist? Sounds like you’re REALLY reaching for some material here. What’s more likely: a climbing article would mention that the gym is everywhere in reference to how rock climbing is seemingly everywhere you go and is accessible, or a climbing article is making a slimely comment about women?

    Sounds more like you’re trying to make an issue out of nothing, really poor article.


    • “Gym Everywhere” not sexist. Just a personal quip, I thought many readers would find funny. It also shows the distance of Reebok from understanding core traditional climbing values (i.e., the sport existed before gyms, and many climbers think gyms have had a negative impact on the sport).

      You didn’t care for the article, no worries. But if you’re going to comment on the lack of quality, it makes sense to point out specific reasons why, I would think.


  • Hi, thanks a bunch for posting this.

    Very often it seems to me like the voices of people concerned with sexism in climbing are really isolated. Your piece is super straight forward and readable (I mean both in a good way!) and hopefully it will speak to many.

    About two or more years ago I wrote an article for Outdoor Women’s Alliance which was really widely read (they told me the stats and I forgot but I remember being super surprised).

    It was written on the side of my MA thesis on a similar subject. Out of nowhere, Climbing Mag found this piece and wrote what in my opinion is a rather thoughtless, crude response:

    It was especially annoying, admittedly totally on a personal level, that they didn’t even link to my original article or mention my name while quoting my words. The citations also were massively out of context and therefore the editor used them to her advantage. Disappointing move from what is supposed to be a quality climbing media outlet.

    Anyhow, I wrote a response to the above ‘rant against rants’ but nobody ever read it. (I was at the time working for EpicTV and although the content manager was happy for me to publish the article, we were not too pushy with promoting it.)

    And I thought that this piece from Misadventures Mag offered a balanced, well rounded look:

    And this one is about ‘climbing babes’ and how it fits in with feminism:

    Sorry for bombarding you with all the links. Just thought you might be interested in reading these in case you haven’t come across them in your research for the post above. I’d be very keen to know your thoughts.

    I’m at a point where I feel a bit tired of the subject, and it’s not so much because of the year spent in the library and doing fieldwork research for my thesis, as it is cause of talking to people who seem to have their ears closed for everything they don’t like about themselves. If one day what we’re saying is going to be obvious to all, I think we will be in the position to give ourselves a little bit credit for making that happen, even if now it all seems like a tiny drop in the ocean.


    PS. I first came to your page when I got sent the link to your Dawn Wall article. Still one of my favourite climbing pieces of all time!


    • Hi Zofia,
      Thanks for the long well-thought-out reply, and for your regards. I thought about doing a more thorough research of the subject, and was even advised to do so by a female editor for a climbing magazine when I put an early draft by her. In the end though, I just wanted to speak strongly and from an emotional context about an issue I feel people (especially males) are wishy-washy about too often.

      I expected a bit of push-back from females saying something to the effect of “who are you to say what we can and can’t do with our bodies”, so I tried to explicitly avoid laying blame on SBC or any individual woman. My goal was to simply point out a phenomenon, and suggest we stop pretending it doesn’t exist. So thanks for reading the whole article and noticing my intention!

      I’m going to add all your links to the article itself as options for further reading. While I understand your exhaustion and frustration with the subject, I would encourage you to continue taking a strong stand on it. With any kind of social change, the loudest voices always come from the opposition… In the end though, the opposition to change inevitably crumbles before it. Your voice is an important one, so keep speaking.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Zof, you are a superstar! Thank you again for voicing the intention of the original article you wrote for Outdoor Women’s Alliance (Chris, thank you for posting all those links, too) and thank you for clarifying your point when Climbing published the out-of-context response. I understand where Julie was coming from after a conversation with her (being an editor is rough work, and she’s been working hard to show women as athletes since she’s been on board), and I think she understood a bit more of your side (hopefully) and Outdoor Women’s Alliance’s side as well — especially that your article had nothing to do with Sasha’s Instagram post the day we republished (your article preceded that by nearly a year), and the repost of it was scheduled long before Sasha posted her photo — we had no way of knowing that would happen.

      The problem is, these things can cause people to act quickly out of emotion, rather than striving to understand context and an author’s reasoning. It’s understandable; it’s a kind of defense mechanism that we have as humans. We don’t have to agree with each other, of course, but if we could all practice a touch of patience and dialogue with each other before responding angrily, man, what a better internet world it would be!

      I, too, am tired of the contention around this issue, but change has certainly been made and will continue as long as voices of reason show where things can be improved. Encouraging promotion of climbing athletes (both men and women) for their skills rather than bodies is what will win the game. Anger, pointing fingers, and name-calling won’t.

      Hi5 to you, sister! (And thanks again, Chris!)


  • I like how you twice made an appeal to tradition directly after explaining how “appeal to tradition” is a logical fallacy. When you don’t like the tradition being referred to, you dismiss it as a fallacy, and when you do like the tradition being referred to, you think it’s a sound basis for sticking to it. It’s called “special pleading”, and it’s a logical fallacy.

    I also like the bit when you say “there’s more to a woman than how she looks” and “A woman is more than her body”, then essentially go on to say that you consider Blair-Coyle to be “a monkey with boobs”.

    But I’m really puzzled by how you end the article with the image search results for “woman”, and seem to consider it to be evidence that sexism is ubiquitous. All eight image results show a woman, in each case simply a head shot with her smiling and looking into the camera. No gratuitous cleavage on show, no ass shots. Even the related searches are incredibly neutral (average, standing, symbol, etc rather than sexy, hot, naked etc). What is sexist about it? I really fail to see. Is it simply because they are beautiful? Do you equate beauty with sexism? They’re certainly all good looking women, but not sexualised. If you did an image search for “woman” and it showed a load of faceless women bent over wearing short skirts I would understand your attitude, but the results are so mundane.


    • On the appeal to tradition, you’re technically incorrect. There’s a difference between saying A has always been, thus A should always be. And saying A has always been, we should do B instead.

      I never said that I consider SBC to be a monkey with boobs. I said that if we as a community present her boobs as her defining feature as a climber, then that is what we brand her as (monkey being a colloquialism used amongst climbers for one another (i.e, #themonkeysaresending, yosemite monkey stewards, etc)).

      In the image search result for woman, your point is a good one. Yes, it could be worse. That said, I find the image result to be the opposite of representative of what almost all women I’ve met actually look like. They’re all made to look cute, adorable, agreeably smiling, perhaps with a vacant gaze (for the blond), or a somewhat mischievous one. Also note how most are wearing white – a nod to purity. Shit, all of them ARE white (another can of worms on its own). Yes, they aren’t all bent over (thankfully); but no, google’s notion of what a woman is isn’t void of sexualization, sexism, or at all representative of women as a whole.


  • I’ve been staying away from any climbing media ever since I started the sport for exactly this reason – avoiding the images, the mixed messages, etc. Ultimately that’s not helping anyone either. I might not be as complicit, but I’m not making my displeasure known to the people who value a good rapport with their customers and readers. So thanks – this article was illuminating. Also, thanks for the list of female athletes to read into 🙂 the downside of avoiding all media is you don’t get any heroes to look up to, either.
    And as someone who routinely sees people get it wrong, thank you for your attention to language and phrasing 🙂


    • Thanks for your thoughts, Deunan. I’m not going to say following the climbing media will make your life decidedly better – but there are shining lights out there, for sure. Alpinist Magazine just ran an issue (52) focused on female climbers, and there are beautifully written articles by incredible talents such as Ines Papert, Kei Taniguchi (recently, sadly, deceased), Natalie Martinez, Jewel Lund, and many others. The editor in chief of Alp is a woman herself, and keenly interested in portraying the feats of women in the climbing community in a more equal light than they have been in the past. Her research constantly uncovers instances where many early first ascents either had a strong female protagonist along the team, or were done by women themselves. Miriam Underhill’s book Give Me The Hills is a great one, and shows how long ago women were leading the way in climbing (not to mention thinking about the issues of gender preference in climbing). Also, take a look at some of the links provided by Zofia in the comments section!


  • No argument here about the rest of the article’s main message, but do you realize google weights results based on your search history when you’re logged in to chrome? And, not to deviate from the subject, but notice how all those women are white? Where are all of the non-white climbers in the media?


    • Thanks for your thoughts. I did realize that about google, but I think the algorithm is a bit more complex. For example, I had never searched for images of “monkey with boobs” before – yet google/chrome has to have some way to find me plausible results. I don’t know how they do it, but I do think it tends to be representative not just of the individual, but the society they exist in.

      As for your Q about all the women being white – that was a great point and one that struck me as well. A whole other can of worms I didn’t want to open up in this article! Thanks again!


  • There was an article about this in Rock And Ice as well. One of the female comments was ” the last thing I want to see at the gym is a faceful of labia.”

    Liked by 1 person

  • I read this article – -right after yours. Great guide for actually thinking about the images we take in.


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  • I’m a little confused . . . you both decry Coyle for being complicit in this game, but also defend her for using her sex appeal to be a professional climber.

    I also think the comparison between her and Honnold is inaccurate – I dont think Honnold is criticized for using free-soloing to further his climbing career because he is soloing at a level that an extremely small number of climbers are capable of (I mean, several of his solos are records set by Honnold or have never been soloed, and I think he definitely gets the criticism that what he does is overly dangerous). I do think that it would also be totally fair to criticize Honnold for what is clearly a sexualized shot that is tangentially climbing related b/c of a chalk bag.

    I also don’t think they are an equivalent comparison in that while Honnold is one of the top free-solo climbers currently alive, a quick glance on shows that there are at least 100 women who are capable of bouldering harder grades that Sierra. Even with finishing in 10th place last year at ABS Nationals, she has a significantly larger social media following than any other American climber; massively moreso than any other female climber, including Alex Puccio, who is a constant repeat national champion, and more than all the male climbers – more than Chris Sharma, who brought climbing into 5.15 and every subsequent level since, and whose routes become testpieces for the world’s best sport climbers.

    That said, I also wonder who actually buys the products she endorses, and what return on investment she actually creates – are her 300,000 facebook fans out buying climbing gear? I’ve been climbing for over a decade and I have yet to see anyone wear Reebok to a cliff, or seen anyone climbing outside or competing in Climb X shoes.


  • OK, so seriously, you’re concerned for women and reducing them to objects, and you are then too damned lazy to call Sierra Blair-Coyle by her name, (something that requires zero effort on a computer), reducing her to “SBC.”

    Uh huh.


    • Never thought of using someone’s initials as “objectifying” them – seems a bit extreme.

      More importantly, Adam – you point out that Sierra finished top 30 in most comps, and beat Akiyo Noguchi at an event. Let’s continue that comparison.

      Noguchi –

      35 podium finishes in bouldering world cups, including 17 1st place finishes. She has also climbed 5.14c and V12 outdoors, with the specific climbs listed.
      Facebook Fans – 18,000. Instagram Followers – 21,000.

      Coyle –
      0 podium finishes in bouldering world cups. She has climbed v9 and 5.13 outdoors, without the specific climbs listed.
      Facebook Fans – 350,000. Instagram Followers – 87,000.

      And to further the comparison, let’s add in another American climber who works as a full-time, professional climber, to try and control a bit for geography.

      Puccio –
      13 podium finishes, one 1st place finish. V13-V14 boulderer, with almost every hard send documented.
      Facebook Fans – 38,000. Instagram Followers – 81,000.

      While I don’t disagree that Coyle is an athlete, I don’t think she is nearly on the level of the actual elite in female climbing. I think it is a fair argument, then, to say that she gets a disproportionate amount of attention and promotion that is not directly related to her abilities as a climber.


      • Thank you, Mike, for saying what I wanted to say – only better, and with good research to back it up.

        The only thing I would add is that I want to clarify that I never doubted SBC as an athlete. I’ve been climbing for 15 years and I’m not a bad climber, but I certainly couldn’t compete with SBC on a bouldering/sport climbing level. My goal was not to question her credentials, but to call attention to what Mike pointed out: a disproportionate following based on something (I think it’s not hard to guess what), other than her climbing resume.

        And as for calling her SBC – I don’t know, I never thought anyone would find that disrespectful. People call Hayden Kennedy HK, or Tommy Caldwell TC… I just don’t see disrespect there. I certainly didn’t intend it as such.


  • Gracias Chris por el artículo…Que bueno saber que estos temas se están discutiendo!
    Las comunidades escaladora y montañista no están por fuera de la sociedad patriarcal y machista en la que vivimos…No sorprende que las publicidades estén plagadas de imágenes y frases elitistas, sexistas, discriminadoras, exitistas y racistas.
    Pero es muy importante que podamos sostener estas discusiones. Que se hablen de estos temas, que estén en las agendas de los medios de escalada y montaña. No podemos continuar reproduciendo los mismos estereotipos sexistas, justificando las desigualdades…
    Podemos hacerlo mucho mejor…
    Del sexismo se desprende la violencia machista…En el sexismo se reproducen y justifican los estereotipos y las desigualdades de género.
    Es un trabajo de todos los días. De reflexionar sobre como nos expresamos, como nos comunicamos…Es tener el oído y la mirada afilada, atenta.Cuestionar al sistema y cuestionarnos a nosotros/as mismos/as, a nuestras viejas estructuras.Esas que está bien adentro nuestro y que pensamos que nunca vamos a poder modificar…
    Abrazo Chris, y ojala que nos veamos esta tempo por acá por el sur!

    Nah =)


  • Hey, just stumbled upon this article. Thanks, Chris. It was good to read this. I live in the UK and oh well the issues are of course the same here, whether it’s climbing or other activities, whether it’s public or private life. Whether it’s a film festival where oddly enough there are only films about men (I kid you not, the only short film about a woman during a three day film festival as “The Keeper of the Mountains” and all the guest speakers were – you guessed it – men only) or the initiative that you also mention in your article “Climb Like A Girl”. What a wrong, ridiculous way to go about things, perpetuating the status quo, implying that there is a “female” way of climbing. Luckily I then stumbled upon a clip about the German Climbing Team training, where female and male climbers train together, that made me feel better – ). I think as long as this is being talked about and there is an awareness that the status quo is not ideal, there is hope for things to change.
    So – thanks for writing about this. Everyone should be “going there”!


  • Very interesting as a climber I fully agree. Women are more than her body. Unfortunately a lot of male climbers are all for sexualizing women that way. So although you are correct men reinforce it.. And not all men I would say most don’t but there are a lot that do.


  • Ummm… sex sells. Why do people get so offended over what works in the advertisement industry? Also, men are objectified just as much… I seriously don’t care one bit about the ‘objectification’ of women AND men. It’s just a way for advertisers to get people’s attention. Stop worrying so much about other people, and focus on yourself and your goals. Jealousy is not flattering, and complaining isn’t either. This reeks of feminists BS. So what she’s sexy… Why are you so upset? Are you envious? Because it sure looks that way to me…


  • Sexism is not the same as objectification… Sexism is defined as thinking one gender is superior to the other in one of many ways. There is nothing ‘sexist’ about showing a picture of a butt… Tbh, it’s more sexist to act like women should be objectified less than men. So, I guess you’re the sexist then… lol


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  • People who see “sexism” everywhere, and want to be angry by what they choose to perceive. I really don’t think there is any problem here. I don’t know about that second rate Dominican example ya got there, but for the most part, I don’t think there is anything particularly out of line going on. That said, I’ll be the first to say I am not an expert in climbing media, but I’ve seen enough to say, take a small step back, laugh at how seriously you’re taking everything, and realize that there is actually a GOOD reason why human beings are often portrayed the way they are. I’ll go on a little tangent, but do you know why morbidly obese people are not portrayed in advertisements for anything active? Because it is in FACT not ideal to be that way (type 2 diabetes and all). You’d probably prefer to see dad bods left and right, though


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