Feminist kiteboarding

4 min read

A friendly shout out to other weekend’s all-male kiteboarding gang:  Thank you for not assaulting me! 

Seriously.  I am sincerely grateful to have been treated like a mundane, non-gendered human being.  Nobody hurt me, treated me like fresh meat, or shunned me for declining to be cajoled into sex. 

Over the past 6 years, I’ve taken 16 unaccompanied, overnight kiteboarding and snowkiting trips, traveling from 250 to 5000 miles from home to enjoy my all-time favorite sport.  On 10 of those trips (63%), I’ve been hurt, in my capacity as a woman, by a male kiter. 

That’s the world we live in.  Also, that’s how much I love kiting. 

The most painful thing they do is proposition you and ostracize you when you decline.  Maybe that doesn’t sound that bad?  Do you need to hear about the more salacious incidents to feel moved?  Being cast out of the village is an age-old punishment for non-compliance with the social order.  It hurts deeply.  Twice I’ve sat alone on a dark beach on Christmas Eve, sobbing into my dog’s furry shoulder.  For me, the invalidation and invisibility of that type of injury pains me more than physical aggression.

Not only is social isolation existentially painful, but in any case, kiteboarding is by definition a group sport.  One needs other people:  to drive multiple cars for downwinders, to exchange tips about aerial tricks, to take cool photos of one another, to pool emergency spare parts on a beach far from kite shops, and — most importantly — to share apres kiting camaraderie.  Then there is teamwork prudently required to launch and land kites (which is the highest-risk step of kiting).

More often than not, when I have explained this reality, the listener suggests I should stop kiting. In 2017, as has been the case for millennia, the default solution to male aggression is for women to curtail life activities…not for men to refrain from aggression.

The media reports how a girl in an Islamist regime defies death threats to continue playing her beloved sport of basketball. Americans reflexively decry such barbaric curtailment of freedom, liberty, self-expression, and self-determination. But the same people apply a double-standard, admonishing me to abandon my kiteboarding hobby. The Muslim girl’s transgression is less threatening to you, because she’s not here asking you to include her as a peer; instead, she’s far away and unthreateningly playing on a team with her own kind.  It’s easier to have moral courage from afar and to support civil rights in the abstract.  In America, similarly to less wealthy and less democratic nations, women face higher external risks than men do to play the same games and enjoy the same weekend activities. Girls in Somalia should be just as free as boys to play basketball. Girls in America should be just as free as boys to kiteboard. That’s what feminism means. 

Despite being born with different genitals, we women have the same desire as men — to play, to explore the world, to experience intensity and challenge in sports, to be physical in our bodies, to revel in nature.  Are you mentally preparing a few contrarian data points to insist otherwise?  Don’t.  This is something we know – as much as scientific method can enable us to know a thing.  Study after study shows that, to the limited extent that gender-correlated differential desire to play sports exists, it reflects strategic adaptation to social constraints and cultural norms.  Women love sports as much as men do, but we’ve accommodated to constraints from an early age. Essentialism is the lazy, responsibility-abdicating rationalization of the unconsciously-privileged and ethically-compromised. 

Women are asked to change and constrain normal human behavior, to change our walking route, our clothing, our housing situation, our hobbies, and our vacations in order to reduce hate crimes against us.  Society is slowly awakening to the absurdity of demanding that would-be victims self-segregate and self-censor.  Rational people will someday soon agree that it is men who must change their behavior and make different choices.  Rape is only and entirely the fault of the rapist – it is not in any way ever the fault of a woman exercising her equal human right to stay out late at a party, enjoy a starlit walk on a beautiful beach, or wear a tank top in hot weather.  Ostracizing or badmouthing a woman who ignores or deflects advances is only and entirely a moral failing of the man – it is not in any way ever the fault of a woman joyfully pursuing a beloved pastime. 

Consider that I, too, find adrenaline sports intensely erotic; but, I don’t believe I’m automatically entitled to co-opt your body and your experience in service of mine.  Remembering that everyone you encounter is living a life as complex as your own, with their own oceanic stories, fears, and desires – that’s the hard and simple trick to treating women like people.

Did you know?  In this country, women are sometimes killed for trying to leave a relationship and upon filing for divorce.  Every year, there are incidents where a woman is physically attacked or murdered for not saying yes to a date, giving out a phone number, accepting a car ride, or consenting to sexual activity with a stranger on the street.  Our physical integrity is neither universally socially respected nor politically guaranteed.  “Consent. Or I’ll make you consent” is a widespread attitude among men.  Consequently, for women, the better part of valor sometimes is acquiescing to undesired interactions, rather than risk a battle.  (Hence, the gross underestimation of the prevalence of non-consensual sex. And, hence, the welcome new custom of seeking affirmative consent.)  More often, in response to being rebuffed, the man questions your sexual orientation, calls you ugly names, attacks you online, sends you a torrent of hateful threatening messages, tells everyone he slept with you anyway, starts dangerous rumors about you, or socially ostracizes you.  Saying “no” is risky. 

So, I am sincerely grateful for that blissfully drama-free weekend at the beach. 

Though, it didn’t stay that idyllic…

But first, an aside on gratitude:  I am tired of being told to be “grateful” for the “compliment” of not being too old or too ugly to be a sex object.  Indeed, the only other female kiter I’ve since met at that kite spot (whom others reference by shorthand as “the heavyset one”, when actually all they need to say is “the woman”, just like in the snowkiting paradise of Sanpete County, Utah one only needs to ask where “the bar” is because there’s only one…) insisted to me that she has never once been excluded or hurt from male kiting gangs, and I thus have suspiciously bad luck. So, the boys are correct that I could allow myself to feel grateful; when they exclude me it’s only because I’m appealing, whereas they don’t exclude her because she’s not appealing.  In their worldview (lately normalized on a grand stage by President Trump), women’s worth is tied to appearance.  But in my experience of human existence, a superficial compliment doesn’t cancel out the pain of exclusion.  The two categories have no exchange rate.  Apples and ocelots.  One has absolutely nothing to do with the other.

One must also be thoughtful to recognize that “gratitude” is the infamous benediction from rapists; they are known to tell victims to feel grateful for being good enough to be chosen.  On one kiting trip, I passed out from drinking (for the first time in 20 years, which I resentfully feel compelled to stipulate here, because we judge women more harshly for smaller transgressions), and woke up to a man telling me I should be grateful that he didn’t do anything to me. In his estimation, I was good enough to be spared. Either way, they choose for us, and we are deflated by the reminder of our chronic vulnerability.

The fantastical, heart-warming uneventfulness of that particular kiting weekend at the lake has since been superseded by a more familiar dynamic:  About half the kiters (“male kiters” being virtually redundant) shrugged off my offer to trade contact info. The privileged dismissal goes that I should passively await “word of mouth” to find out about kiting. (However, the men coordinate amongst themselves using telecom tools, not via word of mouth. It’s an unveiled blow-off.)  Others pulled a Mike Pence, shunting me off to connect with the non-kiter girlfriend with whom I have little in common. Another weekend, I was left wandering down a beach one moonless midnight looking for someone who invited me to kite, but then inhospitably ghosted me when I arrived, leaving me to pitch a tent in the parking lot until the light of dawn welcomed me instead. He said it had nothing to do with me politely declining to date him, but he never spoke to me again. Another weekend, one guy texted me that he wasn’t going to the lake; but it turned out that, at the same time, he told the rest of the gang that he was going (and did go). Later, I was the only kiter from the group not invited to a snowkiting networking social night in town, despite two kiters asking the host to invite me (and me having more snowkiting experience than most of them). One of the non-kiting girlfriends was the only woman at that gathering; she wondered why I wasn’t there but stayed silent, despite knowing full well how much I longed to be included. (So, not only is it #notallmen, but it is #somewomen who can’t relate their abstract civil rights platforms to concrete situations right in front of them where they could make a difference. Overcoming the bystander impulse is hard…even for those who rail against the people who don’t overcome the bystander impulse.) Now, a few weeks after my ecstatic weekend of feeling like I might finally be accepted as just another human kiteboarder, I’m left with the tired realization that every one of those Denver kiters has blown me off.

Kiteboarding sub-cultures have no reason to be immune to the biases and bad behaviors of wider society. Nonetheless, running into that social imperfection in an otherwise idyllic, recreational context surprises me every time.  For me, kiteboarding is an incomparable peak experience where the boundaries of the Self dissolve, the chaotic brutality of wind and waves elevates nature to the sublime, and through the sacrament of this sport, I glimpse the infinite. I won’t ever quit. It is totally worth it. 

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