It might be 2017, but the sexist attitudes of decades past are still prevalent in our society and they’re playing out on rivers and trails in ways you never have imagined.
Last year, an investigative report furnished by the U.S. Department of the Interior showed that women in the rafting industry have been the victims of sexual misconduct for years. The report zeroed in on the Grand Canyon River District in response to a letter of complaint filed by 13 former and current National Park Service employees who had experienced or witnessed “discrimination, retaliation, and a sexually hostile work environment.”
The subsequent investigation unveiled much more than that. Sexual propositioning, inappropriate physical contact, and verbal harassment were rampant, the report found, and the resulting disciplinary action was either inconsistent or insufficient.
Since the release of that investigation, thousands of women from all facets of the outdoor industry have stepped forward to share their stories. In 2016, over 2,500 women responded to a harassment poll conducted by Runner’s World. The results showed 43 percent of women answering, “always/often/sometimes,” to the prompt, “How often, if ever, does a stranger whistle at you, comment on your body, needlessly honk at you, or give you other similar unsolicited sexual attention?”
Similarly, Outside Magazine found earlier this year that 53 percent of women have been sexually harassed while recreating, and of that percentage, 93 percent have been catcalled, 56 percent have been followed by someone, 18 percent have been flashed, and 4 percent have been attacked.
All of that negative energy is bound to have consequences. Women who choose to take their adventuresport further, either competitively or professionally, must battle the misperception that women are weaker. That same Outside study found that 69 percent of women have been condescended to as an athlete. Another 82 percent felt that people expected less of them athletically due to their gender.
This is not okay.
What Happens On The River Stays On The River
Unique to the situation of raft guides is what happens after work hours. Raft guiding is a seasonal job lasting anywhere from three to six months. Most guides live in temporary housing, in the form of tents or cabins, alongside other employees and on company property. The distinction between work and play is blurry at best.
“It’s challenging just in that you’re living and socializing with your work partners,” says 33-year veteran guide and former ACE Chief of Staff Dave Bassage. “In most of the business world you’re not socializing with the people you work with in quite the same way. [As a raft guide] you may be working with your ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, whereas in the real world you would be unlikely to face that challenge.”
For 22-year guide and Active Southern West Virginia Executive Director Melanie Seiler, the close-knit feel of raft guiding was something she treasured early on. The daughter of Susie Hofstetter, former owner of Songer Whitewater (which has since merged with Adventures on the Gorge), Seiler practically grew up on the New and Gauley Rivers.
“Raft guides felt like an extension of family,” she says. “They felt like uncles and brothers and sisters who were always looking out for me since I was a little kid.”
But soon, even Seiler’s love of the guide culture was put to the test when a male guide smacked her on the butt while she was pulling herself back into his raft. She was just 16 at the time.
“I can still feel that emotion,” she says. “I felt like I was in a vulnerable position. I was fully exposed. To get smacked in the rear end made me see red. As soon as I could stand myself up in the boat I smacked him across the face as hard as I could.”