men, masculinities and gender politics

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Rafting in the Cascades

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A true story about confronting sexism

I was guiding a group of men on a two-day white water rafting trip on the Upper Klamath River near the Oregon border. This wild, isolated section of the Klamath slices through the rugged Cascade Mountains of southern Oregon and northern California. With its unparalleled wilderness beauty and over 30 major rapids including "Hells Corner Gorge" it is one of the west's finest Class IV-V river trips. This place has remained unchanged since covered wagons creaked nearby along the Oregon Trail in the 1800s.

My group consisted of 11 men aged between thirty and fifty. My helper was a young guide called Eril who had not guided a commercial trip on this river before. I'd kept him close to me as we negotiated the tricky in the magnificent canyon. We'd had a very successful run through the gorge and played a significant part in a rescue involving two other rafts. We had all experienced that level of bonding which occurs in some danger sport activities. I could not have been happier with the performance of this group.

As we drifted on the calm waters leading to our pullout we were tired but content. This was rafting and companionship at its best! Later we prepared the evening meal to the good-hearted storytelling as the men recaptured the excitement of the gorge. However after a while they had settled into some serious drinking. They were here to celebrate the impending wedding of one of their members. This was a stag trip! Soon the evening activities became debased. They passed around pictures of women in degrading sex acts with animals and other sorts of porn. Their jokes had the usual demeaning and sexist tone to them. I felt uncomfortable and wished I could leave the group, but was obliged to stay until I had fed them all. I wondered how they could get so much pleasure by diminishing women.

Like any group of men at a 'stag' party they wanted to include me in their activities. They kept pouring me drinks and laughingly implied my 'Aussie image' would be reduced if I refused to join them. This was very hard for me. I liked the men; we had shared danger together and had been generous in the rescue of the other rafters. Any refusal on my behalf to join would also brand me an outcast, a 'wuss'. My heart pounded as I realised I was up against that old male tribal thinking which said "We'll accept you, even protect you, but you will not go against the traditions, you must follow the rules of the tribe." This was the old male conversation about women that had been around for thousands of years.
I checked in with myself and decided to talk to them. Summoning all my courage I told them that I taught gender awareness courses to schools and with men in the wider community. I could not condone their actions because I knew how sexist behaviour underpins sexual assault and other forms of violence against women. I explained how this tore at my heart since I liked them and wanted them to enjoy their rafting trip. I suggested they have fun and celebrate the impending marriages without having to demean women. But by now they had downed a number of hard drinks so my speech appeared futile. Some of them indicated I was being a spoilsport! Unfortunately Eril, the young guide joined in with them, but I could hardly blame him! He had neither the maturity nor the understanding to do otherwise.

As soon dinner was over I moved my bedding up river out of earshot from the group. I'd rather be amongst the bears than be involved with the smut. I had the usual sick feeling in my gut when I heard women being degraded. It reminded me of my youth in rural Australia when I'd had to choose between supporting women or being included in the dominant male group. When I'd tried to resist the group I'd been teased but if I went along with them I felt dirty and in betrayal of the women I loved. Now many years later I felt alone and sombre in contrast to the laughter floating up the valley from the 'party'. I lay on my back looking up at the stars trying to connect with nature and calm the confusion I felt. Eventually I began to feel grounded and fell asleep to the sounds of river and the animals of the night.

I was in camp early the next morning to get a strong brew of coffee going. We had some very serious rapids to run and I did not want any of the group to be hung over. They needed to be fit and alert. The men filtered down to breakfast one by one but surprisingly appeared bright and energetic. These guys were obviously conditioned to solid drinking sessions. After hash browns and pancakes I went down to prepare the rafts. I was shocked when I saw that both rafts had a life-size blow up doll lashed to their bows. Oars and paddles had been crudely shoved into all orifices and the site was grotesque. I normally loved the mornings on the river, it was a time to connect with nature and prepare for the day.

A showdown was imminent. I gathered the men who were giggling like schoolkids. I asked that they remove the blow-ups and stated again that I was not happy at the disrespect to women. I worried how these attitudes might affect their marriages. One man argued vehemently against me. He was the Vietnamese son of an American GI. He had in the past, led some of the group on trips to Vietnam where they visited prostitution houses. Last night I'd heard them laughing and boasting about what they'd done on their last trip.

Eventually I insisted that if the blow-ups were not removed the trip would end there and we would all have to walk out. Stalemate!

At last the men agreed and we spent the next hour working hard to break camp and tie everything into the rafts. I worried how this conflict might affect our ability to perform on the river. I was confused and felt leaden. Camp is usually a serene environment. Our trestle tables are set up facing the water and it is common to see bears feeding on the far shore in the evening and early morning. My fingers fumbled and it was clear that the events had affected me deeply. It was all I could do to focus on the task ahead. I asked Eril to double-check everything I did so that our safety was not jeopardised. The trip through the canyon was dangerous and I carried this burden on my shoulders.

I breathed a sigh of relief as we pushed off into the current; I could now be a guide again. The next moment took me by surprise! Four of the six men in my boat turned to me and thanked me for having the courage to make the stand I had. They had wives, sisters and women they loved at home; they had felt compromised by the group degrading women. Individually they had struggled with breaking male traditions, upsetting their friends or spoiling the fun! I was astounded! This was my reward for speaking out! I relaxed and began to focus on the guiding the group through the gorge without incident.

Copyright by Pip Cornall. This is a true story and may be used with permission from the author to further violence prevention work against women.

Pip (background in Physical Education) has been working with the Australian Sports Commission to assist sporting organizations address issues around harassment and abuse in sport. He gives workshops in Australia and the United States on male gender issues including violence & sexual assault prevention. Has presented workshops to high profile athletes (Olympic etc) within the ASC and successfully uses conferences * to resolve existing harassment related disputes. Recently his programs received favourable publicity on ABC radio stations Australia wide. Pip is also a conference* convenor with the NSW department of Juvenile Justice.

Pip may be contacted at pipcorn2001[at]yahoo.com.