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"We have to establish our territory": how women surfers ‘carve out’ gendered spaces within surfing



This Research Insight piece examines how southern California recreational women surfers experience, cope with and contest their marginalized status within the male-dominated sport of surfing. Drawing on literature that focuses on women in alternative sports, I argue that women surfers face similar contradictions, such as developing strategies to cope with and contest their marginalized status and creating separate spaces. Surfing is a fruitful area of study because it is a recreational activity that is not bound by any formal rules or regulations that separate women and men from participating with each other, but as this study will show, surfers are constructing gender boundaries. This study builds on existing literature that examines the varying ways sporting women resist and reproduce dominant cultural understandings of gender, as well as focusing on how creating separate spaces is a source of empowerment for women in masculinized spaces.
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Sport in Society
Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics
ISSN: 1743-0437 (Print) 1743-0445 (Online) Journal homepage:
"We have to establish our territory": how women
surfers ‘carve out’ gendered spaces within surfing
Cassie Comley
To cite this article: Cassie Comley (2016): "We have to establish our territory": how
women surfers ‘carve out’ gendered spaces within surfing, Sport in Society, DOI:
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© 2016 Taylor & Francis
"We have to establish our territory": how women surfers
carve out’ gendered spaces within surng
Cassie Comley
Sociology Department, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR, USA
is study sought to understand whether women surfers face subcultural barriers within
the surng space and analyse if/how women surfers are contesting gender relations. e key
to understanding lay in examining the varying ways in which women surfers navigated the
surf landscape and their perceived marginalized status, which ultimately led some of them
to create their own gendered spaces. Findings from this study demonstrate that women
surfers do face subcultural barriers within the surng space and tend to draw on dominant
cultural understandings of gender to cope with or contest their marginalized status. Surng
is a valuable site for studying how women navigate male-dominated spaces for the following
reasons: rst, surng is not an organized or traditional sport, it is a highly individualized
activity and it is a mixed-sex activity (at least at the recreational level); second, it was orig-
inally a sport enjoyed by both men and women in the Polynesian Islands, but when it was
introduced into the United States, it quickly became a sport dominated by men until the
1970s; third, surng is typically gender-typed as masculine (orpe 2009; Stoddart 2011),
This Research Insight piece examines how southern California
recreational women surfers experience, cope with and contest their
marginalized status within the male-dominated sport of surng.
Drawing on literature that focuses on women in alternative sports,
I argue that women surfers face similar contradictions, such as
developing strategies to cope with and contest their marginalized
status and creating separate spaces. Surng is a fruitful area of study
because it is a recreational activity that is not bound by any formal
rules or regulations that separate women and men from participating
with each other, but as this study will show, surfers are constructing
gender boundaries. This study builds on existing literature that
examines the varying ways sporting women resist and reproduce
dominant cultural understandings of gender, as well as focusing on
how creating separate spaces is a source of empowerment for women
in masculinized spaces.
CONTACT Cassie Comley
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even though there has been a growing number of women and girls who enter the sport’s
landscape (Ford and Brown 2006). Surng is an action sport which, some scholars believe,
provides a potential avenue for changing and challenging traditional cultural beliefs about
gender (Beal 1996; Anderson 1999; Laurendeau 2004, 2008; orpe 2005).
Surng as a gendered space
e sport of surng provides an opportunity to explore on a deeper level how women nav-
igate meanings of gender in an arena typically dominated by masculine gender norms. is
normalization of male-centricity is well captured in this testimony from Crystal:
If I see a guy and he isn’t catching waves, well then I’ll paddle over there and tell him to call
me o if he has it, otherwise they’re wasting it (the wave). at’s how they (men) look at us.
at we (women) wasted it. I’ll say something to them, but they won’t! ey just come over
and burn us. We have to establish our territory.
Crystal, advanced-intermediate, 50 year old woman surfer
is brief but illuminating story about a woman surfer’s experience of the surng space high-
lights a few important themes that occur at a local surf break in southern California. First,
many male surfers perceive women participants to be occupying a marginalized position
within the surng space. Women surfers in this study frequently reported being the only
woman out in the line-up, feeling singled out and being treated dierently by male surfers.
Crystal showed her awareness of her marginalized status by adopting a more aggressive
style of wave catching. Instead of waiting for the other male surfers to ‘burn her’ (when
a surfer who doesn’t have the right of way steals a wave from another surfer), she told
them to let her know whether they were going for the wave or else she was going to go for
it. Second, women surfers adopted a number of strategies to cope with and contest their
marginalized position. Crystal adopted a strategy of being assertive and calling for waves
instead of passively waiting for male surfers to ‘burn’ her. She had to adopt this strategy for
catching waves, whereas the male surfers’ strategy consisted of waiting for her to tell them
to call her o or simply ‘burning’ her. is dierence in choice of strategy further highlights
the third theme; the space is male-dominated. When Crystal said ‘we have to establish our
territory’, she emphasized the challenges and need for women to carve out gendered spaces
within male-dominated environments. Instead of accepting her marginalized status within
surng, she contested her position and proved she deserved to be there and that men do
not have priority over the waves. is case illustrates that some women athletes continue
to face subcultural barriers within male-dominated sports, but also that they oen engage
in a number of strategies to cope with and contest their marginalized status.
In recreational surng, there are no rules or formal regulations preventing women and
men from surng with each other, yet as this study shows, some men are engaging in
exclusionary practices that marginalize women. Since alternative physical cultures and
activities are not bound by any particular system of rules (Laurendeau and Sharara 2008),
these activities are not articulated in terms of sex/gender teams or leagues (Olive, McCuaig,
and Phillips 2015). Within alternative physical cultures, the marginalization or exclusion
of women occurs through ‘cultural understandings and expectations’ of how the activities
should be performed, or the assumptions about male and female performances (Olive,
McCuaig, and Phillips 2015). For example, some female snowboarders believe their abilities
are oen compared to ‘the boy’s scale’ (orpe 2005, 93) and young male skaters believe the
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lack of female involvement in skateboarding culture is tied to the ideology that ‘girls don’t
like to get hurt’ (Beal and Wilson 2004, 47). Some participants believe there are ‘female’ and
‘male’ appropriate ways of engaging in physical activities, so that even when women do well
or show commitment to their sport, their performance is still demarcated by gender, such
as they are still only ‘good for a girl’ (Booth 2001; Atencio, Beal, and Wilson 2009; Sisjord
2009). Exclusionary and marginalization practices are not limited to action sports; women
recreational golfers reported sought out ‘women-friendly’ courses to avoid practices that
trivialized and marginalized them as athletes (McGinnis, McQuillan, and Chapple 2005).
Exclusionary and marginalizing practices are not always contingent on gender. Within
some windsurng subcultures, women are judged not by their ability as ‘a woman, but
rather their level of commitment and skill (Wheaton and Tomlinson 1998). However, initial
experiences with windsurng subcultures can still be exclusionary for women. Women
initially felt deterred from participating in windsurng subcultures because of the myth of
the ‘macho man surfer’ that feeds into the idea that there is a ‘natural’ association between
masculinity and windsurng (Wheaton and Tomlinson 1998). is myth can be extremely
eective in marginalizing women’s involvement during the early stages of their participation,
but as more women challenge the association between masculinity and windsurng, they
nd themselves occupying a dierent role within the community. Wheaton and Tomlinson
(1998) found that some women’s role within the subculture was dependent on their pro-
ciency and extent of commitment to the windsurng culture. Only women who were ‘hard
core advanced windsurfers’ could be seen as ‘one of the lads’ instead of ‘a female windsurfer’
(Wheaton and Tomlinson 1998, 264). eir demonstration of sporting prowess, which was
an important aspect of peer approval, was still achieved in relation to other men windsurfers
(Wheaton and Tomlinson 1998). Women’s athletic abilities were still measured against ‘the
boy’s scale’ (orpe 2005, 93), but performance, not the fact that they were women, mattered
more (Wheaton and Tomlinson 1998). Windsurng provided women participants with a
sense of community and collective identity, but womanhood was not a basis of unity or
bonding (Wheaton and Tomlinson 1998). is is quite a dierent nding than I found in
my own work, in which womanhood was a sense of unity and bonding for some women
surfers that were not as skilled. is dierence may in part be due to surng’s ‘fraternal
structure’ of gender relations that marginalizes and excludes women surfers (Booth 2001).
When surng was rst introduced to Western cultures during the 1900s, it quickly spread
between groups of men who were in the social and cultural position to participate in this
new sport (Ford and Brown 2006). Since men had more freedom for leisure participation,
surng in Western culture has ‘undeniably a male-dominated history’ (Ford and Brown
2006, 94). It was not until the 1950s that women’s surng participation started to steadily
increase. Even though surf culture in the United States currently adopts a ‘fraternal structure’
(Booth 2001), there were times when gender relations were less oppressive. For example,
women competed against men in the International Surng Competitions until the late 1960s
when organizers thought it would be best to create dierent competitions for women and
men (Booth 2001). ere appeared to be ‘fraternal tendencies’ during the 1950s but the
fraternal structure of surng did not fully consolidate until the late 1970s and early 1980s
(Booth 2001). According to Booth (2001), this fraternization of surf culture emerged from
two shis occurring within the culture; rst, the radical shi in the surf media’s representa-
tion of women in the 1980s and, second, the long struggle waged by women surfers in the
1970s and 1980s to organize their own surf competitions. Women established their own
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professional surng tour because they saw the professional circuit as a way to contribute to
the development of the sport and combat the fraternization of the subculture (Booth 2001).
Due to these two occurring conditions, women found themselves increasingly marginal-
ized within surf cultures (Booth 2001; see also Roy and Caudwell 2014; Olive, McCuaig,
and Phillips 2015). Although there has been a ‘mass movement’ (Ford and Brown 2006) of
women surfers, they continue to face challenges both structurally and subculturally (Booth
2001; Ford and Brown 2006; Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips 2015).
Structurally, professional women surfers earn signicantly less money than male surfers
(Ford and Brown 2006). For example, the male winner of a surf event earns an average of
$100,000 compared to the female winner who earns about $40,000. ere are more male
surf events than there are female because they struggle to secure surf competitions each
year (Booth 2001; Ford and Brown 2006). Even though the gender gap in participation has
signicantly decreased over time (Stedman 1997), male surfers still outnumber women surf-
ers in the line-up (Roy and Caudwell 2014) and continue to dominate the covers of surng
magazines (Henderson 2001). Structural barriers are important to highlight, but as others
have suggested, empirical studies examining the ‘lived realities of mens and women’s sport-
ing experiences’ are needed within the study of sport (Wheaton 1998; see also Hargreaves
1994). By exploring the lived experiences of women and mens sporting participation, one
can further understand how these unique experiences have impacted ‘the ways participants
have come to understand surng experiences and cultures’ (Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips
2015, 259; see also Waitt 2008; Waitt and Warren 2008; Olive and orpe 2011).
In terms of subcultural barriers, women surfer’s experiences of the surng space are
varied. For example, some women surfers feel patronized and dierentiated by male surfers
out in the line-up (Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips 2015), whereas other women surfers feel
empowered and use surng as a space to contest traditional discourses of both femininity
and motherhood (Knijnik, Horton, and Cruz 2010; Spowart, Burrows, and Shaw 2010).
A study examining womens surfer’s experiences in a small beach town in Australia found
that women felt patronized by the ways in which male surfers engaged with them (Olive,
McCuaig, and Phillips 2015). Women surfers reported receiving extra levels of attention,
support and encouragement from male surfers, which may seem altruistic and supportive
to male surfers, but was perceived as patronizing by the female surfers. For the women,
receiving additional attention and support from male surfers was more dicult to negotiate
than openly discriminatory behaviour. Women surfers did not report experiencing any
overtly discriminatory behaviour, but men’s patronizing behaviour did make them feel as
if they were not ‘authentic’ surfers (Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips 2015). By dierentiating
women in the water, male surfers reinforced and maintained the idea that they are ‘women
that surf’ instead of ‘surfers’ (Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips 2015, 265). Even though women
surfers felt patronized and were being dierentiated they could still be agentic by refusing
the advice and help they received in the line-up. By refusing to accept being dierentiated,
women surfers have the potential to ‘carve out alternative ways of operating within the
power relations that circulate in the waves’ (Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips 2015, 273). is
study is a reminder that it is important to understand the everyday experiences of women
participants that might be overlooked at the structural level (Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips
2015; see also Roy and Caudwell 2014).
Similar to other alternative sports and sports in general, surng can be a medium through
which women can challenge dominant cultural beliefs about gender (Waitt 2008; Knijnik,
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Horton, and Cruz 2010; Roy and Caudwell 2014; Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips 2015). For
example, a group of professional Brazilian women surfers were both resisting and con-
forming to attitudes consistent with traditional ideals of the female body (Knijnik, Horton,
and Cruz 2010). Most of the women surfers felt pressured to conform to traditional beauty
standards and to promote their physical attractiveness, but this cohort of Brazil women
are starting to ‘carve out’ their own space as they continue to push against normative atti-
tudes about womens physicality. (Knijnik, Horton, and Cruz 2010). ese women surfers
occupied a contradictory position in the line-up because they are still ‘stuck in a web of
body and identity that is a central element of the dominant masculine hegemony’ that is
pervasive in Brazilian society (Knijnik, Horton, and Cruz 2010). e authors suggest that
women in sport generally occupy a position that is both compliant with and resistant to
hegemonic standards, a contradictory position that they will have to cope with at every stage
of their sporting practice (Knijnik, Horton, and Cruz 2010). is case of Brazilian surfers
highlights the contradictory position women surfers occupy within the surng space and
the potential for resistance.
Experiences of marginalization and exclusion are not exclusive to surng, but rather a
consistent pattern in the alternative physical culture literature. Even though non-traditional
sport spaces can oer great promise for the ‘realization of alternative and resistant sport
forms’ (Birrell and eberge 1994, 371), women participants in non-traditional sports still
face subcultural barriers. ey continue to struggle with: earning respect from their male
peers (Roy andCaudwell 2014), being seen as ‘authentic’ members of the culture (Atencio,
Beal, and Wilson 2009; Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips 2015) and being viewed as ‘real com-
petitors’ (Kay and Laberge 2004). Specically within surng, Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips
(2015) argue, “e greatest barrier for women surfers is the role men play in continuing to
dierentiate women within male-dominated surng cultures (258; see also Booth 2001;
Ford and Brown 2006). Even though women surfers have been a part of the subculture for
centuries, they continue to face subcultural barriers, such as marginalization. e current
study illustrates how women cope with and contest their perceived marginalized status.
Twenty-ve (15 female and 10 male) surfers ranging from ages 18 to 50, whose surng abil
ities range from beginner to advanced, were interviewed between June 2012 and September
2012 (each surfer self-reported their skill level). I spent approximately four months observ-
ing, conducting in-depth interviews and having informal conversations with surfers at a
popular beach in southern California. I used in-depth interviewing because I was interested
in seeking ‘deep’ information and knowledge from the participants (Johnson 2002). In-depth
interviewing aims to explore the ‘contextual boundaries’ of the experience or perception;
therefore, in order to understand how women surfers experience, cope with and contest
their marginalized status, I needed to uncover what is usually hidden from ordinary view
(Johnson 2002). e transcribed interviews were open coded, which meant I read my eld
notes and interviews line by line to identify and formulate any and all ideas, themes or
issues suggested in the data (Berg 2007). rough open coding, I was able to analyse how
women’s experiences intersect with and are shaped by their marginalized gender status.
I began my eld observations by hanging around the main entrance to the beach. Within
a few weeks, I met two female locals who eventually helped me locate other women surfers
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in the region and became my ‘eld guides’ (Berg 2007, 103). In the social world of surng, a
guide or informant would be called ‘a local’, which is someone most familiar with the break
who has an established relationship with the region’s surf community. I used this relationship
with the locals to meet other surfers. At rst, I was only an observer, but found it was more
fruitful to get o the sand and in the water to increase my chances of making contacts. I
found if I was just sitting on the beach next to my suroard surfers were less likely to talk
to me because as soon as they got out of the water, they would pack up their belongings
and leave. If I got in the water and paddled amongst groups of surfers, I could strike up a
conversation with surfers between sets. I used this break in the waves to generate a con-
versation about the wave conditions, which in some cases, lead to making a contact. As a
surfer myself, I occupied an ‘insider’ position within the culture. As an insider, it is assumed
I understand the ‘nuances of the cultural group’ because I am already a member of the sport,
which means I more than likely subscribe to the norms of the sporting practice (Fletcher
2014). Although being an insider may restrict a researcher’s ability to be critical (Fletcher
2014), I found it to be crucial in understanding how women surfers cope with and contest
their marginalized status. Based on my eld observations, semi-structured interviews and
conversations, I found that womens experiences, coping and contesting strategies were
contextualized by their perceived marginalized gender status. In the following sections, I
show how surng continues to be perceived as a male-dominant space and how women
surfers cope with and contest their status in the sport.
The Old Boys Club
I started every interview by having each surfer tell me how he or she got involved with
surng. Women surfers reported very dierent experiences gaining access to surng spaces.
Common themes included not being ‘invited’ to surf the space by male surf friends, not
surng when they were younger, getting extra attention from male surfers, feeling pressure
to perform and feeling as if they had to ‘represent’ for all women surfers. Many male surfers
interviewed reported incidents of treating women dierently out in the line-up. A few male
surfers reported feeling pressure to perform when they were a novice surfer, but this feeling
for women never shied with experience. All of the women, except one, said they had to
take a surng class to learn how to surf. Men reported no issues gaining access to the surng
space and none of them reported taking surf lessons. Some women even chose to surf at
other beaches that were more ‘women-friendly’ (where they did not feel like their gender
was salient), a nding similar to the experiences of female golfers (McGinnis, McQuillan,
and Chapple 2005). e following quote illustrates how women experienced the surng
space dierently to men:
You have to get that rst wave because everyone is watching you and waiting to see if you can
perform. You have to represent, especially as a woman. You have to show them (men) that
you deserve to be out there. e guys don’t have to do that and we (women) know that, but
we keep doing it anyway. (Katie, 44, intermediate)
Male surfers did not report having to ‘represent’ as a man or perform well to show they
deserved to be out in the line-up. Not once did men ever mention surng a dierent break
because it was not ‘men-friendly’. When I asked male surfers whether they ever saw women
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surfers being treated dierently or whether they treated women dierently, most of them
agreed they would give a woman a wave if they thought she was having a hard time catching
a wave. When I asked whether they would do this for a male surfer, they all agreed they
would not. Women were aware that men treated them dierently out in the line-up, which as
Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips (2015) argue, suggests women surfers are not seen as ‘authentic
surfers’ because they are treated dierently from male surfers (265). Even if male surfers
intend to give advice as an attempt to include and support women in the male-dominated
line-up (Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips 2015), women have dierent interpretations of the
situation. e following quote highlights how women surfers oen feel conicted about
accepting a wave from a male surfer:
You know, if you (men) want to give me this perfect A-frame wave then I am not going to
complain! (laughs) anks! (laughs again) But by me taking it, I’m kind of going back on my
beliefs. You know, a guy giving you a wave is like a slap in the face? Dude, really, we’re trying
to surf here. Maybe you should take us more seriously, yeah, we may not be as strong as you
and that’s nice of you, but really, don’t do it because you feel sorry, do it because you think we
need a wave because you think we are going to go crazy if we don’t get one! (laughs). (Jody,
25years old, advanced)
At rst, she wants the wave, but she knows if she takes the wave, she will be conforming to
dominant cultural ideologies about female physicality. In her perspective, she would be going
back on her beliefs if she accepted the wave, but she was comfortable accepting the wave if
the male surfer’s intent was grounded in the notion that she might ‘go crazy’ if she did not
get a wave soon. Sharing a wave with another surfer because, as a surfer, you understand
the need for a wave was acceptable to Jody, but simply giving a woman a wave because she
is a woman was a ‘slap in the face’. Male surfers may think they are acting altruistically and
not engaging in patronizing behaviours (Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips 2015), but women
surfers may not see it that way. is excerpt highlights the need to further understand
male surfers’ intentions when they give a woman surfer a wave/extra attention. However,
regardless of the intention, dierentiating women in the water further marginalizing them
within the community.
Understanding marginalization
Women surfers employed a number of strategies to cope with and contest their perceived
marginalized status. ree coping strategies emerged from the data: women surfed at friend
lier beaches, surfed the ‘set waves’ and/or joined all-women surf clubs. Joining an all-women
surf club eventually became a way for women to contest their perceived marginalized status
because surng with a large group of women meant they could physically occupy a space.
Women in the surf club reported feeling empowered over time, so even though the club
started as a coping mechanism, it became a mechanism of contestation when they interacted
with male surfers outside of the club. Acts of contestation varied by ability, with surfers in
the advanced category individually contesting the space and surfers in the intermediate
category contesting the space in groups of women. In a majority of cases, women relied on
dominant cultural understandings of gender to explain why women and men experienced
the space dierently. For example, when some of the intermediate surfers explained why
they surfed the ‘set waves’ (the inconsistent and less valuable waves), they typically said it
was due to men ‘naturally’ being more aggressive:
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I think guys are a lot harder on themselves, like they cuss at themselves and each other and I
am just like, ok, I will just wait for the next one. It’s not a big deal you know? So yeah, they are
harder on themselves, we (women) are just more easy going, we’re more casual, like yah know,
we’re just happy to be out in the water, enjoying Mother Nature. ey’re out there trying to
catch the big bombs. We’re just surng on the set waves yah know, not waiting for the bombs.
(Jenna, 49, intermediate)
Many male surfers used a similar framework for explaining gender dierences. As one male
surfer told me, he would rather surf with ‘girls’ because they ‘mellow everything out. By
associating maleness with trying to catch the biggest waves and femaleness with enjoying
mother nature/mellowing the vibe, male and female surfers are perpetuating the ideology
that men are ‘naturally’ going to adopt a more aggressive style of surng. Indeed, Waitt’s
(2008) study of male surfers found that men constructed their gender identity by being ‘in
control’ of the natural environment, by paddling into dangerous surf and conquering the
ocean (358). None of the male surfers challenged dominant cultural understandings of
gender nor did any of them report experiences of marginalization or exclusion (except a
few that reported these experiences when they were novice surfers), although many female
surfers did. In order to cope with their perceived marginalized status, some women surfers
oen joined all-women surf groups. By surng with an ‘army of women’ as one partici-
pant put it, the sheer number of women in the water contested the male-dominated space.
When women surf together in a surf club, it allows them to share waves with each other.
Women surfers felt empowered by each other and encouraged and supported each other,
which de-emphasized the competitive aspects of the sport. is nding shares similarities
with other studies that found when women join all-women sports groups/clubs, they can
hone their skills and increase visibility in traditionally male-dominated sports (orpe
2008; Stoddart 2011). As more women enter the highly masculinized space of surng, it
is pertinent to understand how their presence in the space transforms the landscape and
how they ‘carve’ out their own spaces. Although joining all-women sport clubs may not
challenge gender inequality in the sport more widely, it provides a platform for women to
improve their abilities and bond over womanhood. Perhaps eventually, as was the case with
female windsurfers, female surfers will be seen as ‘one of the lads’ or simply be judged by
their commitment to the community instead of demarcated by their gender.
Conclusion: Constructing gender boundaries
is case of women surfers highlights the varying ways in which women surfers cope with
and contest their marginalized status and illustrates how women surfers create separate
spaces. Women surfers reported dierent experiences gaining access to the space and felt
like they had to ‘represent’ for all women. Male surfers are perceived as having wave priority
and dierentiate women in the water, causing them to develop strategies such as surng the
‘le-over’ (less valuable) waves or joining all-women surf clubs to cope with their perceived
marginalized status. Joining surf clubs is an eective strategy for less-skilled women to feel
empowered and challenge the highly masculinized space. Depending on a surfers status,
women directly contested the space by paddling over to groups of men and calling for waves
or they surfed with an ‘army of women’ to physically take over the space. In some cases,
women reproduced dominant cultural gender ideologies when explaining how they coped
with their marginalized status.
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is study shares similarities with other studies examining women’s experiences in
alternative sport spaces. Even though male surfers dierentiated women surfers in the
water, women could refuse or reject male surfers patronizing behaviours and carve out
alternative ways of operating within the space (Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips 2015). Just as
previous studies have shown, surng can be a medium through which women surfers can
challenge and reproduce dominant cultural understandings of gender (Waitt 2008; Knijnik,
Horton, and Cruz 2010). Joining an all-women surf club or snowboarding club may not
be challenging broader cultural beliefs about women and men, but does create a space
where women feel empowered and can unite over womanhood. Creating more alternative
spaces for women to challenge sport’s masculine culture has been a strategy employed by
women from a range of sports such as snowboarding (orpe 2005, 2009), roller derby
(Finley 2010) and backcountry skiing (Stoddart 2011). For some women, this may be the
only available option to contest masculinized spaces and provide a space for women to
be themselves, a nding similar to Carrington’s (1998) study of the Caribbean Cricket
Club. Eventually, women sport participants may not need to join all-women surf clubs or
snowboarding camps in order to avoid feeling marginalized, but in order for this to occur,
there has to be ‘deeper structural change’ within surng, as well as in the broader sport
culture (Booth 2001). Examining local power relations is necessary for understanding the
day-to-day experiences of sporting women because it uncovers how power is reproduced
and challenged (Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips 2015). Future research could focus on the
following to further understand marginalization and resistance within surf cultures: analyse
how men and womens perspectives dier on matters such as giving up a wave, interview
more ‘hard core’ members to further understand how their commitment to the sport may
override gender dierences and compare two surng locations to analyse if dierences
are contingent on spatial location. is case of women surfers highlights the continuing
need to understand the complex relationship women occupy in marginalized positions in
male-dominated spaces.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author.
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... 28). Contrary to traditional team sports (e.g., soccer), recreational AHRS are not necessarily normalized through sexdifferentiated spaces or teams, nor any particular system of rules (Comley, 2015;Olive et al., 2012). In AHRS, performance is not based on defeating a human opponent but on mastering the tasks set by the environment (e.g., climbing a wall, surfing a wave). ...
... Women are far less represented in most AHRS than men (see Procter et al., 2014). Women in surfing reported coping with their marginalized status by choosing quieter beaches for surfing or going with big groups of girls to physically gain female space (Comley, 2015;Roy, 2016). Previous research has suggested that girls were afraid to use public spaces like a skatepark, to train and learn, because they feared negative comments about their participation and skills (Kelly et al., 2006). ...
... Various identities apart from traditional gender roles have been reported by female skateboarders (Atencio et al., 2009;Kelly et al., 2006), snowboarders (Thorpe, 2005), and climbers (Dilley & Scraton, 2010). Previous studies indicated that AHRS sports like surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding, or climbing seem to provide a space where women are eligible to challenge dominant attitudes toward gender, risk-taking, and embodiment (Comley, 2015;Dilley & Scraton, 2010;Thorpe, 2005;Wheaton, 2010). Physical activity has a positive impact on many healthenhancing psychological and physiological factors (Lee et al., 2012;McPhie & Rawana, 2015). ...
Adventure/high risk sports (AHRS) were developed in a different social context and are usually not separated by sex which might lead to differences in gender-related experiences. This study qualitatively compared 10 female traditional sport participants (soccer players) with 10 female AHRS participants (trad climbers [TC]) regarding their experience of possible gender-related advantages and disadvantages in their sports. The TC climbed with more male partners. The TC reported to not consider gender as a determining factor in the choice of climbing partner or their trad climbing experience. The TC mentioned more female advantages in their sport participation and reported fewer gender-related barriers than soccer players. Differences might be explained through mixed gender sports participation and the differing demands in TC. Unlike traditional sports, AHRS does not imply defeating an opponent. The challenge in AHRS is set by the participant and the environmental conditions, which seem to be less related to sex and gender.
... Gender may be another important moderator of psychological outcomes following surf therapy. Although the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and service-related, non-profit organizations have implemented several surf therapy programs across the U.S., the sport of surfing remains socially dominated by men [11][12][13][14]. Despite an increasing female presence in the sport, women may feel marginalized in these gendered spaces, and their experience of surfing may be different from that of men [13][14][15][16]. ...
... Although the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and service-related, non-profit organizations have implemented several surf therapy programs across the U.S., the sport of surfing remains socially dominated by men [11][12][13][14]. Despite an increasing female presence in the sport, women may feel marginalized in these gendered spaces, and their experience of surfing may be different from that of men [13][14][15][16]. These considerations may be particularly important both in therapeutic contexts, where it is critical to create a safe space where women can be vulnerable [17], and in exercise settings, where men and women may engage in, and respond to, exercise in different ways depending on self-efficacy, social support, body image, motivation, and subjective norms (such as gender typing) [18,19]. ...
... Previous literature suggests that gender differences in these psychosocial constructs are associated with differences in engagement in, and response to, exercise [18,19], with self-efficacy acting as a stronger predictor among women than men. Considering that the NMCSD Surf Therapy Program contains elements that promote self-efficacy-connection, autonomy, skills-building, and positive group norms [42]-sessions may have been particularly impactful for women and further amplified in the context of surfing, where the modern culture of the sport in many countries (including the U.S.) is male-dominant [11][12][13][14]16]. Taken together, these factors regarding stigma, treatment setting, and psychosocial response may contribute to the greater demonstrated benefits of surf therapy for women in our study. ...
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Surf therapy is increasingly being used as an intervention to address various health problems, including psychological symptoms. Although recent research supports the positive impact of surf therapy on psychological outcomes, it is unclear whether these outcomes differ between men and women. This study compared changes in depression/anxiety (Patient Health Questionnaire-4), positive affect (Positive and Negative Affect Schedule), and pain (Numerical Pain Rating Scale) between U.S. service men and women (N = 74) during six weekly surf therapy sessions. Overall, participants reported decreased depression/anxiety (p < 0.001) and increased positive affect (p < 0.001), but no change in pain rating following each session (p = 0.141). Significant gender differences were found in the magnitude of changes in depression/anxiety (B = −1.01, p = 0.008) and positive affect (B = 4.53, p < 0.001) during surf sessions, despite no differences in pre-session scores on either outcome. Women showed greater improvements in depression/anxiety and positive affect compared with men—an important finding, given that surfing and military environments are often socially dominated by men. Future research is needed to replicate these findings in other samples, extend this research to other underrepresented populations, and identify barriers and facilitators of the sustainable implementation of surf therapy across populations.
... Studies in this field point to how gender and space mutually shape each other through 'insidious power relations' (Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips 2015, 260), determining what constitutes skill and who are considered skilful and authentic practitioners of active leisure pursuits. Across activities spanning surfing (Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips 2015;Comley 2016), snowboarding (Laurendeau and Sharara 2008), karate (Maclean 2019), and working out (Coen, Davidson, and Rosenberg 2019), skill and a sense of legitimacy to occupy space were often linked. Women's strategies to deal with skill-based hierarchies included avoiding certain spaces or creating their own (Laurendeau and Sharara 2008;Comley 2016); demonstrating their worthiness as skilful practitioners (Laurendeau and Sharara 2008;Coen, Davidson, and Rosenberg 2019); or taking classes to improve skills (Comley 2016). ...
... Across activities spanning surfing (Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips 2015;Comley 2016), snowboarding (Laurendeau and Sharara 2008), karate (Maclean 2019), and working out (Coen, Davidson, and Rosenberg 2019), skill and a sense of legitimacy to occupy space were often linked. Women's strategies to deal with skill-based hierarchies included avoiding certain spaces or creating their own (Laurendeau and Sharara 2008;Comley 2016); demonstrating their worthiness as skilful practitioners (Laurendeau and Sharara 2008;Coen, Davidson, and Rosenberg 2019); or taking classes to improve skills (Comley 2016). Although these and other studies underscore that adopting a masculine embodiment can certainly be learned by women, they also question whether this is always desirable, and instead argue for a more transformative vision to unsettle normative practices rooted in traditional masculinity (Mason 2018). ...
... Across activities spanning surfing (Olive, McCuaig, and Phillips 2015;Comley 2016), snowboarding (Laurendeau and Sharara 2008), karate (Maclean 2019), and working out (Coen, Davidson, and Rosenberg 2019), skill and a sense of legitimacy to occupy space were often linked. Women's strategies to deal with skill-based hierarchies included avoiding certain spaces or creating their own (Laurendeau and Sharara 2008;Comley 2016); demonstrating their worthiness as skilful practitioners (Laurendeau and Sharara 2008;Coen, Davidson, and Rosenberg 2019); or taking classes to improve skills (Comley 2016). Although these and other studies underscore that adopting a masculine embodiment can certainly be learned by women, they also question whether this is always desirable, and instead argue for a more transformative vision to unsettle normative practices rooted in traditional masculinity (Mason 2018). ...
Safety concerns, notably sharing road space with motor traffic, pose barriers for bicycling. To address safety concerns, bicycle courses are designed to provide skills and know-how for bicyclists to share road space with traffic. This paper used Social Practice Theory combined with a critical gender lens to examine the impact of a bicycle course for women living in Vancouver, Canada. We aimed to: 1) describe bicycling competences and associated materials and meanings; 2) compare bicycling competences at different stages of uptake and maintenance; and 3) identify gendering processes shaping bicycling practices. We conducted interviews with 32 women in the year following their participation in a bicycle course. Data collection and analysis were guided by interpretive description methodology. Participants described competences as skills for road positioning and route-finding, knowing formal and informal rules (laws, etiquette) to interact with other road users, and having strategies to minimise gender harassment. Regarding uptake and maintenance, women with opportunities to engage in bicycling cultivated competences more quickly. Those without suitable bicycles rarely rode; others described a virtuous circle where more time in the saddle led to greater confidence. Gendering processes shaped nearly all aspects of bicycling and included safekeeping (taking disproportionate personal responsibility for safety) and cultivating an assertive bodily comportment to take up space. We recommend that courses be augmented with support to acquire suitable bicycles, social opportunities for bicycling, continued investment in bicycle infrastructure, education for motorists, and discussion regarding etiquette between bicyclists.
... Furthermore, many other participants from GMW and SeaSisters reported in informal conversations that they feel more comfortable when there are no men around. In addition, being in a female-only space can have empowering effects, such as new support systems, friendships, increased self-esteem, and a sense of belonging [50,51]. For example, SeaSisters participants Isuri and Sanuthi reported that they appreciate the fun atmosphere and that everybody supports each other. ...
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Worldwide, there is growing recognition of the wellbeing benefits of accessing and engaging with healthy blue spaces, especially seas, coasts, and beaches. However, vast gender inequalities persist that impact women’s and girls’ ability to safely access these spaces for recreational benefit. This is even more pronounced in the context of emerging surf cultures in regions such as Southeast Asia. Using a qualitative and reflective approach, this paper explored how safe spaces for female surfers are created, using case studies from two female-focused surfing programs in Sri Lanka. To facilitate a safe space, the multi-layered challenges that female surfers face were analysed. The common mediators that enable females to participate in surfing were then investigated and identified, including: seeing surfing as an option, supportive families and communities, the group factor, free lessons, an all-female environment, culturally appropriate surf apparel, and a safe and playful methodology. This study highlights pathways for how unsafe spaces of exclusion and fear may be transformed into safe spaces of inclusion, healing, and empowerment. These findings have implications for how safe spaces may be facilitated for other organisations, as well as the sustainability of female access to surfing, beyond the life of surfing programs.
... It is suggested that socially induced factors that influence the gender/sex predisposition toward certain motor tasks, style of movement, and the amount of deliberate practice achieved according to this bias (40) contribute to the differences between male and female surfers. For example, research has established that "male surfers are perceived as having wave priority… causing them (women) to develop strategies such as surfing the 'left-over' (less valuable) waves" (9) and that male surfers are consistently performing highly technical twisting and turning movements (often elevated above the wave), whereas a paucity of female surfers attempt and successfully perform such maneuvers (3). In addition, the female performance of such maneuvers are said to be generally less dynamic and lacking in power, ascertained by the smaller and isolated body movements, limited spray during major turns, and height above the wave when attempting aerials (3). ...
... Scholars have drawn from the literature on liminality, pregnancy and adventure tourism to examine the conditioning of women's expressions of corporality and the perceived barriers to women's access and use of adventure spaces (Comley, 2016). A relevant example of women's resistance to these barriers is the dynamic construction of women's bodily identity depicted by Knijnik, Horton, and Cruz (2010) in their work about the 'rhizomatic body' of Brazilian professional women surfers, who contest the normative female body and open new interpretations for multiple representations of femininity. ...
... Despite their growing number, women do not enjoy the same place in professional surfing as men. While men are admired and recognized for their performance, women surfers are often highlighted for 'what their bodies show' (Comley 2016;Lisahunter 2018;Brennan 2016) and reference is constantly made to their biological inferiority (Bohuon 2012). ...
This article analyses the struggle for the inclusion of women in competitive big-wave surfing through interviews with professional big-wave surfers Bianca Valenti, Keala Kennelly, Andrea Moller and Paige Alms. These women co-founded the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS), which advocated for inclusion and equal pay in competition for women in big-wave surfing. The survey highlights the resistance to their integration in this male dominated sport. Their bodies in movement, true tools of performance essential to establish their legitimacy are constantly being questioned, as they challenge the gendered hierarchical boundaries and essentialist (fundamental) arguments that contribute to keep them out of and/or alongside big-wave competition. Moreover, the performance of men and woman had been becoming increasingly similar in tow-in surfing, until winter 2019–2020 when the biggest wave of the year was surfed by a woman, proving women’s legitimacy in this male-dominated sport.
This article explores how female recreational surfers in southern Spain experience a marginalized status within the male-dominated sport of surfing. The main objective is to determine if there is a male-legitimized criterion that describes how surfing should be and what is considered an authentic practise of this sport. The results indicate that there are certain cultural assumptions originated by men that affect not only the relationship that women build with this sport at the time of its practice but when they share it with other women. It describes a scenario in which women have been deprived of the opportunity to establish their own criteria to feel identified when surfing. The lack of female referents or the absence of women in this sport could explain this paradigm.
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This article reflects on fieldwork with white and British Asian cricketers which explored the construction, maintenance and contestation of racialised identities in the sport of cricket. It addresses my experiences of gaining access to and working alongside both communities, particularly as I negotiated insecurities over the suitability of my own identity(ies), the normalisation of ‘whiteness’ and the constant awareness of my insider and outsiderness within different contexts. I draw on personal experiences and fieldnotes to argue that one’s insider or outsider status is never certain; rather it is filled with dissonance and ambiguity, is an ongoing performance and is always in a state of flux. I provide evidence to show how white researchers (of sport) are, at times, culpable of reinforcing dominant racial discourses rather than challenging them. I conclude by arguing that if sociologists of sport are to establish a methodological framework for researching ‘race’ and its intersections, more scholars need to engage with the relationships between self and other and the self-as-other; more freely exploring the nature of reflexivity, and how doing reflexivity presents opportunities to connect with people across (and in spite of) cultural divides.
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Research analysing the operation of power within sport and physical activity has exposed the marginalisation and exclusion of women's sport in explicit and institutionalised ways. However, for women in recreational and alternative physical activities like surfing, sporting experiences lie outside institutionalised structures, thus requiring alternative surfing of conceptualising the processes of exclusionary power. In this paper, we focus on the voices of women recreational surfers to explore the changes which may or may not be occurring at smaller, more localised levels of women's engagement with surfing culture. An ethnographic methodology was employed to ask women how and why they engage in surfing and what it means for them, rather than asking questions based on existing assumptions. In presenting the data we draw upon the double meaning afforded by the term ‘to patronise’ as a means of framing the complex ways that women continue to be differentiated in surfing culture, and the ways they respond to this. In the final section, we employ a Foucauldian analytic lens to explore the subtle normalising practices in which women are incited to recognise and undertake the practices of the valued masculine ideal of the ‘good surfer’ through caring acts and advice offered by male surfers. This post-structuralist perspective offers space to think outside of simple resistance and reproduction, instead considering a complex space where women and men negotiate power in a range of ways from contextual, subjective positions. In conclusion, we argue that women recreational surfers are enacting alternative ways of operating within the power relations that circulate in the waves, creating ever-changing spaces for new ways of doing and knowing surfing to emerge.
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Golf does not inherently privilege men or women physically, yet men are much more likely to participate in golf. The authors explore the institutional(e.g., societal level) and interactional barriers to women’s golf participation and uncover strategies women use to negotiate playing and persisting in golf. Guided by research on tokenism in occupations, statistical discrimination, and feminist research in the sociology of sport, the authors use 10 interviews with recreational women golfers to explore these issues. Similar to women in predominantly male occupations, the women in this study report heightened visibility and experiences with typecasting on the golf course. In addition, social closure operates in the form of unwelcoming courses; women reported feeling ignored, overlooked, or unimportant on the course. The authors discuss several strategies the women in the sample use to overcome sexism and persist in golf.
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Sport sociology has provided a significant body of critical research on gender and social inequality within outdoor sport. Less attention is given to how the social construction of sport landscapes shapes gendered power relations. This article examines how skiing landscapes are constructed as masculinized spaces. The mountainous sublime is a site for performing athletic, risk-seeking masculinity.The backcountry and advanced terrain at ski resorts also appear as masculinized places. By contrast, less risky areas of the skiing landscape may be interpreted as ‘gender-neutral’ or feminized space. Through skiing, participants construct the meaning of gender and place, privileging masculinized versions of the sport.
This article undertakes a qualitative exploration of women's and men's songs in the skydiving community in order to explore the intersection of gender and sexuality in this context. Analyses reveal that men's songs constrain the transformative potential of women in sky-diving by trivializing, marginalizing, and sexualizing them. Further, they reinforce male hegemony in skydiving through the construction of a hyperheterosexual masculinity. Mean-while, women's songs resist male hegemony in the sport, laying claim to discursive and physical space. One central strategy in this resistance is the construction of a strong heterosexual femininity, thereby asserting a sexual subjectivity neither defined nor controlled by men. This resistance, however, shores up a particular version of heterosexual femininity that contributes to women's trivialization and sexualization in this setting.
This paper examines the potential of social theory for enhancing researcher reflexivity and praxis in the ethnographic field. More specifically, we advocate the potential of feminist interpretations of Pierre Bourdieu's concept of "regulated liberties" for helping critical ethnographers navigate some of the embodied political and ethical tensions and challenges encountered in male-dominated physical cultures. Drawing upon examples from our fieldwork in surfing and snowboarding cultures, we illustrate some of the strategies we employ to subtly subvert problematic cultural norms and values within these action sport cultures. Engaging the work of poststructural feminist and Bourdieusian scholars, we raise some of the ethical questions and concerns we have experienced as cultural members and feminist researchers while engaging with participants in the waves and on the slopes.
Surfing has emerged from ancient roots to become a twenty-first century phenomenon - an 'alternative' sport, lifestyle and art form with a global profile and ever-increasing numbers of participants. Drawing on popular surf culture, academic literature and the analytical tools of social theory, this book is the first sustained commentary on the contemporary social and cultural meaning of surfing. Core themes of mind and body, emotions and identity, aesthetics, style, and sensory experience are explored through a variety of topics, and particular attention is paid to: evolving perceptions of the sea and the beach. the globalization of surfing. surfing as a subculture and lifestyle. the embodiment and gendering of surfing. Surfing and Social Theory is an original and theoretically rigorous text that sets the agenda for future work in this area. Along with the Surf Science courses now appearing in universities around the world, this text provides students and researchers in sport, sociology, culture and geography with a new perspective and a thought-provoking text.
1. Theories of Sport - The Neglect of Gender 2. Sports Feminism - The Importance of Gender 3. Nature and Culture - Introducing Victorian and Edwardian Sport 4. The Legitimation of Female Exercise - The Case of Physical Education 5. Recreative and Competitive Sports - Expansion and Containment 6. The Interwar Years - Limitations and Possibilities 7. Femininity of Musculinity? - Images of Women's Sport 8. Relations of Power - Institutionalized Discrimination 9. Olympic Women - A Struggle for Recognition 10. Sport for All Women - Problems and Progress 11. Towards 2000 AD - Diversity and Empowerment.
New sports such as windsurfing have been perceived as the product of a postmodern society and culture in which sporting and physical activity offer a basis for the generation of new and multiple identities. Drawing on ethnographic work within England and across global subcultural networks, this article documents the persisting gendered basis of the subculture of windsurfing. It identifies the core principles of windsurfing's culture of commitment, the gender identities most prevalent within it, and the tension between dominant masculinity and the potentially empowering dimensions of the activity for women. The study also reiterates the importance of social class as a basis for the availability of life choices in sport and leisure, and of the centrality of ethnography and in-depth qualitative research in understanding how subcultures and their members live out gendered dynamics of power in the process of negotiating, renegotiating, and sometimes subverting the contemporary gender order.
This article contributes to the discussion of hegemonic and alternative femininities through an ethnographic study of Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby. As a site for construction of alternative femininities in the image of a “derby girl,” derby reveals how the understudied intragender relations between femininities can be important in challenging hegemonic gender relations. The dynamics between femininities, and the women who practice them, affect the motivations for challenging hegemonic gender, the transportation of symbolic discourses deployed in the challenges, and the creation of new organizational networks to sustain these challenges. One sees these effects in the organized ways the athletes feminize their participation in an aggressive sport through resistance, adaptation, mockery, and parody of hegemonic femininity, pariah femininities, and sport. This study gives particular attention to the interpretation of the events by the skaters and the histories of the social actors as well the interactions in the collective.