On a 23-day backpacking expedition I led with a dozen teenage boys in the early 2000s, one of the first rules we established was no derogatory language. Cussing was fine, of course. To ask them to refrain from throwing F-bombs would be unrealistic and just plain cruel. But bitch, gay, and their many misogynist, homophobic, racist cousins would absolutely not be tolerated.
The alpha boy threw his hands in the air. “So, we’ve gotta talk like a bunch of pussies now?”
I wince every time I hear a man of any age use that word. I hate it. Almost as much as I hate its synonym that rhymes with blunt. But I realized that I’d started throwing that word around quite regularly. I’d always told myself this was my way of reclaiming that word from men. But who was I kidding? Throughout my twenties, I used pussy and bitch for no other reason than to attack other men or make fun of myself—as synonyms for coward and difficult.
Despite identifying as a proud feminist working in an industry dominated by men, over the years I’d somehow become just as toxically masculine as the worst of them.
I was lucky to be raised by a progressive single mom and a feminist older sister. Still, I was a tomboy who grew up in the South, where they still have debutante balls. My mom didn’t try to squash my boyish instincts, but she didn’t exactly encourage them either. In my first letter to Santa, I asked for a Tonka dump truck. I got a Barbie.
I finally realized I just didn’t fit in down South and escaped the land of malls for the mountains of Montana. There, I met women doing things I didn’t even know were options for us. They skied and climbed harder than men. I wanted that. The day after I graduated from college, I gave away everything I owned except my gear and moved into my truck, where I lived for the next five years, traveling the country. I threw myself into new experiences, becoming a raft guide, without any experience on rivers; a ski instructor, having never been on a lift; and a backpacking guide slash naturalist, knowing nothing about either.
The outdoor industry embraces tough women and often understands our worth—at least more so than the tech industry, comedy, or Wall Street. But it still has its fair share of frat boys hiding in puffy jackets. As I would soon learn, the rafting sector of the outdoor industry is where you’ll find a lot of them. My journey to toxic masculinity started with my attempts to simply navigate these many bros, and then morphed into a version of trying to fit in that gave me no other option than to act just as badly as they did.
On an early job, a fellow boater who was a friend of my boss and 20 years my senior kissed me unexpectedly one day. I assumed I’d somehow “asked for” his sexual advances by letting him teach me how to lead climb, so I dated this man I wasn’t the least bit attracted to all summer. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, he was pretty nice to me, and I really just wanted to climb.
Another rafting boss later in my career wasn’t a bad person, but I was absolutely terrified of his temper. It was exhausting having to tiptoe around this all summer, but I loved my co-workers and my job even more, so I put up with it. At that job, the men would shamelessly rate the “fuckability” of each female tourist, even teenage girls, as they stepped off the bus. The one man leading the others in such awful behavior was in his late thirties and wore a wedding ring because apparently you can “bang way more chicks when they think you’re already taken.” Since I was still new to rafting, this small mountain town, and this company in particular, I bit my tongue and hated myself for it.
By the end of the season, though, I’d had enough. I asked the other girls if the comments bothered them too. They either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Boys will be boys, right? Still, I confronted Wedding Ring Guy at the end of the season. I bent myself into a pretzel trying to avoid offending him because I’m a Southern woman and that’s what we do best. “It’s uh, kinda hard to hear you guys talk about women like they’re, uh, prey and shit, you know?”
Wedding Ring Guy gaslit me with that typical response: “Calm down, tiger.” I wondered if, to work in the rafting world, I’d have to adopt the motto of my fellow women working in a male-dominated industry: Keep calm and carry on.
The next summer, thankfully, I had a female boss, who soon became an important role model for me. I admired how she handled the world and her employees—thoughtful yet direct. She didn’t take shit from anyone, especially men. Still, the only other two female guides weren’t full-time, meaning I spent 15-hour days on the river with six dudes in their twenties. Luckily, these guys rated just the adult women getting off the bus, not the girls. But they were crueler in other ways. “Look at the hail damage on that one!” they’d say. Already paranoid about my own cellulite and struggling with bulimia, I saw this as confirmation of my worst fear—that men criticize our bodies as much as we do.
I barfed five times a day that summer.
I kinda loved some of the teasing. These were the brothers I never had, and sometimes they dropped their tough-guy routine around me and shared intimate secrets they were too afraid to tell the other guys. But when they took the teasing about my body too far, it hardened what little softness I had left. From that point on, I only spoke about men the way they spoke about women. I desperately needed these guys to see me as a brother, not some fragile female.
Instead of calling them on their shit, I matched and heightened their behavior. You wanna talk about sex, boys? Don’t get me started. Until that summer, I never knew just how perverted I could be. By being their brother instead of a girl they wanted to sleep with—or, even worse, a feminist—I was finally their equal.
That’s all I’d ever wanted.
On the rare occasion when I did challenge their sexist jokes, they’d bark back, “Oh god, we’ve got a feminist among us. And here we thought you were one of the cool girls!” Ah, the cool girl. I wanted to be the one given the secret password to the boys’ treehouse. There’s only room for one of us, though, so it’s lonely at the top, especially since your status depends on other women sucking. It’s a hefty price. At the time, I was willing to pay it.
By the time I found myself leading the 23-day backpacking trip, four years later, I had become just as afraid of being seen as feminine as the teenage boys I was supposed to mentor. I judged their toxic masculinity at first because they mirrored my own behavior, and it scared me.
After a week of doing the brutal, exhausting work of calling them on their derogatory language, I was surprised to find the boys finally stopped saying “no homo” literally all the time. In fact, they quit saying all of it. They didn’t want to sit through another lecture, and they hated us for this but respected us anyway.
On day ten, one of our most homophobic boys told the whole group during lunch that he was gay. We were stunned he would be so brave. “Yo, I am too, bro,” piped in another. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who had some serious internalized bigotry going on.
On day 17, the bully of the group confided in me about his stepfather’s abuse, about the guilt he felt for not being home to field the punches meant for his mom. These kids broke my heart. They made me wish I could disarm myself, too.
On the last day, when we asked for constructive feedback from the kids, one of the boys handed my ass to me. “Mel, you obviously care about us and shit. But you don’t have to pretend like you don’t or hide behind all these jokes. Just be yourself. You’re, like, cool.”
Yep, a bunch of teenage boys forced me to see that I’d somehow become toxically masculine and feelings avoidant. If I wanted to be the best version of myself, I had to stop rejecting everything sensitive about me.
That fall, I moved to New York City and found myself working in yet another boys’ club—the film industry. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes here. I didn’t volunteer constantly to lift sandbags and load cube trucks for the sole reason of proving I was tough, and I took more pride in using my problem-solving skills, intuition, and creativity.
Now, when I sit around talking shit with the guys and the topic turns to women, as it always does, I come to the defense of women instead of one-upping. And whenever they try to insult me with the feminist label, I holler back, “Fuck yeah, I am!”