Shortly after Nikki Smith turned her personal Instagram into a public page, she began receiving a new kind of message—unwanted and unsolicited sexual advances from men emboldened by the anonymity of the internet. Smith is a multidiscipline climber and photographer, comfortable in ice boots or rock shoes, scaling frozen waterfalls, or running it out above traditional gear, but the harassment got to her in a different way.
As a trans woman, Smith felt the harassment was worse. “There’s a whole group of guys who search for hashtags and trans women’s accounts,” she says. “So it’s the type of stuff women get all the time, and my trans identity is mixed in with that, too.” Tired of taking abuse alone, Smith spoke out, first as a part of a slideshow about coming out as trans at a cleanup event called Yosemite Facelift, then on Instagram itself. A rush of messages showed her she was far from alone.
“I think all women that have a prominent following on social media get this,” Smith says. “Even women who don’t have a strong following get this.”
When it comes to making money in the climbing industry, Instagram is king. Sponsored athletes commonly have social-media clauses included in their contracts. Some companies ask how many followers a photographer has before committing to a partnership. Smith is a photographer as well as a climber, but she says there are weeks when she cannot bring herself to use the platform.
The prevalence of harassment on Instagram has sparked a new wave of activism online, as both individuals and groups attempt to call attention to the problem by harnessing their own followings. Smith was inspired in part by an account called Chossy DMs: Climbers Against Dick Pics, which in late February began posting screenshots of harassing messages, shared by any woman who wanted to contribute. The page has an excess of content, sharing everything from Instagram and Facebook messages to e-mail. It posted 14 photos on the second day, with lines such as “can you breastfeed me,” “let me see your ass,” and a series of seven e-mails—all from one person—explaining that a female climber only has a following because she is attractive. “Think about it, there are people who can climb better,” the anonymous author wrote.
Since February, Chossy DMs has gained more than 7,000 followers. The page is run by an anonymous collection of women in the climbing industry and didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Jenny Fischer is one of many up-and-coming climbers who has used Instagram to attract the attention of sponsors. After building a following as she shared her experience recovering from an ACL injury, BlueWater Ropes reached out with a sponsorship offer. “Without the social-media presence, I don’t think I would have been on BlueWater’s radar,” Fischer says.
While Instagram brought her visibility and brand partnerships, it also came with drawbacks. “I’ve 100 percent experienced harassment,” Fischer says. “I think there’s something about being on social media that opens you up to that particular type of person that feels like they’re entitled to lash out at you.” She has received explicit sexual messages but points out that women receive a wide spectrum of harassment online. They are nitpicked and criticized for things that would go unnoticed with a male climber and forced to deal with excessive aggression and rudeness on what is an increasingly important professional platform.
Fischer says she gets enough out off social media to stick with it, despite the drawbacks. She’s met climbing partners through Instagram and been inspired to go new places. She tries not to let the unseemly conduct of others affect her, telling herself that there’s something wrong with the harasser, not her. She calls people out for their behavior, posting screenshots of inappropriate messages, and tries to show other women that being targeted by anonymous men doesn’t say anything about their character. Fischer, however, can walk away at any time. As a part-time professional climber who makes most of her money doing digital marketing for outdoor brands, she isn’t financially dependent on the platform.
But for climbing photographers looking to support themselves through their work, Instagram is more important. In the last three years, Mercadi Carlson has built herself a significant Instagram following as a climber and adventure photographer. Carlson has only recently begun to make money from that work, and she guides rock-climbing trips to fill in the gaps. She hopes to support herself with climbing photography alone but uses Instagram for other business ventures. When she teamed up with her friend Mary Eden to offer Indian Creek crack-climbing clinics, most of their clients signed up through Instagram. The pair have a combined following of over 115,000, with the attendant minefield of a comment section.
In one photo Carlson posted, she back-clipped a twisted quickdraw, and a man bravely volunteered his opinion on proper technique. “He mansplained a bit and was telling me how to clip a draw correctly,” Carlson remembers. “Me being sassy and wanting to stick up for myself, I commented, ‘Everyone’s an expert’ with a winky face.” The man then tried to get her fired from her guiding job. When she blocked him, he made a new account and began harassing her, saying he would delete his post if she unblocked his account. The harassment was mean, but not sexual or overtly threatening, and Carlson decided to let it blow over.
“A lot of the time, you do have to ignore it, because you’re just feeding it, and that’s what they’re looking for,” Carlson says. “The less I think about it, the happier I am, and the more I can focus on my climbing goals. But there are definitely moments from time to time where it does get in the way.”
Other online harassers are more persistent, verging on stalking. A man once left a threatening voice mail on pro skier Caroline Gleich’s phone during Thanksgiving dinner, calling her a “silver-spoon spoiled bitch.” Looking back at harassing comments left on her social media over the years, she noticed patterns that indicated the same man may have been targeting her in comments all that time.
Most people could identify positives and negatives about how social media affects their lives, but women are saddled with more than their share of the cons. Smith says that as much as the platforms have brought to her life, the pervasive harassment she receives online sullies the experience.
Accounts like Chossy DMs show women that they are not alone in harassment, and they show men a side of social media that they may never have considered. When women are told “you must sit on my mustache” or are sent a dick pic out of the blue, they can forward it to Chossy DMs and get some support from the climbing community. Chossy DMs’s attempts to draw attention to harassment through humor, however, are not always well received. While the page usually blurs out harassers’ usernames, focusing on making light of the messages, the account has received messages stating “public shaming is not cool” or “stop slamming your political agenda down our throats.” Chossy DMs doesn’t see it that way. On March 1, the page administrators wrote: “Lifting women up is not the same thing as bringing men down.”
Smith, Carlson, and Fischer all have their own ways of calling attention to online harassment. Fischer screenshots inappropriate DMs and calls harassers out, while Smith has been increasingly sharing harassment she receives as part of her trans advocacy work. On March 8, Smith brought up harassment on her professional Instagram page.
“After seeing what many other women in the climbing world and beyond are receiving in their DMs, it’s time to talk,” Smith wrote. “If you are a climber or in the outdoor world, chances are you follow some of the women who have shared posts on @chossydms.” Smith began tracking how many messages she received starting in July 2018. By the time she posted nine months later, on March 8, International Women’s Day, she had 138 screenshots.
“Social media’s tricky. I do it because it’s a part of my business, but also because I was able to find community as I was trying to find out more about who I was. I had a whole community of trans women that I followed, and was able to learn from, and ask questions I wasn’t able to ask anywhere else,” Smith says. “There are a lot of good things about social media, but there are the negatives of perpetuating image issues and easy access for men with anonymity.”