Outside Business Journal

Unsafe Space

A disturbing look at the outdoor industry’s dark side

Rachel Sturtz

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In 2005, Sarah* was wrapping up her fifth year as a seasonal guide for a wilderness camp in the South. Normally awkward and shy, she had blossomed there, growing into a gifted leader and teacher. She had spent the last five years fixing trails and teaching her young charges how to make fires and hang bear bags. The camp was more of a home to her than anything from her childhood. After her first trip there, she cried when the bus pulled out of the parking lot to take her back to Louisiana.

Orange text on black background: Three days after her gang rape, Sarah, feeling alone, scared, and a burden to the rest of the camp, drove herself…
(Photo: The Voice)

Even deep into a night of heavy drinking at a local bar off of camp property, Sarah trusted her coworkers. It was easy. She says she considered them like-minded, laid-back outdoor guys—and completely non-threatening. By the time the bartender began wiping down tables, she was staggering from too many Long Island Iced Teas and flirting with a couple of them. At the end of the night, she walked out with Scott, a fellow guide she’d known for a couple of years.

The two clambered into her crayon-blue Toyota Corolla. Sarah remembers that they started making out, but when she began to feel sick and dizzy, she pulled away, and from what she figured happened next, she passed out. When she woke up, she was lying in the backseat and Scott was pulling off her pants.

Sarah said she was in and out of consciousness as he folded her body into different positions, raping her. She remembers him leaving the car and coming back several times, which, even in her drunken stupor, she recalls thinking was odd. The car door was open and the temperature outside was in the 40s. Scott covered her naked body with her car’s metallic sunshade and drove her back to camp. In the camp parking lot, he raped her twice more. When he began to enter her anally, she screamed so loudly that he stopped. He later told the police that he’d initiated sex with her back at the camp to “warm her up.”

After he helped her to her tent, Scott placed her in her sleeping bag and wished her a good night. She recounted her story for a state trooper two days later. But it wasn’t until years later, as often happens with trauma survivors, that Sarah thought back to the night and realized that Scott wasn’t leaving and re-entering the car. Sarah had been raped by three, maybe four, coworkers. Over time, she began to remember the physical differences between them.

Sarah was one of ten women who reported being raped while on the job in the survey conducted by OBJ and #SafeOutside last fall. Of the 992 responses analyzed, one in two women and one in five men said they had been sexually harassed or assaulted during work-related events. The survey revealed several prevalent—and disturbing—patterns: an increased risk of sexual harassment in a male-dominated workplace, laissez-faire sexual harassment policies and procedures, retribution stemming from reporting harassment, and the prevalence of alcohol in nearly every instance of sexual misconduct. Several women acknowledged that they had to leave their jobs in order to end the harassment.

Over the last few years, surveys, reports, and lawsuits began a reckoning in the outdoor industry (and in the culture at large). In January 2016, the U.S. Interior’s Office of Inspector General finished an investigation of misconduct among employees of the Grand Canyon’s River District, finding evidence of a long-term pattern of “discrimination, retaliation, and a sexually hostile work environment.” In 2018, the Outside article “Hostile Environment” explored the rampant sexual harassment and assault among the river guiding community.

Last August, 5,000 people responded to a survey by a grassroots initiative, #SafeOutside, which found more than 31 percent of men and women had experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault in a climbing environment. In January of this year, Camber Outdoors released the results of its survey of 1,364 professionals in the outdoor industry, finding that 47 percent of women and 15 percent of men had experienced sexual harassment and discrimination, but that only 31 percent say their company would handle it correctly.

The problem, in part: there’s no overarching regulatory body that oversees or institutes “best practices” for the $887 billion outdoor industry, which employs 7.6 million people. #SafeOutside stepped up last year and began offering a tool kit for companies to combat sexual abuse and harassment within their ranks. While the kits were received enthusiastically, no one knows whether or not they’ve been implemented seriously.

Taken together, the surveys from OBJ, #SafeOutside, and Camber paint a picture that resembles the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) findings that 60 percent of women experience “unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion, or sexually crude conduct or sexist comments in the workplace.”

The predictors of sexual harassment on the job read like an outdoor industry checklist: male-dominated, boutique companies with fewer than 50 employees; a culture where locker room talk goes unchecked; and any office where you’d find a kegerator or decent happy hour.

Like many women in wilderness camps, Sarah was outnumbered by the guys. She learned to laugh off the inappropriate comments, because camp leadership laughed along with the men who made them. She learned to be diplomatic and firm when an adult male client balked at being led by a female ranger. She remembers the frequency with which male staff mentioned needing to visit the “water tower,” which was code for hiking to higher ground in order to spy on the teenage girls bathing in the uncovered backcountry showers. To the female employees of the camp, this behavior came with the territory.

Indeed, seven women in our survey used a version of the phrase “boys’ club” to describe why it was so hard to get a fair shake in their careers.

Several women in our survey reported wage disparities, being overlooked for promotions, and blatantly being ignored. The reason male-dominated workplaces come with such a high risk for gender and sexual harassment on the job is because of the atmosphere it sets up in the first place. Some women told us they were left out of mountain biking trips or dinners or other key work events that ended up being just the men from their company.

“When someone leaves women out of activities that improve client relationships or keeps them from showing leadership skills that might demonstrate their worth to a supervisor, it serves as a barrier to career advancement,” said Elizabeth Tippett, associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law. “It’s gender harassment. Title VII was created to prevent discrimination against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion, and protect advancement in the workplace.”

Immediately, gender-skewed workplaces set up an “in group” and an “out group.” According to a 2008 study in Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (which has been backed up by several more in recent years), in homogenous, single-gender-dominated workplaces, the people in the minority group are perceived as intruders, which leads to less support, more critical evaluations, and harassment. They’re deemed less competent. And even if they prove successful, their majority peers tend to dislike them and view their accomplishments negatively.

Alice spent a year putting together a big event for the outdoor sports association she worked for, and it was a hit. When she found herself in a hotel room celebrating with male executives later that night, they discussed the improvements to the conference, but when she tried to chime in, they ignored her. Only when Alice began to put on her coat did a sponsor perk up, and ask, “Why are you leaving so soon, sweetheart?” before blowing her a kiss. The irony, Alice said, is that one of the key improvements to the conference was adding events about diversity and gender equity.

When a company devalues the efforts of women and sequesters them into an out group, it sets the stage for harassment. Acceptance of unequal treatment or the inability to see it as a problem is the largest indicator for sexual harassment in a workplace, according to the EEOC.

If employers write off the behavior as part of the company’s culture, it often leads to far bigger problems down the road as their female employees are forced to continue working with the men who are chronic harassers. Gender harassment begets sexual harassment begets assault. But too often, companies only focus on the assault and not the behavior that breeds it.

“The partners at my company were good at protecting women, but they always fell short of empowering them,” said one woman.

The morning after her rape, Sarah woke up in her cot, vomit on the floor. She told one friend what had happened, as well as her female supervisor. She was in shock. Her body was sore everywhere. Sarah couldn’t eat or drink from the nausea, and every time she fell asleep, she woke from nightmares. She was so exhausted, so dizzy, that doing anything other than lying down felt impossible. Neither her supervisor nor any other senior camp official or friend checked in on her for 24 hours. She was completely alone.

By the evening of the second day, the director of the camp finally got involved and insisted that Sarah file a police report. In all, the state trooper interviewed Sarah, Scott, and six other coworkers who were with them at the bar that night. All of them remember Sarah and Scott flirting and eventually leaving together. The next morning, the director told Sarah it would probably be best if she left the camp so that people wouldn’t ask questions. He asked if she had somewhere to stay. She said yes, even though both of them knew she was estranged from her family. Three days after her gang rape, feeling alone, scared, and a burden to the rest of the camp, Sarah drove herself down the mountain and away from the place that had once been a refuge, but was now a trauma zone.

Our survey revealed a multitude of issues when reporting problematic behavior to HR or senior management. Often, the report was acknowledged and then ignored. Other times, the accused received a stern talking-to, but little else. A few women told us that they watched as the perpetrator got a promotion or a new title at another company before he was eventually let go for the same abusive behavior they’d tried and failed to stop. In the majority of cases, if there was a response, it was bungled. That’s despite the fact that the companies often had a sexual harassment policy in place.

“Policy in itself is meaningless unless you implement it,” said Tippett. “You need to behave in a way that is consistent with the policy and discipline people who disregard it. If no one practices the policy, it won’t protect the company, employees won’t feel confident reporting, and it certainly won’t stop or prevent harassment.”

According to a 2008 meta-analysis of a decade’s worth of sexual harassment studies, approximately 70 percent of employees don’t complain about their harassment to their employers. Instead, they avoid their harasser, downplay the harassment, or ignore and endure the behavior. The reasons are numerous: fear of humiliation, ostracism, blame, and indifference; worry about damaging their careers or reputations; or after all of that effort, inaction by management.

Sometimes, they don’t report because they haven’t even started their job yet.

Maria had just nabbed her dream job as an island guide and was a week away from moving her whole life to her new, tropical home when a future coworker called to let her know the start date.

“Then he asked if I had big boobs,” said Maria. “I didn’t respond. I figured if this guy’s a problem, I’ll deal with it when I get there.”

Turned out, dealing with it was a full-time job, she said. Her coworker always took two pictures of his female clients: one for the company files and one for himself. But his behavior was explained away by his superiors and her coworkers as being juvenile, and she says she followed other women’s leads and “gave him a wide berth.”

“I didn’t know I had freckles on my butt until he told me they were his favorite part of me when I bent over to wash gear in my bikini,” said Maria.

More often than not, women won’t speak out because they know the repercussions. In fact, the study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that 75 percent of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation. And men are not immune from it.

As Bill and his wife were leaving his company Christmas party, the vice president of his company grabbed her ass when he hugged her goodbye. She didn’t react in order to not make a scene, but in the office on Monday, the VP called Bill into his office to let him know that what happened was “an accident.”

Still, Bill reported the incident to the owners of the company. They were shocked and said they would put the incident in the offender’s file, but the owners sheepishly admitted that they were non-confrontational people. For months, nothing happened, but Bill says a “switch flipped” when it came to his boss’s satisfaction with his work. Then, out of the blue, Bill was put on probation and issued a 60-day performance improvement plan. He felt betrayed—he knew didn’t deserve it—and let upper management know that his boss had assaulted his wife.

The next Monday, he walked into work with a resignation letter in his hand. The blinds were drawn in the conference room, where he soon realized upper management was talking about him. Someone had changed the password on his computer. They were planning on firing him that morning.

An EEOC task force found that “employers often make a wrong cost-benefit analysis when faced with allegations of harassment against a highly valued employee.” That’s why they tend to ignore or downplay misconduct: fear of cost to the business. Often, companies worry about a lawsuit from the accused, but the EEOC found that the cost of allowing harassment to continue is far higher. Between 2010 and 2015, employers paid $698.7 million to employees alleging harassment during EEOC’s pre-litigation enforcement process.

“Even if it doesn’t end in a lawsuit or public scandal, your employees will know what happened,” said Tippett. “Your response will have an impact on your culture and your workplace: how employees feel about you and the integrity of your business.”

In our survey, Jillian said she watched as one of her young female coworkers was sexually harassed and then intimidated by a supervisor at the ski resort where they worked. He continually asked the young woman out and each time, she said no. Eventually, he began to send her graphic photos and text messages saying he was going to kill himself and started rumors that she was sleeping with another employee. Jillian was concerned for the young woman’s safety, so, following company protocol, she reported the harassment to HR. The next morning, HR called Jillian in for a meeting.

“They told me I wasn’t seeing the big picture and that I needed to keep this quiet,” said Jillian. “They told me, ‘Sometimes snowflakes hear ‘sexual harassment’ and immediately jump on it.’” Bullied for weeks afterwards, Jillian eventually quit. She was seven months pregnant.

“I’ve been skiing on that mountain since I was five years old,” said Jillian. “I can’t go back. They destroyed my favorite place on earth.”

Other women told us that the nature of their outdoor job meant that their call for help might go unanswered in the wild. Cassie worked for the U.S. Forest Service Hotshots crew, fighting fires in the ’90s. She says she dealt with the typical misogyny that comes with being the only woman on a fire crew and once had to threaten a coworker who gave her “purple nurples,” telling him that at the next fire, her Pulaski might slip.

But it wasn’t until Cassie signed up for a mountaineering course that she felt threatened and demoralized. She was 20 years old and had to share a tent with two Chicago firemen who she says were “sexist and racist.” The pair spent their time talking about their experiences with Filipino prostitutes. When Cassie mentioned that her mother was a person of color, the men asked how much for her services. Sharing the tent felt especially unsafe when the men went out to the bar and returned drunk. The days weren’t much better, though. She says they sexually harassed her as they belayed her.

“I wasn’t a high-income person,” said Cassie. “I took this course to build my skills as an investment in myself, but I wasn’t getting the same experience because it was hindered by these guys. The Hotshot crew might have done things that were inappropriate, but they had my back. My course instructor at the mountaineering school did nothing. When I wrote a letter to the school about my experience, they never replied. If you don’t have a way to respond to women’s incidents in the field, you put them at emotional and physical risk.”

She went on, “As a woman, when you walk into a dark parking lot, you’re conditioned to be on high alert. When we’re in a place that should feel safe and welcoming, but it’s not, it’s overwhelming.”

Cassie said it was the climate of “accepted hostility” that turned her away from pursuing a career in the outdoors. Instead, she became a scientist and eventually found a way to become an outdoor educator. Currently, much of her research focuses on the idea of belonging.

“People spend a lot of cognitive energy looking for social signals that they belong,” said Cassie. “The outdoor industry should send signals that everyone belongs. You’ll finally get a diverse set of people who want to be outdoors and they’ll spend their time enjoying it, not puzzling out if it’s a place for them.”

In the U.S., 43 percent of employees work in organizations with 50 or fewer people, which means the majority of them don’t have an HR department. Most people have no idea what to do in the face of sexual misconduct, especially when the accused is their boss or mentor or friend. It turns out that simply writing a code of ethics won’t eliminate the problem. There needs to be training, procedures, swift enforcement, and repercussions. And it only works if leadership models it.

But even with an HR department, Claire Harwell, attorney and legal director for the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs (NMCSAP), said she’s seen good people repeat the same destructive actions executed by the U.S. Olympic Committee or the Catholic Church. They protect the institution, protect its reputation, protect its accused. As Harwell sees it, the actions have more to do with our inability to handle bad news.

“We don’t want to believe bad stuff happens,” said Harwell. “We want to believe that we live and operate in a safe space, and we will discount anything that proves that wrong—even if it means disbelieving women and children who say otherwise.”

That’s why policies are necessary to correct the knee-jerk human response. Not only to correct for biases or ignorance, said Harwell, but because a company’s mishandling of a sexual assault response can cause victims a second round of trauma symptoms.

(Photo: The Voice)

In our survey, respondents name-checked outdoor industry trade shows like Outdoor Retailer, the now-defunct Interbike, and other sport-specific events as places where alcohol and sexual harassment go hand-in-hand. Usually, the drinking begins on the trade show floor before the day is wrapped. The drinks often continue right into dinner with clients or coworkers, and they keep flowing late into the night at music shows or after-parties. Best case, it’s a good night filled with new friends and contacts and maybe some business deals. Worst case, it leads to harassment or assault.

“In nearly all sexual violence cases, alcohol is involved,” said Callie Rennison, PhD, professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. Rennison’s research has examined violence against women and minority groups and how survivors interact with the criminal justice system. She, along with director of program operations at the University of Washington School of Medicine, Charlie Lieu, created and conducted the #SafeOutside climbing survey. She said that company leaders must limit alcohol at work and outside work-related events.

“Nobody is saying no alcohol,” said Rennison. “But it should never be a free-for-all, anything-goes kind of night. When people see their friends overdoing it, they should step in. If someone says he’s going to ‘hit that person’s tent up’ because he’s pretty sure she’s interested, stop him.”

Last November, Google announced an important policy change because alcohol was the most common reason for sexual harassment complaints among its staff: “Excessive consumption of alcohol is not permitted when you are at work, performing Google business, or attending a Google-related event, whether onsite or offsite…The onus will be on leaders to take appropriate steps to restrict any excessive consumption among their teams, and we will impose more onerous actions if problems persist.”

While alcohol is correlated with sexual harassment and assault, it’s not a cause of the bad behavior. That old adage that a few beers make some people more “handsy?” Several studies have found there is no relationship to the amount someone drank and their aggressiveness. In some cases, the desire to harass or assault someone may cause him to drink more in order to justify the behavior. Lindsey told us that while working as a project manager at a cycling event, she had fallen asleep in her shared hotel room. Unbeknownst to her, her roommate had given the other bed to an inebriated male journalist attending the event. Lindsey woke up to him trying to kiss her and take off her clothes. She threw elbows and managed to get him to stop. “He stopped because he wanted to,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to overpower him if he’d decided to continue.”

Sadly, society tends to apply a sexist double standard when alcohol is involved: we often see a drunk perpetrator as less responsible for his or her actions and a drunk victim of assault as more responsible. According to a study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, more than 50 percent of victims who “experienced an alcohol-related sexual assault” are told it was his or her fault for making the decision to drink.

That’s exactly what happened to Sarah.

When she eventually reported her rape to the camp director, he told her there was a lesson to be learned in all of this. Maybe next time, he said, “you won’t drink so much.” “I’d never even considered blaming myself until that moment,” said Sarah. “It changed everything.”

When Sarah returned home to Louisiana to recuperate after her rape, she received notification that the District Attorney’s office had enough evidence to issue an arrest warrant for Scott, if she wanted to pursue a case. Sarah’s first thought was about Scott and how he wouldn’t fare well in prison. (That’s not an uncommon sentiment: according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), one out of 14 survivors say they didn’t report the sexual crime to police because they didn’t want to get the perpetrator in trouble). Her second thought was about the camp director’s insinuation: that it was her own fault because she had been so wasted. She decided to forgo the charges for fear of being humiliated in court.

The outdoor industry’s laid-back atmosphere—stemming from the fact that so many brands were formed by friends who met on the mountain, crag, or river—is part of the problem.

“It’s a passion-first industry,” said a former outdoor PR rep.

“A lot of the big brands today were started by a few friends in the ’90s: a handful of climbers want a better carabiner, and you’ve got a climbing company. Five or ten years down the road, you’re growing and still hiring more of your friends. Then you’re employing 25 people and suddenly, that mix of relationships and boundaries gets tricky, fast.”

Finding that line—how to go from selling gear out of your garage to managing a workforce—is where the outdoor industry needs to grow up.

“Just because you’re a great climber, doesn’t mean you’re a great leader,” said Rennison. “More companies are getting their act together to train their leaders to be just that. You don’t get to say, ‘It’s 5 o’clock, let’s get drunk.’ Once you’re a leader, employees will always look to you to see what’s allowed.”

But the collegiality and camaraderie of the outdoor industry is also what may drive its best attributes. Usually when Rennison conducts sex and violence surveys, hate mail is just part of the job. When she worked on the #SafeOutside climbing survey, more than 50 percent of the people who reached out to her were men who wanted to say thank you for bringing the issue to light.

“Every other industry has addressed this topic after a big crisis, when they were forced to deal with a situation they’d known about,” said Rennison, who’s a recreational climber. “The outdoor industry got ahead of it. We weren’t afraid to turn over the rock and see what’s under it. Maybe it’s because we see each other on the human level because we participate in activities that come with a high chance of dying. On the subconscious level, we’re each other’s keepers.”

Sarah said that she applied to work at the camp three separate times after her rape. It seemed nonsensical, she agreed, but the camp was the only home she knew. Each time, her application was rejected.

In 2011, Sarah decided to pursue a civil case against her attacker. In the six years since her rape, she’d coped with PTSD, survived an amphetamine addiction and eating disorder, and gotten therapy—making it to the other side of trauma in a way many people will not. By 2011, she felt healed, healthy, and ready to finally pursue justice. But at the time, the state had a three-year statute of limitations on civil lawsuits stemming from sexual assault and battery and had destroyed the evidence in her case. Reaching out in our survey seemed like one way to tell her story.

“It’s been eating away at me for a long time,” said Sarah.

In 2005, when the state trooper interviewed Scott, she said he acknowledged that while they were having sex, Sarah said that it hurt. He shrugged it off, telling her it was because she hadn’t had sex in a long time. “When you drink, you normally do things you wouldn’t when you were sober,” Scott stated in the police report.

During an interview for this story, the state trooper said that even 14 years later, this case has stuck with her. Her intuition that night was that Scott had done this before and that he was guilty. She thinks that if Sarah had pursued charges, she would have won. While the trooper didn’t suspect multiple perpetrators at the time, she said that some of the statements she collected from others that night were suspiciously vague and brief, and that when a woman is as drunk as Sarah was that night, there’s the potential that multiple men will take advantage of it.

Sarah said that in the years since, she’s heard of other incidents of rape at the camp.

“I started crying when I found out about them because I feel like all of this stuff is preventable with proper training,” said Sarah. “I was sexually harassed just about every day there. After my rape, it was clear that the camp’s risk management didn’t come from a place of love, but from fear of litigation. Does that culture still exist there? God, I hope not.”

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