Having Non-Sexist Conversations with Women at the Gym: A How-To Guide

Posted: December 25, 2011 in Uncategorized

I approach my twice daily visits to the gym with a significant amount of dread.  Not because of the anticipated difficulty of my workouts, but because of the way the men there will treat me.

It’s easier when I’m in the pool, swimming.  First, I have my coach, who not only appreciates me as an athlete but also actively supports me in entering men’s races.  My teammates also accept me as an athlete they respect.  But that’s where the zone of comfort ends.  Almost without exception, every interaction I have with men in the gym–or even while I’m training or competing outside of it–is so laden with sexism that I’m–at best–infuriated and distracted, on other days, humilated and dehumanized.

I’m going to assume that you all–you know who you are–don’t know that you are being sexist pigs and that after I’ve shown you the error of your ways, your behavior will change overnight.

So here’s what I’ve composed to help you in your struggle: a how-to guide to having conversations with women at the gym that aren’t completely sexist.

Before you say anything:

1.     First–and believe me, I can’t stress this one enough–do not assume that a woman’s athletic prowess has anything to do with her sexuality.  A woman doing yoga is not an invitation to make comments about how that flexibility might come in handy in “other ways.” (Ugh.)  Or if she’s doing inclined sit-ups, you are not entitled to remark on how useful her core strength would be in a specific sexual position.  Similarly, if you see a woman running on a treadmill, refrain from connecting her stamina with your experience of sexual pleasure.  Believe it or not, these women are not at the gym to turn you on.  If a woman’s athletic prowess makes her sex more enjoyable, that’s great for her and none of your damn business.

It’s not just disgusting because you are (most likely) not these women’s sexual partners.  Women go the gym for different reasons.  Some are competitive athletes.  Others are staying healthy and fit.  That said, I don’t know any women who go to the gym to show off their bedroom moves to a stock of sexist pigs.  In all likelihood, the woman you’re objectifying is not interested in having sex with you and she certainly did not come to the gym for the purpose of arousing you. 

2.     Connected to the first tip, the second is this: whatever the woman you want to talk to is wearing, don’t think she wore it to impress you or that you have any right to comment on it.  Perhaps she wore it because she loves her body and wants the world to see it–that’s great.  The human body, in its many shapes, sizes, and colors is a really marvellous aspect of who we are.  Another plausible scenario is that the woman is wearing what’s comfortable.  Running in compression tights rather than sweats might make her legs less tired when she’s working the night shift at the hospital.  When it’s warm, wearing less clothing is more comfortable and a woman may opt to workout in only a sports bra.  Regardless of what she’s wearing or why she’s wearing it, you are not invited to stare at her or comment that you think her outfit is sexy, etc.

The other flipside of this is that you don’t have the right to make judgments about our bodies, which are all beautiful and are ours and ours alone.  This, despite what some people–including some people I know quite well–think: that the gym is a “meat market” where you (and especially women) display “what you have for sale” in order to attract a potential mate.  Gyms exist because we live in a concentrated, sedentary society and humans need exercise in whatever form it might take, at a gym or not, to stay healthy.  We have the right to wear whatever we want, look however we want or do, and the simultaneuos right to not have you say a fucking thing about it.  We really don’t need your judgments or snide remarks about our bodies shape or size.  Don’t even think this is an acceptable avenue of conversation to pursue.

Cool, Trish.  I think I’m ready to talk to her now:

3.     When you approach a woman at the gym to try and start a conversation not related to her sexuality or her body, remember to treat her like a human being.  Introduce yourself.  Ask her name.  Remember that you are not interested in just ogling her as she works out or imagining her during sex, you are actually interested in her as a human being–so fucking act like it.  How would a conversation like this go?  Let’s go to the tape.  Here’s one of the few non-sexist conversations I’ve had at the gym.  I had just finished my last set and was standing in the water letting my body cool down.  The man in the lane next to me stopped.

Man: Hey, are you Trish, the distance swimmer?

Me: Yeah.

Man: Cool, my name’s J.R.  I’m a triathlete.

Me: Nice.  I do triathlons too.  What distance do you do?

See how easy that was?  Not creepy (a lot of people at the pool know me by reputation, so while already knowing my name could have come off weird in a different situation, here it did not).  The conversation was thoroughly enjoyable.  We talked about swimming, work/family, and triathlons for nearly 20 minutes without mentioning sex.  Take note that he did not allude to finding my body sexually attractive.  This is a model to follow.

But what if you are attracted to her and want to ask her out?  Even if you find a woman attractive, she will probably figure this out when you ask for a phone number at some point after getting to know her as a person.  If you don’t intend to ask her out, resist the need to mention it.  It’s really not necessary.  There’s this strange myth that women enjoy nothing more than being told they look hot.  As a woman, I am here to tell you the golden fucking rule: there is nothing I enjoy more than being treated like a human being.

4.     If you are amazed by her athletic prowess, talk to her about it–and don’t talk about sex.  It’s totally fine to think a woman is an amazing athlete.  Actually, a lot of women are amazing athletes, so I’d encourgage you to be impressed by how much we kick ass.  And you know what?  If a woman is great at what she’s doing–better than you–ask her how she does it.  It’s not magic.  We have to work at being athletes just like you.

Shockingly enough, it’s possible to talk about a woman’s athleticism without also talking about having sex with her, explicitly or implicitly.  You know all those times on TV where they talk about how Michael Phelps is built to swim but they don’t talk about having sex with him?  Or when LeBron James attracts lots of attention for making a key drive to the basket and they don’t at all mention having sex with him?  It’s like that.  Let’s continue to play my conversation with J.R., a few more minutes in:

J.R.: What’s the longest race you’ve swum?

Me: 10K

J.R.: Wow.  We’ll you’ve really got the stroke for it.  You look like you’re almost seven feet tall in the water.  How many strokes does it take you to cover 25m?

Me: About 12.

J.R.: How are you able to lengthen yourself out like that?  I can’t make it in less than 18.

J.R. nails appreciating my athleticism without mentioning sex at all.

At all times:

5.  Think before you speak/act.  Ask yourself: is what I’m about to say or do objectifying/degrading/none of my business/sexist?  If the answer is yes, or you’re not sure, or there’s any question, DO NOT SAY OR DO IT.

That should be enough to get you started.  I look forward to a changed atmosphere at the gym promptly on Monday morning.

Regards, Trish.

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