Usually a story like this means it’s time for one half of the internet to immediately accuse the other of handwringing and being professionally offended. We can’t really stop the internet masses from following that now very familiar script, so with that in mind, check out these race categories for a women only race, Enduro Maiden:
You are not misreading that. The categories are:
- Enduro Babies (aged 16 – 21)
- Enduro Virgins (less than three races)
- Enduro Whores (more than 3 races)
- Enduro Cougars (aged over 30)
Before we carry on: the organisers (Air Maiden) are women, do coaching, and include coaching for women as part of their race events. That coaching is not just beginner stuff, it includes advanced skills taught by women who are former freeriders and downhill racers.
Let’s also get the obvious out of the way: It’s their event. They can do whatever they want with it.
Men’s opinions on this are, it turns out, staggeringly easy to come by on the internet. So instead, we went and asked women, both in and out of cycling, what they thought. We got over fifty responses. Only one of the comments was positive (“I f*cking love it”), some weren’t offended but also weren’t convinced by it, and the majority were negative, ranging from “Nope” to “What the absolute bloody F**K??!!”, but there was a lot of considered opinion with little in the way of outrage. You can find many of those comments below.
We also approached race organiser Lynne Armstrong, who responded thus:
“While brainstorming with a few women who I’ve ridden and collaborated with for years the category names came about both as a way of keeping the race light hearted and fun, but also with an underlying intent and purpose in keeping with the theme of female empowerment.
“To me context is everything so here’s some for you. I’ve been around for a while. I grew up in a small traditionally sexist town in the 80s, have participated in a number of male dominated sports and worked in occupations dominated by men. So like most women, I know what it’s like to deal with sexism both in and out of sport.
“I also have a psychology degree from Edinburgh University and understand the dynamics of language and power. Whore and (to a lesser degree) Cougar are slurs when used maliciously by men. However, when those words are taken back by women their power to harm is gone. Every oppressed group takes back the words of the oppressor. Why is it shocking when women do the same? The irony is clear. I mean, what better place to reclaim these words than at an event that empowers women in a sport where we are the minority? Maybe I should have called the categories Chicks, Divas, Foxes and Honeys or any of the other accepted Roller Derby style feminist terms that are so popular these days.
“I have two young daughters who I intend to raise to be confident and assertive women, and I have no intention of shying away from these terms. I think its important that we acknowledge them as part of our history and our progress. Anyone who’s known me for more than an hour knows that I don’t waste my time mincing words and I don’t believe in a world of trigger warnings and fake outrage.”
There’s also a small online community for this event, and as you’d expect, that’s mostly made of a self-selecting group of people who are either in favour of, or at least not offended by the category names. The most negative comments there are variants on “I’m not entirely comfortable, but thanks for putting on an excellent event”.
Within that community, there are basically two different arguments in favour of the category names: One, that it’s just a bit of fun, and two, that as Lynne argues above it’s reclaiming language in an empowering way. There doesn’t seem to be much dissent or objection there, which is hardly surprising.
It’s a public facing event though, and outside of that community, opinions are harsher. Below are a few of the responses we got. Some women asked to not be identified by their full or real names, or gave pseudonyms.
Adele Mitchell, Singletrack columnist: “Am I right in thinking this is about the cultural reappropriation of the words in question? Or am I reading too much into it and are they just having a laugh without having put any thought into it at all?
“Of course I can only speak for myself but as an older woman I wouldn’t find it funny or feel comfortable entering a category called ‘cougar’. This is despite having an excellent sense of humour and an understanding of the evolution of language: it’s simply an outdated term that I am not interested in ‘reclaiming’. They might as well go the whole stereotype hog and call the category ‘Menopausal’, ‘Tena Ladies’, or ‘Beat Me on The Bottom With The Women’s Weekly’. And while we’re at it why not reroute the trail so that us withered crones can get a bit of loam life at the local Garden Centre – complete with Cream Tea and two-for-one offer on hydrangeas? Then again, if we cant find our reading glasses we wont be able to tick any category which might explain why so few older women enter these events.
“I do hope the event was a success though, and that it returns next year – whatever the categories are called.”
Katharine: “If it’s a private event among women then I think that’s different than if it’s a public-facing event. I wouldn’t rely on outsiders to appreciate humour or irony when it comes to sexist language.”
Beate Kubitz, racer and sometimes Singletrack writer: “I‘m not offended, it’s just weird. Not to mention there isn’t a 40+ category and what would they call that?”
Kim Summer: “Nah mate. Not cool. Even if it’s meant to be bants.”
Hannah Dobson, Singletrack: “I think the fact it’s women behind it highlights the fact that ‘women’s cycling’ is as disparate as the ‘cycling community’. Different women have different ideas of what is a good idea. But I think setting up your event in a way that will discourage a proportion of an already small field from taking part is a weird choice. And it’s a particularly uncomfortable choice for me given the whole ‘bantz and dudes’ scene – a bit like ‘if you can’t beat them [the misogynists], join them’. On the other hand, there are a few examples of reclaiming language in other spheres, but I don’t quite see this as fitting that.”
Helen: “I wouldn’t even be fussed about context or ‘bants’ or explanations. It’s implying womens roles are all based on sexuality and male perception of sexual roles. F**k that.”
Rachel Sokal, Singletrack columnist: “Whilst female only events can be really empowering for some, unfortunately I fear that the Enduro Maiden organisers’ joke in terms of the naming of the categories risks backfiring. And it’s not because I personally find it offensive; I admit I was a bit surprised at first but once I’d had a look around their website, understood the joke, I had a small smile about it. But as with Roger Gale and his political office, the risk doesn’t come from what an individual like me or the Enduro Maiden team think. The risk comes from the views of the mountain biking society. There are many examples of where women are failing to be recognised as riders who generally are the same as their male counterparts. By referring to ourselves in such derogatory terms, whether it is a joke or not, will only corroborate what is already believed by many.”
Jennifer: “I get they are trying to be funny, but first impression is ‘What were they thinking? Are they even taking this event seriously?’. It seems like they are belittling their own event and the women participating using these categories.”
Siobhan: “I think I’d immediately choose not to participate. It’s so unwelcoming, and it makes them sound very cliquey and aggressive.”
Alex Harford: “I think it’s misguided at best. Maybe they’re trying to be edgy and provocative, but there’s enough derogatory language targeted at women out there without a women led organisation contributing to it.”
Haplocke: “Given the context and background of the company, I’d still massively question why they chose those words. All three of those words have been used as slurs to objectify and denigrate women, and as much as “whore” and “cougar” may have been reclaimed by some sex workers and other women, they are still not widely enough recognised as “not-a-slur” to be used in such a headlining way.”
Hannah Nicklin (who has specifically written about promoting women’s races): “I think my reaction to this has been pretty in line with the vast majority of the women’s cycling community online; one of both horror and complete lack of surprise. Cycling remains a laddish and macho sphere. There are so many barriers to women competing in events, I can’t imagine why you might think these category names (which charitably you might call a community in-joke) would be appropriate for a public-facing event. If you’ve spent even a little time trying to encourage women into cycling you’d hope you’d figure out that kind of sexualised language is going to put off a huge swathe of people, so it’s better to build the voice and character of your event in other ways. Some might not be offended, but why risk losing anyone?
“I’ve become increasingly involved in women’s racing since discovering it through the grassroots organisation London Women’s Racing last year, I’ve since progressed to 2nd cat and racing at a National level, and have returned the favour to LWR by volunteering as their Social Media Sec. From this vantage point I can see how clearly that there are huge challenges in women’s cycling; not least the sexism, but also in terms of learning how to promote races and build communities in which women feel supported in taking risks, being competitive, and learning about bikes and racing. We see some things changing; people (including men) are more confident in calling out sexist assumptions and advertising, but there’s still a long way to go, and so many fronts to fight on; from grassroots racing to pro, women are still treated as second class sportspeople. This might be seen as a trivial example of problematic behaviour, but it’s the tip of an almighty iceberg, and I’d rather everyone pick up a hammer and start smashing it up, rather than joking around.”
To some of Enduro Maiden’s fans, using these words jokily is a way of picking up a hammer and breaking this stuff, but outside the event and its community, it seems to miss the mark. Given Lynne has stated how important context is, the way the category names have been presented up to now has been quite lacking in context to anyone on the outside looking in.
Many of the women we spoke to think use of these words isn’t solving anything. “Whore” is a word with history, and for some people a degree of trauma too. Given the spread of opinions we’ve received, it seems it might be limiting Enduro Maiden’s wider audience somewhat, even if it’s simultaneously strengthening its community. An important final data point: Around 70 women turned up for Enduro Maiden – fewer than the 200 or so who attend the Red Bull Fox Hunt, but still a much higher number than tend to be seen competing at other, all gender mountain bike races.
But What About The Mennnn?
We are mostly men in the Singletrack office, and so speaking on behalf of all men, we acknowledge that we males are fragile, easily offended creatures led primarily by our emotions. Being excluded from something like this can be hurtful. In the interests of equality, here are some attempts at gender-based insulting category names for men, just so men can feel included too:
- Enduro Manther
- Downhill Creeper
- Slopestyle Pindick
- Cross Country Premature Ejaculator
- 24 Hour Bed Wetter
- Fastest Misogynist
It doesn’t really work does it? While still insulting, they simply don’t have the same kind of bite as calling a woman a whore. It doesn’t seem possible to insult men in general using even remotely similar or weighty cultural baggage. One woman we spoke to suggested that possibly the only thing approaching equivalence might be income, a thing some men are sensitive about and that, for the most part, people seem to maintain a polite silence on.
In an ideal world, none of this kind of baggage would exist for anyone. That’s not the world we live in right now, and people aiming to make it better have very different ideas on how to achieve it. Whatever your view on Enduro Maiden’s category names, you’ve got to admit: the way language works around this is a deeply weird, unequal and messed up part of our culture.