Although I don’t want to overshadow the outpouring of spontaneous love and support we receive along our ride, it is important to highlight the reality of twelve women biking down the coast. Almost every day, we are confronted with snippets of the patriarchy, most of the time easily ignored with humor. However, over the past 40 days, each mansplaining moment and each catcall has built up, and it’s time to talk about it.
A lot of the time, the sexism we encounter appears unintentional and unknowing, which is why I want to write about it. So let’s talk about what is okay to say to a group of twelve women, and let’s talk about what isn’t.
Let’s start with language. Many men, particularly cyclists, intentionally use technical bike language that they expect us to not understand. This exclusionary tactic is meant to intimidate and patronize us. Although many men we meet are impressed and proud of us, others are threatened by the fact that women are doing something so physically challenging, and they want to assert that they know more.
What is so ironic about this, however, is that we are extremely candid about how new to cycling we all are, so the fact that they feel threatened in the first place is pretty laughable. This definitely can be derived back to this nice little thing called ~fragile masculinity~. When these men see women doing something that is male-dominated, they immediately feel insecure in their masculinity and attempt to exclude us with language.
Next: our weight. There are so many other (and MUCH more interesting) questions that you could ask 12 women that are biking 1700 miles down the coast. Despite this, one of the first questions we are asked (primarily by men) is whether we are gaining or losing weight. We are all grappling with the intense lifestyle changes we experience on this trip, and we all have different relationships to food and our bodies. Although some of us might not mind these questions, others of us are hurt by them. There is undoubtedly a gendered element to the heightened attention our bodies receive in comparison to men.
Finally, let’s unpack the interactions we experience on the road. Just yesterday, three of our girls took their jerseys off in the heat and were (creepily) filmed by another cyclist. About a week ago, we got an encouraging thumbs up from one car and seconds later we were catcalled by another. Frequently, men yell at us to get out of the road. It has been demonstrated again and again that not only are we hypersexualized, but we are also not considered legitimate— as cyclists and as we move through the world. So what can we learn from our gendered experiences as cyclists, and how can we use this to deepen our understanding of the issue of trafficking?
Because we are sexualized and objectified, our bodies are not considered to be our own. We lose autonomy and value. This is exacerbated for women of color, women in the LGBTQ community, low-SES women, women with disabilities, and women of any other intersecting identity that society deems is not valuable. This contributes to the victim blaming that we see all-too-frequently in issues of trafficking.
Finally, our experience down the coast has shown us what it means to care about the issue of trafficking. And it has shown us that there are different levels of caring. You can feel saddened by the issue, and you can objectively understand its harm. But, when you truly understand the feeling of having your body taken away, your care is driven by empathy, and your empathy turns into action.
What we have learned from the positive interactions we’ve had with men— those who tell us about wanting to use progressive language for their daughters, those who are genuinely proud of us, those who encourage us and see us as just people— is that there are no requirements to caring and empathizing. If you learn about the impacts of systems that take away people’s bodies, you understand that sex trafficking— like other forms of interpersonal violence— is not brought on by the survivor but rather by systems of oppression that value some bodies over others. And when you understand this, you feel compelled to make change.