The feeling of threat

17 Oct 2018 66 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer


Imagine something, if you can. Imagine you’re a 40-year-old woman.

You’ve got a few years of surfing time, so the whole lineup etiquette thing is no mystery to you. But then, you’re surfing a semi-rural NSW north coast location, just a few others out, and you’re dropped in on by a man slightly younger than you.

He’s abusive and aggressive — “fucking dumb woman!” — so you go in.

Your car is in a semi-isolated parking area in the bush behind the dune. You’re drying off next to your car, a bit upset over what’s just happened, when the man from the surf appears, with several of his friends. Without speaking, keeping a slight distance, they outflank you and surround your car. 

You’re alone and terrified. What’s about to happen? Are you about to be bashed, or raped?

Incredibly, another vehicle drives into the parking area, breaking the tension. The men leave and you tell the driver of the vehicle what’s just occurred; he escorts you safely to a nearby town. And you’re left wondering: what now?


That’s an actual story told to us in researching this article. Shocking, maybe. But to many women surfers, it may not seem that unusual.

Some time this month, 56-year-old Lennox Head surfer Mark Thomson will appear in Ballina Local Court to face charges over an alleged surf-zone assault on 48-year-old ex-pro surfer Jodie Cooper.

The case is subjudice, which means we can’t report any more on it than the paragraph above, at least until the court’s proceedings publicly unveil more information. That, or we’d risk prejudicing the case and thus be subject to mega-fines. 

But it did cause us to wonder: 

What’s really going on for women in surf zones?

In Australian waters, increasingly in recent years, more and more women of all ages have taken up surfing in all its forms.

It’s empowering stuff. But it’s also meant stepping into a world long inhabited solely by boys and men — a place where the rules are vague, complex, and ever-changing, often leading to hostility, and occasionally, to violence. 

CW spent a couple of weeks asking a range of women surfers about their experiences of this world. Of the 17 we spoke to, all but one has been directly threatened by men in the surf.

Sarah*, 35, has been surfing 15 years. Some time ago, she beat a guy in a local club contest. The guy was mercilessly ribbed by his friends. Months later, she got in his way on a wave while paddling out, and he told her, quite coldly, “You fucken c*nt, you shouldn’t be out here.” It scared her enough that she went in. 

Another time, she was surfing a Sydney beachbreak. Only one other person was out, an early-middle-aged man. He began snarling, “Fucken women don’t belong in the surf! Fuck ‘em! Fuck ‘em!” He raised his voice more and more, paddling around agitatedly, but never making eye contact. Another man paddled out and said to him, “You’re not laying a finger on her,” whereupon the guy began trying to punch him. She paddled in quickly, very rattled.

Annie*, also in her mid-30s, has experienced plenty of verbal abuse. Every incident has been with men. At one crowded spot, a man in his 50s dropped in on her and wouldn’t flick off. She asked him why he’d kept riding and he started screaming at her, “Why are you women in the surf now?” She has felt male aggression at other times in a similar way: “What are you doing out here?”

She has noticed that many men tend to moderate their behaviour around women. But a lot of women surfers she knows feel intimidation in the water, maybe to a larger degree than men. Annie relates it to the constant drumbeat of domestic violence in the wider culture, the fact that more than one woman a week is dying right now in Australia at the hands of a man who is close to her, usually a partner or ex-partner.

Tara* is an ex-pro in her late 40s — Jodie Cooper’s generation. Like longtime surfers of both genders, she doesn’t see anywhere near as much aggro as in the past. But she still has confrontations, one recently with a foreign surfer whom she deduced was from South America by his accent. The surfer dropped in on her and tried to push her off. She avoided him and he overbalanced and fell on his face.

Then he waited for her out the back. “Chick!” he spluttered. “Fuckin’ chick!”

She told him to go away, but he kept shouting at her: “Fuckin’ chick! I live here! I surf here all the time, I’m a local!”

“Yes, you sound like it,” she said. A couple of men friends in the lineup chased him away.

In another recent encounter, she was paddling out and was trapped when another paddler blocked her escape route and the surfer pretty much ran her over. He came up and said, “What are you doing out here? Learn to surf, you old bag!” She decided not to engage, feeling the man was too angry to make sense.

Briella*, 24, is a highly skilled Sydney surfer who says she had “dealt with just heaps of sexist crap throughout the years … being female I’m seen as an easier target, and I’m not.” Firing back, she thinks she may have scared a few men, though she has been told it’s “unbecoming of a lady to show such aggression.”

But an incident in Sri Lanka, when she confronted an Israeli man who’d dropped in on her, almost went very badly. The Israeli’s legrope was tangled around her arm, causing her a lot of pain. “I came up and lost it at him and he then started threatening to kill me… I was very angry at the time but his aggression and intentions were very visible and I really did get very scared for my well-being… I went in crying and had a huge purply, green and black bruise on the inside of my arm for months.”

Nicki* has heard stories of men harassing women, but that hasn’t been her experience. “To be honest I’ve found being a woman gets you more waves,” she told us, indicating her local surf spot, where we happened to be at the time. “At other beaches (where there’s no local structure) it’s different, but I know people here and I get my share of waves.’’

Byron-raised surfer and University of Queensland lecturer Rebecca Olive says she has experienced many incidents of male aggression in the surf. These have often occurred in front of other people, but she has never been protected by anyone stepping in. She’s been pushed off waves by men; she’s pushed men away when they’ve come too close on waves. Young boys have abused her under cover of their Dads. Once she had a man turn nasty on her after she confronted him for a drop-in. “I know where you live,” he told her, “I know what car you drive,” She paddled in.

Most of Rebecca’s stories are of abuse and menace rather than actual violence. She feels like, “it’s so unacceptable to hit a woman [publicly], it’s culturally taboo.” But the feeling of threat remains. She’s heard a story that sounds very much like the woman’s account at the top of this article, and says she wouldn’t consider surfing a remote location in the same way. “That idea of surfing alone, is supposed to be cool. For women, it is really scary.”

Rebecca suspects the aggression she and almost all the women quoted here are experiencing is a kind of localism — a sense of ownership of the surf zone being expressed by men. She quotes academic Margaret Henderson, who did a well-known study on gender bias in a surf magazine over decades, on how surfing can be a space for insecure men and boys.

“Men have all the space,” she says. “Until they give some up, it will be like this. They feel like they’re losing something, but they’re not.

How long has this been going on for women in the surf? Most people who were surfing when Tara (above) started out will agree with her that surfing isn’t as violent now as it was in the past. Then again, how do we know? CW talked with one lady, purely by coincidence, who told us she stopped surfing 50 years ago, at the age of 15, after being frightened out of the water at Fairy Bower by aggressive men, telling her girls shouldn’t surf and she should piss off.

It’s worth mentioning, none of the women CW talked with are about to stop surfing. Not even the woman who told us the story in the lead — though she gave it a lot of thought. 

And of course, #notallmen. 

But you can’t dismiss the accounts above. You can’t dismiss the fact that they’re happening against a backdrop of consistent and sometimes deadly violence against women on land.

It poses a question for #allmen: do we really want surfing to be another place where women have something to fear from us?

*Not their real names.

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