Sexism in Parkour

Storror Jam Group Picture - By Elias Sell

     I want to start off by saying this essay is not an attack on all male athletes or all females athletes in the parkour community. This essay is specifically written on the experiences I had at the Storror Jam in Philadelphia and Beast Coast in D.C. I am writing this essay in an attempt to open up an honest conversation that can help us, the parkour community, recognize its sexism problem and in turn become an even closer and more supportive community than we already are.

     When I first started parkour training in March I was excited, but also a little wary of the sexism that I assumed would exist based on my experience in other sports. My introduction to sexism in sports started about 16 years ago when I began martial arts training. From there I found out how prominent sexism was not only in sports, but also in my job as a stage manager and my volunteer work as build leader for Habitat for Humanity. So you can imagine my shock when I went to my first class and walked into a gym that had obviously made an effort to eliminate any type of discrimination. In this gym I experience a world where the kids are treated the same as the adults and vice versa; and women are treated the same as the men and vice versa. Even the beginners are treated the same as the athletes that have been training for years. It was an amazing experience that made me fall in love with not only the sport, but also the community.

     Having had the experience I have had so far at my gym imagine my surprise when I got to my first jam and realized how prominent sexism was in the parkour community outside of the gym. My first taste of sexism in parkour started at the Storror Jam. I pride myself on going out of my way to get to know everyone and try to learn a little from everyone around me and that was no exception for this event. I realized very quickly however that when I was training and talking to other athletes about how they train or do certain moves, that a lot of the guys treated me in a much different way than they treated other male athletes. For example, when I was training they would ask  me if I wanted advice or help and then they would just hang out and watch me work on things. They would just shoot the bull when they talked and then maybe give me little words of encouragement, for example “don’t worry, some times things are just hard to get” or “maybe we should work on something easier, like kongs.” I would have loved to work with any number of these athletes on any skills beginner to advanced, as long as they had been willing to give me advice on how to become better or give me tricks to do moves better. Instead I felt extremely condescended to, which was frustrating because not only did I really want to learn from these athletes but  I also felt like they really were oblivious to what they were doing and how they were treating me.  

     Another thing that happened multiple times throughout the jam that really bothered me was the assumption that I was not there as an athlete, but as a spectator. Multiple times while talking to athletes I was stopped mid-sentence and I asked why I was there or who I was there to see or if I was dating one of the other athletes. At this point not only was I irritated because every time I tried to train I was being talked down to; but now as a female the assumption was also that I was not even there as an athlete, but as a girlfriend or a spectator.

     Having had that experience throughout the jam I was a little upset with most of the guys at the jam, so I was more than excited when two girls came in to the gym that evening. I realized very quickly, however, that the sexism in parkour doesn’t just stem from the males, but also from the females. The girls that came in grabbed me pretty quickly and started talking to me about life and parkour and my experience so far in the community. It was so much fun talking to them and hearing their experiences and how they got started in this sport. After talking for a while they started asking about the community at the gym and in Philadelphia in general. We talked a for some time about the gym philosophies and my experiences in the gym and how I’ve been working to get more females in the gym and encouraging them to stick with and showing them that parkour isn't just a male sport. They were very encouraging of everything I was trying to do, but then they started telling me about other areas that had more concrete female parkour communities and how I should come spend more time with them at the all female parkour jams and meet ups. For clarification up to this point I never realized that there was even such things as all female parkour jams and meet ups, and honestly the idea of them completely baffled me. The idea of going to jams and retreats that were just for girls was not only confusing to me, but also really bothered me.  For me, the points of jams are to train with all of the best athletes, men and women, and to push each other to be the best we can be. So having gained the knowledge that some of the women in the parkour community were very much separating themselves from the men and the men in the parkour community were struggling with how to interact with women athletes, I went on to Beast Coast, where I realized just how segregated our community actually was.

Relaxing at Storror Jam - By Elias Sell

Some jumps at Beast Coast - By Elias Sell

     My main goals at Beast Coast was to meet as many athletes as possible and go to as many seminars as I could. The first seminar I went to was female led, which I thought was cool because I really hadn’t had a chance to train with a lot of females. The first thing I noticed, however, was that the only people that went to this seminar were women. It was an amazing seminar that I think would have benefited everyone, yet only females were there. I found this super weird until I started listening to all the conversations happening around me; they were all very much along the same lines as the conversation I had the night before at the Storror Jam. Everyone was talking about these all-women jams and retreats and honestly if I was a guy and had come to that seminar or overheard any of the conversations happening within the group, I would have been very uncomfortable. After that seminar I’m not exactly sure where all the female athletes went. I broke off into a really awesome group of people, that consisted of athletes from all over the place and all skill levels, and went to train in the city. It was an amazing experience,because the farther into the city we went the bigger our group became and every time we stopped to train it was this awesome mix of incredibly supportive and encouraging athletes. At some point while talking to some of the guys, who were still being weird towards me, I realized that once again I was the only female in my group and wondered why none of the girls I had just been in seminar with had come along with us. I had planned on talking to the girls that night and seeing why they didn’t go out and train with us, but none of them stayed the night at the gym with us, either. It was another disheartening moment where I realized just how real the segregation of male and female athletes really is at these big “community” events.

My introduction to the parkour community was at a gym that works hard and goes out of it’s way to make sure that everyone that walks in the door feels equal: male or female, but based on my experience at these jams in the community it does not feel like this is something we all seem to strive for. I wish I had a magic solution to fixing this problem, but I think it's going to take all of us to solve the sexism issue in our community. I truly believe that both sides are at fault for pushing this issue to the point where it is and my hope is that by opening up an honest conversation between the groups I can help spur us along to work together to be better and fix this. As a community we should want everyone to be the best athlete possible. We should want our female athletes to be as amazing as our male athletes and our male athletes to be as phenomenal as our female athletes. We have so much we can learn from each other and that will never happen if we keep segregating ourselves at events and putting up barriers based on sex.