Image by Joe Flood licensed under Creative Commons.

Today, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) published a blog post, "Guys, What the hell," about bad behavior on trails and how it stifles camaraderie and ridership in the cycling community, particularly among women and minorities.

WABA begins with a first-person account of inappropriate yelling on the Mt. Vernon Trail, and calls out the behavior as totally unacceptable and sexist:

This sucks. This sort of behavior is totally unacceptable.

As your regional bike advocates, we are obliged to point out that to a certain extent, this is an infrastructure problem—the Mount Vernon Trail is narrow and bumpy and not really equipped to handle the number of people that use it every day.

But let’s be crystal clear here: this is mostly a jerk problem...

...[but] resist the temptation to ascribe this rider’s experience to some sort of equal-opportunity jerkitude. Women make up about a quarter of the people who ride bikes in the region. That’s a problem for everyone. There are a number of systemic reasons for this imbalance, from social structures to infrastructure, but the entitled macho nonsense described above is a very real barrier to biking.

...Here are a few simple ways to avoid perpetuating systemic gender discrimination while riding your bike:

  • Don’t shout stuff at women.
  • Don’t ding your bell repeatedly, or snap your brakes, or sigh loudly at people going slower than you.  If you’re late or bored or just want to go faster, wait for an opportunity to pass, announce your intentions politely, negotiate the space you need to pass safely, and do so without fanfare.

The post quickly gained traction on social media, including WABA's Facebook page, where it racked up comments attacking the premise that such behavior is sexist. Commenters wrote such things as, 

Is it cool if I yell stuff at men? Ask them if they need help in some kind of unapproved language? Can I assume a guy is clueless? And it is ok if I sigh loudly behind slow guys, right?


how did this become a gender bashing issue. Why do women think everything is all about them? don't shout anything at anyone. don't judge peoples choice of words if they're trying to help. don't make gender based biases without reason. 

It's true — and WABA says as much — this is mostly a jerk problem. First and foremost, don't be a jerk to anyone. In an ideal world, 'don't be a jerk' would be full stop, and problem solved.

Nonetheless, when jerk behavior is directed at women (whether they're on a bike or not), yes, this is sexism — systemic sexism. Data (and so many individual ancedotes) support that female cyclists are almost twice as likely as their male counterparts to be experience harassment.

Systemic or institutionalized sexism (or racism, or any -ism) is deeply enmeshed with what some people experience and others don't. Today, our culture has pretty universally rejected sexism and racism as undesirable and bad. So, when we are confronted with actions or behaviors we've done being labeled (in this case) as sexist, we feel that we are being accused of being sexist. Which in turn, culture tells us, makes us a bad person. We are not being sexist, because we are not that kind of bad person. 

Sometimes, our values evolve faster than our behaviors

Systemic sexism isn't about the values we as individual people choose and try to live our lives by (values often dictated by cultural norms, like 'sexism is bad'). Instead, systemic sexism (or racism, or homophobia, or ableism, etc.) is a problem of institutional practice, bias, and habit. Sometimes, our values evolve faster than our behaviors. Which is why when WABA says to "call it [systemic sexism] out when you see it," they're absolutely right. Calling out institutional bias when you see it helps us see, and thus be able to evolve, our behaviors to better reflect our values.

Systemic discrimination shapes the lives and daily experiences of many of our neighbors (and ourselves) — from street harassment, to racial profiling, to police violence and on and on.

On the flip side, many of us are simply free from some of these types of institutional baggage. But just because we don't experience bad behavior through the lens of systemic oppression doesn't mean it's not there. Just because white people can also be violently treated by police doesn't mean there isn't systemic police violence against black people. Just because men can be catcalled on the street doesn't mean there isn't a systemic problem with street harassment of women. For men, when someone offers unsolicited advice about biking, it's not part of a bigger pattern of people assuming they need help or advice because of their gender identity.

To borrow an analogy from the Black Lives Matter movement:

  • All lives matter, including and especially noting black lives, because society often acts like they don't.
  • Cyclists, don't shout things at fellow trail or infrastructure users, including and especially women, because the system is shaped in a way that women get shouted at too much, because they're women.

In other words, black lives matter. Don't shout stuff at women.