Route Names – Another Perspective

Dr. Teagan Westendorf writes about her call to change the obscene route names at crags in Nowra and elsewhere

Trigger warning – violence/sexual assault/homophobia/racism

Being a woman, I feel the violence and threat of route names referencing rape and violence against women. Routes like Rape Machine, Rape and Carnage, Violently Silence Me, Slut’s Have no Honour (and many other ‘slut’ references. Being a ‘slut’ implies that a woman has no worth, and so can be used at will by others for sexual gratification.)

Joking about violence normalises it and makes it sound like acceptable behaviour, which in the right scenario then enables and even incites it against actual people. Rape occurs at a truly astronomic rate in Australia.[1] Anyone who has survived rape or knows a friend or family member who has been a victim of rape knows the unbearable weight and cost of that trauma to the survivor and the people who love them for years to come.

Betty Blue at Thompsons Point, Nowra. Image by Simon Madden

These names also always remind me of the three young women who were raped and murdered in my part of Melbourne in the past few years, whose injuries were so severe that the police banned media crew from the site and refused to disclose the cause of death. Ten thousand locals turned out at the vigil for Eurydice Dixon. I used to work with her sister, this makes me think of how my life would be over if this happened to my sister. I feel physically assaulted with grief and anger hearing these route names and the blatant disregard they show for women.

If you think this qualifies as a ‘funny joke’ then you need to admit you do not care about women’s lives, pain and trauma. The same equation and effects apply for racist, homophobic and transphobic names. I only explain the violence against women example first because that is the personal position I speak from, not because it matters more than these other examples.

I feel challenged and uncomfortable by the privilege I experience as white, straight and able-bodied person, and angry at the lack of it I experience with regard to gender – i.e. those names about sluts, rape, and violence against women truly make me feel sick unsafe and unwelcome. They offer no ‘learning opportunity’, they just hurt me. And while I cannot truly understand the hurt of others who experience disadvantage where I experience privilege (e.g. race) I can empathise and trust that the hurt that they feel is real.

Names with references to rape and violence against women, people of colour and LGBTQI+ people need to be changed immediately.

This is not a question of having an ‘adult’s filter’ as some have suggested. Women, people of colour and LGBTQI+ people say they do not feel safe or enjoy this. Given the effect of discursive violence on mental health and the capacity of it to incite physical violence, we are not safe while these names remain. Being an ally to people of colour and the LGBTQI+ community, I am equally concerned for the effect of racist, homophobic and transphobic names such as Flogging A Dead Faggot, Faggot, KKK Bitch, Trigger N****,  Brother In A Body Bag, and Cheesy Afro Box.

It is hard to appreciate a context in which names these names were ever not offensive. These names reference serious, explicit acts of violence against women, people of colour and LGBTQI+ folk. As Rob LeBreton has rightly said, they can even promote violence. These are groups who have already survived and in many cases died from this kind of violence in real life. There is no possible justification for these names to remain unchanged.

If your route’s name meant something else in the context of when you named it, you need to understand that does not undo the meaning it has to people who do not know that context and might not experience your privilege. Context does not undo the common meaning of the words you use. You have used words that imply something you didn’t mean, and no one is condemning you for it, but the effect of what you didn’t mean is real and needs to be undone now. For example, the first ascentionist of  ‘Violently Silence Me’ has explained that the name is not about violence against women but was a joke about his inability to shut up at the crag. But it has an entirely different meaning if you belong to a group who have to worry about getting raped and murdered while walking home on a dark empty street (this happened to Jill Meagher on my street). 

Another reason I want to see this change is the potential for catastrophic effect access. Parks Victoria has carried out a very effective and unfair smear campaign against climbers by labelling the entire Victorian climbing community as racist. During this time of local Government pursuing important and landmark Treaty legislation with Aboriginal Victorians, it has proven incredibly difficult to even talk about this issue. The mainstream publication of these names would indict us as a community in the eyes of the state government, media, Traditional Owners and broader community to an extent that we would not recover from and that I shudder to think about. If you’re not sure about these names, perhaps think about how comfortable you are with that scenario and what that would look like to non-climbers who have no concern with the history by which a piece of rock was named by a person who doesn’t own it.

I am not calling for a lynch mob to attack first ascentionists. What we need is accountability, which does not have to include punishment. What it does require though is change.

“Accountability says, ‘you caused harm and are still deserving of care.’ With accountability, we can acknowledge that we caused harm, make amends and stop cycles of harm from occurring. We do this by being in community with others who will hold us accountable.

Accountability can look like being called out, having a conversation where harm is named and amends are requested… With accountability, no punishment is required. Instead, we move towards repairing and healing.

..If someone took the time to name the harm you’ve caused, that’s the kindest thing they can do for both you and them. The very act of naming the behavior demonstrates belief in your capacity to hear what they’re saying and learn from it”,

This brilliant quote comes from @margeaux.feldman.

The strategy I proposed in my original post advocates that:

1. The community calls on the first ascentionists (FAs) who named these climbs to rename them with a non-violent name suitable to the community we are today and want to be in future. This call is made in the spirit of the ‘caring’ accountability described above, which aims to stop cycles of harm and allow communal and individual healing, rather than the aim being punishment.

2. The FAs change the names accordingly to whatever they choose. In doing so, they show true, inclusive leadership and make a hugely valuable contribution to the Australian climbing community: participating in the process of consultation and education that LeBreton also advocates, by which harms are rectified and we all learn and grow as a community.

If you know of or encounter a violent name, please consider reaching out to the FA to explain the violence and request a positive name change. If you can’t find who to contact or how, try contacting The Crag requesting this info so you can make contact. If you are ignored, met with refusal or negativity, talk to your community members (fellow climbers, trusted mentors) and find a way to resolve this. There are plenty of brilliant, inspiring community leaders, I’m sure you can think of someone to message for guidance, even if it’s a cold-call on social media. I found people I looked up to very receptive to this when I started publicising my post. People do care and they will help you if you are hurting.

Only two reasons have been voiced to me not to change the names. Firstly, that some names are from Black American musicians’ lyrics. What black musicians say in no way equates to what white people can say or can name a climb. As a white person I won’t lecture on this, go read Kendrick Lamar on why white folk can’t sing N**** even when he does. Again this helps us understand where these names came from, but it does not justify leaving them unchanged.

Second, people have been citing the context of the ‘80s and ‘90s political climate as being amenable to these names. I appreciate that as another explanation for how the naming occurred, especially if we add to that 1) the social pressure to ‘say something crazy/naughty’ as per the flavour of Nowra names, and 2) sometimes we mess up and make a bad decision. However, I think it’s also fair to say that these names did not just become offensive, oppressive and violent in the last few years. They were having the same effect of intimidating, upsetting and excluding the minority groups in question back then as they do today. It’s a factor worth considering when thinking about why historically there have been less people from these groups developing routes and climbing in general.

These names alienate anyone who feels the weight and violence of their meaning, and also people who may not be personally impacted by them but want to be part of a climbing community that accepts all people and makes everyone feel safe, regardless of their race, gender, sexuality etc.

There has been significant support for the call to change the violent names of Australian routes and boulders in Nowra and beyond. This issue clearly means a lot to us. These conversations are challenging to have at a community level, and we are all learning and growing in the process, which is often a painful process.

We can celebrate the histories we are proud of, while also creating more equitable futures for all climbers. Thank-you so much to all the community leaders, businesses and individual climbers who supported this call so we can have this conversation and make this change.

Dr. Teagan Westendorf

4 thoughts on “Route Names – Another Perspective

  1. Johanna

    Thank you Dr Westendorf for shedding light on this important issue. I had not realised such violent, offensive names were being utilised in this community, and frankly I am horrified. Naming these routes as such normalises the use of this hateful language, and consequentially marginalises a huge number of people. I hope this article helps elicit a change in mentality of the climbing community, and highlight the weight such words carry with them.

    Reply
  2. Roland Foster

    As one of the first ascenionists of a route specifically mentioned in Teagan’s excellent article I wholeheartedly agree that the original context of a name no longer matters (even though the homophobic violence was not intended when I named Flogging a Dead Faggot that is certainly how it is perceived now, and I became increasingly embarrassed by it). I was therefore pleased it wasn’t in the guidebook but with online guides like The Crag the name spreads worldwide which was sickening when saw it in there (I had forgotten I had even done the route for 30 years) when I was back at Arapiles last year. I was also embarrassed that I had spoiled a really good route by knowing where two secret pieces of gear in the first 12m were and just running it out because I had grades up my sleeve. So in December 2019 I added three bolts and asked Glenn Tempest to change the name to ‘Flogging a Dud House’ in any new guide to reflect its renovated status. It’s a beautiful piece of rock with a great sequence of holds that deserves to be climbed without a cringeworthy name and high chance of decking without pre-inspection/pre-placement of gear.
    One of the unfortunate things about new route names is that what might have seemed funny or clever 30 or 40 years ago can live on long after the first ascentionist has died or left climbing and yet the name continues to perpetuate misogyny, racism or homophobia. I would hope that most first ascentionists would reconsider particularly egregious names without even having to be asked but I also suspect some first ascentionists might not have thought about particular route names for a very long time especially if they have left the scene. It depresses me that something as seemingly inconsequential as a route name I used jokingly has had such a horrible exclusionary effect over last three and half decades because I think climbing is much improved when the broadest diversity of climbers feels welcomed into the sport. There are, of course, many other things that can make climbers feel unwelcome/unsafe in a space from campfire ‘banter’ to spraylords shouting out every move among others, but changing deeply offensive route names is very tangible and potentially easily done, although I am against unilateral changes by guidebook authors as this smacks of sanctimonious sanitization. The challenge comes in deciding what route names are deeply offensive (I think all of Teagan’s examples definitely are) but I’m not sure about others that only some people may find offensive because of their use of swear words, for instance, Eat my Spinning Blades of Steel, Motherfucker (not sure if this is the full name) comes to mind. In these cases dialogue is good and I’m pleased that Robbie, Teagan and various commenters have contributed their views to this important discussion – I don’t think we can bury our heads in the sand and say it reflected the culture of the time as though those names deserve heritage status when they probably reflect just a few angry boys and young men who were overly influenced by ideas from punk and rap music. But then I also don’t want them to replaced with something completely anodyne either.
    I did a research methods paper on the practices of new route developers which suggested three types of developer; those who were most interested in either quantity, quality or difficulty. Naming was one of the practices that helped delineate these types, as those interested in quantity couldn’t think up enough names, those interested in quality felt that an appropriately clever name added to the quality of the route, but those most interested in difficulty tended to want give intimidating and/or offensive names that were actually intended or likely to put people off repeating their routes, and without knowing any of the protagonists in Nowra well, I suspect that this may also have been part of the motivation as well as wanting to offend mainstream society. Now though, some names tend to tarnish the whole of climbing as they can be used as ready examples (by land managers for instance) of how insensitive climbers are to issues of diversity and inclusion, and consequently may imperil continuing access, as well as being stunningly offensive to those who come across them for the first time as Johanna aptly illustrates above.

    Reply

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