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  • Writer's pictureAlyssa Royse

Would you rather run into a man or a bear in a gym?

If you haven’t seen the “man or bear” discussion on the Internet in the last few weeks, you’ve been living in a deep forest of your own. The question was posed, “as a woman alone in the woods, would you rather run into a man you don’t know, or a bear.” And pretty much 100% of the time, women say “a bear.”

The uproar around it has been telling, with a lot of very loud men arguing back, unable to take “no” as answer even to a hypothetical question. And, in so doing, proving the point.

Bear, please.

Fortunately, there’s also been a lot of really good discussion, that I hope is sinking in for people. For men, specifically.

There was one fatal bear attack in the US last year. (Steven Jackson, age 66, a highly unusual predatory attack of a Black Bear. The bear was killed, without the media telling us what a promising future he had, and asking why Steven was sitting at a picnic table in the first place.)

In 2021, there were nearly 5,000 women killed by their domestic partner. And many more than that raped and otherwise assaulted. 25% or so of those were stranger attacks, and that’s still a very big number. Far more than the zero of women who were raped by bears.

Men are, by far, the greatest risk that women face. We face that risk at home, on busses, in bars, on the street, in cabs, in schools, in church. We face it everywhere, and we know it. Many of us walk with our keys laced between our fingers, make fake phone calls as we’re walking alone on the street, carry bear spray hiking.

Not even taking outright attacks into consideration, we wear headphones and read books in public, hoping that will keep men from pestering us when we just want to be alone. It rarely works.

I used to wear an enormous, and therefore obvious, fake wedding ring set to the gym to get men to leave me alone. I could literally watch  men’s eyes go from my ass to my boobs to my ring finger to see if I was the property of another man, as that was the indicator that would stop most (but not all) approaches.

That’s the reality.

We are taught from a very young age that it’s on us to protect ourselves. And not to bother telling anyone if we are attacked because no one will do anything, and that’s if they believe us at all. (Roughly 33% of reported rapes, which is a tiny fraction of rapes, even result in arrest. And a very small number of those result in conviction.)


So, back to the gym, because that’s what I’ve been thinking about with the “man vs. bear” question. I’m wondering if gym owners and coaches are asking themselves what they do in their daily operations to be a safe place for women.

Actually, a safe place for anyone who routinely faces marginalization and violence just for existing. Queer people. Trans people. People who aren’t white. Religious minorities. Immigrants.

It matters.

Years ago, when Rocket was first thinking of offering 24/7 access, I spoke with someone who had an app / automated program for offering it to members. One of the “perks” of it was that if someone who was a member of their system at another gym was in town visiting, they could automatically get 24/7 access at Rocket too. I said “absolutely not.” As the coach who did morning classes, the idea of coming in a 4:30 am and finding someone I didn’t know in the gym was nightmare fuel. So I, obviously, wouldn’t put any of our members or coaches in that situation either.

The salesman told me I was some version of mean and selfish. And, of course, irrational. Many of their members, he told me, were cops. Then there was some talk about most women feeling strong enough to defend themselves. Sigh.

That was the end of the conversation.

But as a gym owner, who takes the safety of all our members seriously, how could I allow that?

Give me the bear, please.

By now, hopefully you’ve all seen the lists:

* A bear won’t follow me home * If a bear attacks me, I’ll be believed * If a bear attacks me, no one will ask what I was wearing, or if I sent it mixed-signals * the list goes on…..

But as gym owners, who presumably want women and other frequently endangered people in your gym, what are you doing to make your gym a safe place?

  • Do you have explicit harassment policies in place for both staff and members? Do you make that clear to everyone? Have you given your coaches both tools and permission to intervene when they see harassment, or hear something inappropriate being said?

  • Are your coaches taught not to touch members except as a last resort? And even then, only with consent? “Do you mind if I put my hands on your back to show you what I’m talking about?”

  • As a larger fitness community, are we using NDAs to cover up the behavior of people we know are abusing folks?

  • Are we saying “it’s just locker room talk” when we hear people being sexualized or spoken about abusively?

  • Do you have expectations about the language that people use in the gym?

  • And as a fitness community, are we calling out abusers and creeps, or are we just quietly letting them slink off to another gym? (Yes, employment law is tricky here, but gyms, check the references of everyone who applies. And although “they are not eligible to be rehired” may be the most we can legally say, those words should stop you in your tracks. I have a couple of those, call me and check their references.)

When I was 17, I was a hostess at a restaurant. My job was to look good and be friendly, literally. I was followed home and raped at gunpoint in my own bed, by someone who simply liked what they saw. So ya, when I hear someone talking strangely about how good someone looks, my radar goes off. When someone suggests it’s unkind of me not to want to run into a stranger in a dark gym when I open up at 4:30 in the morning, I know that is a person I will never be safe with.

Even the language we use to talk about people creates an atmosphere in which many of us would choose the bear. If I walk into a place, especially a gym, where people are being discussed in terms of how they look, how hot they are, getting hot, being hot, looking better naked, that’s an alarm.

At Rocket, we make clear to both staff and members that we don’t talk about people that way. We talk about things they DO, they accomplish, their achievements, their drive, their focus, their…. But never, ever, what they look like. Because even if it seems benign to you, you don’t know how that stuff lands to someone else. You don’t know if you’re saying something that will trigger an eating order that was in remission. Or PTSD for repeating a phrase that was said to them before they were assaulted, which 1 in 4 women have been. You don’t know. So don’t say it.

Bears don’t say shit like that.

There are a lot of reasons why women avoid gyms. One of the biggest is that gyms often feel predatory. After a lifetime of being harassed, targeted and assaulted, many women simply won’t bother unless they know they are safe.

And it’s not just women. Anyone who has been bullied in the locker room, in PE class, by “those guys” in high school, or had a name yelled at them as they walked down the street, or been chased while jogging very likely feels some degree of rightly-perceived danger in entering a traditional fitness space. What are you doing to let them know they're safe. To dismantle the overall gym and fitness culture that allows the mistreatment of so many people?

So again, what are you doing to make your gym safer? To make your gym a place where it’s possible to exchange that heavy emotional load for a physical one that puts you in a vulnerable position? It doesn’t happen accidentally. It has to be deliberate.

We outline it in our manuals, which are online if you want to see them. If you own a gym, that’s your job. Probably the most important part of your job, because if you want to empower people to do really hard things and push into their boundaries, they need to know they’re safe.

Physically, yes. But first, emotionally.





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