I'm Dropping In, and I'm Not Sorry

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“Wait Your Turn.”

That’s the title of Tara Ruttenberg’s daring editorial which, since its publication earlier this week, has stirred great controversy. It’s an uncensored rumination on the experience of the female surfer, and a bold claim of rights to waves.

The piece went viral. Unfortunately, the nuanced message was apparently lost on much of its audience. After all, surfers are not generally known for their intellectual prowess.

The Inertia ran the piece under a headline that was lengthy yet somehow missed the point: “As the Only Woman in the Lineup, Here’s Why I Don’t Apologize For Taking The Waves I Want.” Outrage ensued: This woman, a “surfeminist,” threatens to break the social order by taking whichever waves she pleases! She must be incredibly ignorant and entitled! She’s a danger to the surfing community and she must be stopped! The Inertia published a rebuttal by an author who was eager to condemn this egregious rebuff of surfing's enshrined rules. Judging by his analysis, he had not read beyond the headline. He mansplained that ‘ladies are not exempt from surfing’s most basic rules.’ The controversy escalated, and threats were made against Ruttenberg. A woman had raised her voice to say something fairly radical, something that she knew not everyone would understand—but instead of productive debate, it was met with slanderous comments, misrepresentation, and ultimately silencing when the piece was taken down.

As the dust settles and the commenters who lashed out find other people to antagonize with their keyboards, the rest of us are thinking about what the author actually said, and what she did not say.

Ruttenberg took to Instagram to further elucidate her point. She explained that her intention is to shed light on the fact that many of the established norms in surfing serve to oppress non-male participants. “[I’m] withdrawing my consent to the masculinized patriarchal social order of surfing, as represented in ‘the rules’ of etiquette and the ways those are (selectively) policed and enforced by (mostly) men.”

Surfing etiquette is a simple set of rules that exist to create order in an inherently chaotic environment. The surfer who has managed to position themself closest to the peak of a given wave has the right of way. This principle is meant to ensure safety and fairness, as well as maximize the wave’s utility. It’s basic, it feels natural, and it works – most of the time.

Alas, things are not always so straightforward. We live in a world of atrociously dense crowds, hydrofoil blades, and gaping inequality. And in this context, as Ruttenberg pointed out, etiquette rules are enforced selectively. For example, many people consider it acceptable for an especially talented surfer to claim priority out of turn. I’ve encountered lots of guys, particularly in Los Angeles, who think they are such hot shit that the rules don’t apply. Sometimes I concur; if the tour is in town and one of the pros paddles for my wave, I back off and admire. But the hulk of a man paddling circles around me and embodying the concept of “aggro?” The sneaky grom whose air reverses are the best in his Dana Point middle school surf P.E. class? No way am I giving up a wave for them.

Everyone gets burned and snaked in the water. Lots of people are assholes, and that's the way it is. But a woman faces, on top of this reality, another barrier to getting the waves she deserves: the invisible power structure. Every female surfer has countless stories of being snubbed because a man underestimates her ability, of spending entire sessions jockeying to get in position for a wave, of being harrassed in the lineup – all this on top of the obvious physiological challenges.

The angry commenters argued a position that I daresay is held by a majority of surfers: gender dynamics don’t factor into the game of the lineup. They fervently deny our experience without ever having taken the time to listen.

Until these issues are taken seriously by the wider surfing community, the only way to demand change is to enact it. That means starting your own damn surf magazine. It means running right over the bloke who’s in your way because he assumed you wouldn’t make the takeoff. Sometimes, it means dropping in on the guy who used his superior physical strength to backpaddle you twenty times in a row. Not sorry!

Read “Wait Your Turn” here.