A rewarding reading for sport scholars about critical research on sex, gender and sexuality in surfing

Anna Adlwarth
Nord University, Norway

lisahunter (red)
Surfing, Sex, Genders and Sexualities
214 pages, paperback.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2019 (Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society)
ISBN 978-0-367-89574-7

Research on discrimination on the grounds of sex and gender in sport is still very relevant and necessary in the 21st century and affects the so-called lifestyle sports, as well as for instance athletics and ball sports. Just last year for example, big-wave-surfer Maya Gabeira rode the biggest wave of the year (men and women), which was for four weeks not announced by the World Surf League on the grounds of different procedures for the women’s and the men’s category[1]. Sport scholarship that sets out to explore gendered power relations does meanwhile not only address the binary women/men but also sexualities and sexual identities and many axes more, like race, ethnicity and able-bodiedness. However, discrimination becomes not only evident when looking at competition formats, payment and the number of women and LGBTIQ+ people in sport leadership, but also concerns the discursive, emotional and embodied structuring of (a) sport. In this book, the editor lisahunter ignites exactly this discussion as they call upon research on different and intersecting axes of discrimination and their effects on surfing sport and culture and its subjectivities.

The introductory chapter: a pinpoint summary about sex,
gender and sexuality scholarship and surfing

The first chapter serves as an introduction to sex, gender and sexuality (sgs) in (sport) scholarship. Written by lisahunter themself, it offers a strong outline about theory, thought and terminology of sgs studies, its (rather recent) history in sport studies in general, and an overview about previous sgs research on surfing. Consequently, their chapter is an enriching up-to-date summary for everyone interested in sgs and sport scholarship, in particular lifestyle sports. In their outline of previous research, lisahunter brings – unsurprisingly – to light the heteronormative male dominant culture of surfing. But as they point out, most of the research tends to be descriptive rather than critical and concentrates on a man/woman respectively male/female divide rather than on discriminatory practices on the grounds of sexuality. Furthermore, few previous research studies question colonial history and practices, whether concerning the culture of surfing or on parts of the researchers themselves. Accordingly, lisahunter calls upon and emphasizes the importance of the critical character of future sgs research.

New perspectives on intersecting axes of discrimination
related to sex, genders and sexualities

The book combines overall 11 chapters (including lisahunter’s introductory chapter 1), in which the authors were invited “to capture the state of empirical and conceptual surfing research internationally with respect to social positioning and issues related to sex, genders and sexualities” (p. 17). As a result, chapters about surfing and bodyboarding in Japan (chapter 4), female surfers in Morocco (chapter 6) and the intersectionality of gender, sex and race in competitive surfing in South Africa (chapter 7) are presented in this volume. Whereas there are a variety of surfing places captured in the chapters of this book, the majority of the authors are based in the Global North (Australia, New Zealand, Japan, USA, France, UK) and the majority of the chapters are discussing surfing in Australia and the USA (California and Hawai’i). This focus might however be owed the origins and history of surfing sport and culture, and it is not without criticism that this very history and culture are explored by the authors.

Furthermore, few previous research studies question colonial history and practices, whether concerning the culture of surfing or on parts of the researchers themselves.

Accordingly, Cassie Comley (chapter 5) elaborates on the experiences of Mexican-American surfers from Southern California against a backdrop of Critical Race Theory and theory of whiteness and lifestyle sport. In doing so she draws on in-depths interviews and observations. lisahunter themself explores the possibilities and challenges of providing new perspectives when they explore the reception of counterculture in the form of two documentaries, concurrently presenting a worrying account of the deeply imprinted homophobia in the surfing community (chapter 9). In chapter three, Roslyn Franklin and Lorelei Carpenter elaborate on the reciprocity of surfing sponsorship and sexploitation of female pro surfers. Applying an interpretative ethnographic approach, they take on the deconstruction of the western, white heteronormative notion of ‘the surfer babe’.

Concerning research positions, the book includes studies that draw on unconventional methodologies like an autoethnographic approach, exploring the multiple marginalization of the author as female body boarder in Japan (chapter 4). In chapter 8, the three authors each re-visit their previous work and re-think sameness and difference in relation to intersectionality. In doing so, they are reflecting on their own positioning as researchers and on their own becoming of subjectivities in the intersections of surfing culture. Chapters 2 and 10 provide furthermore – to some extent – a postcolonial notion of the ontology of surfing, where Ian ‘Akahi Masterson elaborates on the Polynesian history, mythology and terminology of surfing. The interpretations are however very much orientated towards a binary and categorial understanding of sgs.

A call upon new possible imaginaries and queering-practices

When lisahunter emphasizes the critical character of sgs in sport in their introductory chapter, they point out that this does not only include the documentation of lived experience or deconstructive approaches but is also about providing new possible imaginaries and queering-practices. The chapters of this volume definitely deliver the former, but more research of the latter, like the editor’s own queering approach in chapter 9, would be desirable. lisahunter posts 23 interesting questions for scholarship of sgs in surfing in the beginning of the book, but adds that some of the questions are answered in this volume and some are still to be answered. They conclude that by breaking new ground in terms of content, their book is

(…) ripe for informing new transformative directions in fields such as sport sociology, and open for ontological, methodological and epistemological stretching. (…) While there are always going to be limitations of public intellectualism, political engagement, and ‘making difference’ through scholarship/research there is nevertheless much space to continue to experiment with theoretical and methodological diversity as one of many means to addressing the field of surfing (p. 211).

In summary, this book presents a starting point for critical research on sex, gender and sexuality in surfing and is a rewarding read for sport scholars interested in how to implement deconstructive studies and/or those about lived experience relating to intersectionality and power relations. Those readers who are looking for inspiration regarding queering practices will make a find as well. The volume is also a valuable addition to the library of sport scholars dealing with any lifestyle sport, since it provides alarming insights into the often underestimated but nevertheless harmful heteronormative, male dominant, white culture of lifestyle sports, which they necessarily need to counteract.

Copyright © Anna Adlwarth 2021


[1] Maggie Mertens (September 12, 2020). This Woman Surfed the Biggest Wave of the Year. Here’s why you probably haven’t heard about it. The Atlantic


Table of Content

Jayne Caudwell

      1. Surfing, Sex/es, Gender/s and Sexuality/ies
      2. E Hua E: Surfing and Sexuality in Hawaiian Society
        Ian ʻAkahi Masterson
      3. Surfing, Sponsorship and Sexploitation: The Reality of Being a Female Professional Surfer
        Roslyn Franklin & Lorelei Carpenter
      4. Multiple Marginalization?: The Representation and Experience of Bodyboarding in Japan
        Eri Mizuno
      5. “Mexicans Don’t Surf”: An Intersectional Analysis of Mexican American’s Experiences with Sport
        Cassie Comley
      6. Social Uses of the Beach and Relationships with Transgressive Bodies: Being a Female Surfer in Morocco
        Christophe Guibert
      7. A Tale of Two Surf Contests: Gender, Sex and Competitive Surfing in South Africa During the Late 1970s and Early 1990s
        Glen Thompson
      8. Stories of Surfing: Surfing, Space and Subjectivity/Intersectionality
        Rebecca Olive, Georgina Roy & Belinda Wheaton
      9. Queering Surfing from Its Heteronormative Malaise: Public Visual Pedagogy of Circa 2014
      10. Surfing Ali‘I, Kahuna, Kupua and Akua: Female Presence in Surfing’s Past
        Ian ʻAkahi Masterson
      11. (Counter)Cultural Changes in Surfing and Surfing Scholarship: Towards Diverse, Intersectional, Liminal, Complex and Queer Activism Dialogues
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