Effects of Wilderness Experience on Outdoor Education Participant Gender Norms


  • Babs H. Grossman-Thompson University of Colorado, Boulder


The purpose of this research was to investigate uses of wilderness experiences as a feminist tool to elicit gender sensitization. Using survey data, a pilot study was conducted to measure whether wilderness based trips of 14 days or more, that were mixed gender, had a noticeable effect on how participants viewed activities and affects as gendered. The researcher attempted to determine the degree to which these types of trips broadened the participant held definitions of “masculine†and “feminine.†All research subjects were selected from participants of a voluntary wilderness experience outfitted by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) during the winter of 2008. In a broader context, this research is a social justice project aimed at validating the intrinsic value of nature through academic research. Outdoor education can and should continue to accrue research that enhances this often undervalued industry. If wilderness experiences have the potential to broaden participant views about gender, it may ease the much documented problems with rigid patriarchal definitions of gender (Kimmel, 2003, 2005; Hooks, 2004).This inquiry was framed theoretically by social constructionism, feminist theory, and contact theory. Drawing on concepts of discourse analysis and deconstruction (Burr, 1995), the research questions were approached with a belief that gender is socially constructed through dominant discourses that dispatch cultural ideas in the service of inequitable power structures. Feminist scholarship has pointed to the misogynistic and violent social discourses that are embedded in American culture through media and institutionalized practices as one source of gender inequity (Dinnerstein, 1976; Hooks, 2004; Brownmiller, 1975; Friere, 1970; Kimmel, 2003). This study also incorporated contact theory, which is based on the assumption that gender, race, class, and ability    sensitization    can    occur    with    experiential    based    contact (Pettigrew 1998; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). Lastly, these theories were used with the knowledge that the therapeutic effects of experiential education have been discussed extensively by authors Gary Paul Nabhan (1994), Richard Louv (2005), and Dene and Jenifer Davis-Berman (1995, 2000) among others. Taken together, these theories suggest that wilderness experiences could offer a space to re-shape discourses to promote a healthier and more equitable concept of femininity and masculinity.