Are Women-Only Gyms Sexist?

One of the stories that circulates through LadyGym was about the time they got sued for sex discrimination– and lost.

Back in 1996, a 52-year-old male attorney tried to join the newest LadyGym location. The facility cost $3 million to set up, filling 34,000 square feet of space over three floors, and included state-of-the-art equipment, a full-service spa, and expertly-trained staff. He argued that it was across the street from his apartment; why shouldn’t he want to work out there? Yes, there were other posh gyms in the area, but he wanted to belong to this one.

(Part of me has always wondered what kind of  d-bag would single out a women-only gym. It turns out he had practiced in New York before, and was known for filing complaints against bars that offered “ladies’ nights.” But, apparently, he also helped public school teachers in New York receive disability coverage when out on maternity leave back in the 1970s and 80s. So perhaps the case against women-only gyms is as simple as what he and others have stated: anti-discrimination means everybody gets the same access.)

So he started legal proceedings, which wound their way through the courts. At first glance, the reasoning seems sound: Obviously, if it was discrimination to keep women from men’s golf and racquet clubs of yore, then the same logic held true for keeping a man out of an all-women gym. Foster would not be the first or the last with this argument: prior to his lawsuit, California had ruled that gyms couldn’t have women-only rooms. Similar cases occurred outside the US as well– in Vancouver in 2004, with another women-only facility, and in 2013 in London, when a man sued a gym for having women-only hours. Even the Massachusetts chapter of National Organization of Women took the side of the plaintiff against LadyGym; the president at the time stated, “If you want equal rights, then you want them for everybody — not just when it benefits you.

In such terms, what right does LadyGym or another women-only facility have the right to stay open? The judge ruled that LadyGym presented a case for privacy against a case for discrimination— and that unless women were walking around with “intimate body parts” exposed or that men were touching their body without permission, there wasn’t really a reason to override the public accommodations statute. “While the Court recognizes the impact that the admission of men into the club may have on these women, intimidation and the assumption that all male Healthworks members will harass and leer at their exercise compatriots is still an insufficient ground on which to create a privacy exception.”

Obviously, LadyGym still exists as a gym only for ladies. What happened?

As Sarah (not her real name), the woman in charge of staff education within the company, tells it, they sent out a letter to all of the members, informing the changes that lay ahead as they added new locker rooms and modified the facility further for co-ed use.

LadyGym received bags upon bags of mail from their members, covering the table in the corporate office’s conference room. The staff separated the letters into piles: those who said they were going to continue their memberships, and those who would cancel. “The majority of members said they would continue with us through the transition, but—” her voice lilts as she reaches the climactic moment of the company mythos, “that had Healthworks been coed when they were first looking for a gym membership, they wouldn’t have signed up for their memberships to begin with.”

Thus, LadyGym and its members petitioned for an amendment to the state’s public accommodations bill. Because so many women expressed that they would not start a membership at a gym if it were co-ed, the necessity of single-sex facilities was a matter of public health. The State House passed the bill. LadyGym remained women-only and flourished.

Ultimately, I agree with this decision. It reminds me of this cartoon:

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The story with the drawing goes like this: You have a classroom of students. They are told that they’ll receive extra credit if they throw a ball of paper from their desk to a trash basket at the front of the room. Students at the front of the room will have an easier time achieving this goal, though, because of their position. Yes, the students are all given the same instructions, and nobody is given, say, more balls to throw than the other kids, but it’s still not a fair situation.

In other words, anti-discrimination laws can’t assume that everybody starts from the same place. For women in fitness, that means considering women who went to school before the implementation of Title IX, and, thus, didn’t have the access to sports that their male peers did. It means considering that equipment designed for the average male, height 5’10”, will not be the proper proportions for the average female, height 5’4″. It means considering that women are five times as likely as men to be victims of violence via intimate partners (and that 99% of these incidents involved male partners).

I am whole-heartedly a fan of women-only facilities. Still, I wonder, besides keeping men out of women-only gym, is it even possible to make a generalized statement about the factors that differentiate catering to women as opposed to catering to men?

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