Gender-Bending in the Wilderness

Intense outdoor trip defied conventions

By Dr. Pepper Schwartz November 30, 2023


This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

At a dear friend’s suggestion, my husband and I signed up for a six-day trip in the Frank Church Wilderness, one of the longest stretches of protected wilderness in the United States. It was run by Middle Fork River Expeditions, and it came with six experienced river guides, all men and one woman. Madeline oversaw the week’s assignments and handled communication with the 18 of us, and right from the start, also showed her talent as a guide and oarsperson.
I had confidence in the team, even though this river had rapids that were rated as Class III and IV (translation: a little hair-raising and you get really wet), but I had taken a similar journey with the same company more than 15 years ago, so I knew there was going to be an emphasis on safety, and it would be exciting and well-executed. That said, I was nervous, though I wasn’t sure that my back and bladder were going to be as accommodating as they had been some years ago.
But off we went with male guides who were doing their wilderness thing, a woman who was the equal of any of them, and a pack of us ranging from age 11 to 82.  We roughed it. (I am not going to talk about toilets here, but let’s just say we had to bring back everything we had produced during the week.) Otherwise, it was rather pampered, or at least as pampered as tents and camping allowed. The crew took great care of us, navigating some technical rapids handily and creating delicious meals along the way. So, it was all familiar until the celebration of Larry’s birthday. As we gathered together for a special dinner, there was suddenly a pile of costumes to put on — Hawaiian shirts, Superwoman and Superman paraphernalia — and, among other options, women’s dresses in large sizes and lots of wigs.

In the bat of an eye, we had one older guy in falsies and a dress, various iterations of cross-dressing in the crew, a few more guys in female accessories, and wigs transforming everyone. Suddenly, we were gender bending in the wilderness, and everyone was unconsciously having a great time. Granted, one of the guys simply didn’t know how to cross his legs in a skirt (some serious “man spreading” going on) and not everyone had painted toenails like Tyler did, but our tough and very masculine guides and guys were suddenly feeling their feminine side. I loved it. Masculinity and femininity have so many new facets. Madeline was both a boss and a lady. The guys were “he-men” and also looked pretty good in a dress, and we all relaxed and enjoyed playing with our new “enhanced” wardrobe.

I look back at the evening with fondness. This one night, before we went back to our splash jackets and wetsuits and usual identities, tells me that in today’s world (unlike the world I grew up in), we can blur the gender lines that used to be so strict and confining. Even the older men in the group could play with gender and not be threatened. We trusted our guides and our fellow participants to be a team that looked out for each other during a trip that required skill, strength, alertness, and cooperation. No one thought a night of gender bending disqualified anyone. We could have cared less about people’s actual sexual orientations or personal peccadilloes. What mattered in the wilderness, as in our more mundane everyday lives, was our goodwill and respect for each other, our ability to collaborate, and our acknowledgement and appreciation of our interdependence. Gender? We can be masculine or feminine in whatever way suits us at any given time — and it’s no big deal.


Q: I would like to have sex in the mornings and the evenings with my wife. She says that is too much sex and thinks I should get therapy. She puts pillows between us at bedtime and tells me that I am “sick.” I think she is the one with the problem, and our different vision of what marriage should provide is causing us real conflict. Could you settle this?

Oh, boy, this is not so easy to settle. There is no prescribed “right” amount of sex in a relationship, but sexual frequency is a common conflict because partners often have big differences in sexual appetite and each feels injured when the other doesn’t comply with their requests. While having sex twice a day is uncommon in long-term relationships, it is not uncommon when couples first fall in love, and lust has a seat in the front row. During that phase, some partners can’t seem to get enough of each other, and they have sex with one another at every opportunity (in bed, in the office, in a park, you name it). No one says they are “sick,” but everyone expects them to snap out of it eventually and take back that time for work, friends, and the other preoccupations of everyday life.

So, for most couples, intense desire usually flattens out quite naturally, although not automatically, to a mutually desired level. Your own sexual desire seems to still be intense, but your wife doesn’t seem to be flattered, and so I wonder if she feels that your desire for sex is more of a need to have an orgasm and less due to your attraction to her. Is she correct? Sometimes, people use sex as a stress reducer or as a sleep aid, or just an itch they need to scratch. If that is true for you, you might consider just masturbating some of the time because then you could get the release and pleasure you want without haranguing your very reluctant wife for more sexual access. This might not only help reduce anger between you, it might make the sex you do have much better because you will be getting the orgasms you want, and she will be making love only when she really wants to have sex.


Q: My ex-husband was very hurt and angry when I told him I wanted a divorce, and his reaction has been to spread lie after lie about me. This was pitiful and regrettable, but I didn’t say anything to him until I found that he was writing to our friends about what a terrible person I am. I got really upset just recently when he sent an ugly letter about me to my boss! My ex accuses me of having sex with our electrician and has other stupid fantasies about me and just about every man in the neighborhood. I don’t know what to do.

I am not a lawyer, but I believe Washington state has very protective laws about interfering with a person’s right to work. If you think he is endangering your job or future employability, I think you should talk to a lawyer and see what your rights are. That said, even if you have the lawyer, send your ex a “cease and desist” letter; it might not solve the problem if, after that, he continues to be vengeful toward you. You should seriously consider whether he could be violent or escalate this nasty smear campaign into something even more dangerous. A spouse who feels he or she has been sexually wronged or abandoned can be quite dangerous, so you will have to assess if he is a physical threat as well as a reputational one. If he starts appearing back at your home or threatening by phone or email, you should contact authorities. You might also want to consult with many of the fine organizations that advise women who are being stalked or harassed. We can hope things do not escalate, and he stops being a butthead. But right now, he is still raging at you, so, at the very least, you do need to have a letter warning him that his campaign against you must be stopped.


If you think he is endangering your job or future employability, I think you should talk to a lawyer and see what your rights are.


Q: I am 76 and I have fallen in love with a man I met at the assisted living community I joined two years ago. We intend to marry, and we both want a big, glorious wedding. My children, however, consider this both undignified and try to cast doubt on his motives for marriage. I think they feel protective of their father’s memory. I understand. But I don’t think they should dictate the terms of my marriage. How can we do what we want and not have a family crisis?

Tough one. I assume you have talked about this with them, and they are adamant. But what about talking with them about why your new love does not diminish your love for their father? And if you have tried this, perhaps include a therapist who can help each side talk to the other without creating another stalemate.  You need to find out what they are worried about. If they feel he is after money (however large or small the amount might be), you might be able to ward off their worry with a prenuptial agreement that protects both parties’ previous properties, savings, and investments. You could also discover other legal answers to keeping assets safe. For example, you could find out more about creating a trust that would protect your pension, savings, or properties as well as secure your children’s inheritances and/or your working capital.

As for the ceremony itself, is it the size of the wedding they find unseemly? Perhaps you could negotiate a compromise.  Personally, I think a big party for your friends and family sounds great, but maybe that would be too painful for your kids. Would it help if you downsized so instead of having a “big, glorious wedding,” you could have a smaller glorious one?

But, in sum, do I think you should absolutely have what the two of you want? Yes. But I also think if there is a chance for peace in the valley, you might want to compromise a bit. In a perfect world, your kids would just be thrilled for you and want to help with the party. But humans are not always rational or emotionally generous creatures, and in this case, your children’s strong attachment to their father’s memory might inhibit their more supportive reactions. Find out what their fears are and what you could all agree on. We can hope there will be a way to have everyone feel good about your final decisions.

About the Heartbeat: Ask Dr. Pepper Schwartz Column

Welcome to my world!

I spend a lot of time thinking about intimate relationships.

If you’ve read any of my previous work as a professor at the University of Washington, or watched me on television, you know that I care about what keeps people together, what drives them apart and what gives them pleasure. I am curious about trends, but also unique behaviors. I look at people above the clavicle and below the waist. It’s all interesting and important to me.

I know it is to you, too. I want to hear what you’re thinking. Please ask me questions or give your point of view at Pepper@seattlemag.com and I will respond, if appropriate, online and perhaps in print.

Let’s have some meaningful conversations – and some fun while we’re at it!

So, what’s on my mind today?


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