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Men, Keep Out!

Are female-only clubs good for women?

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Although some women might exaggerate the threat that male health club members actually pose, Tanenbaum says he did witness several incidents of "rude comments and leering" when he went to coed clubs to observe. "There were men who would stand outside the women's locker room and say things like, 'Boy, you really must have sweated today.' "

Although the opposition to women-only clubs has been generated by a handful of men, these men have been joined in their fight by an unlikely ally: the National Organization for Women (NOW). Although NOW didn't get involved in the Alaska case, members of the Massachusetts chapter lobbied hard in that state against the proposed legislation supporting single-sex clubs.

"I'm totally sympathetic -- we live in a culture where women are harassed and objectified," says Andrea Mullin, president of the Massachusetts NOW chapter. "But our objection is to passing a law that permits discrimination." NOW fears that allowing gender discrimination in health clubs could open the door to resegregating golf clubs and other sports venues, Mullin says.

Mullin says she would prefer that women-only clubs compromise by offering smaller, separate areas for men to work out. Owners counter that men have no shortage of places to choose from, and adding facilities for men at women-only clubs would create an unnecessary financial hardship, not to mention undermine the purpose of such clubs. "This is about a woman's right to privacy," says John Sankey, owner of the two Women's Nautilus clubs in Anchorage.

But privacy isn't the only issue. Many women prefer the equipment commonly offered at single-sex clubs. For instance, the two women-only clubs in Anchorage offer a line of Nautilus machines downsized for women's bodies. The weight stacks increase by 3-pound increments instead of the usual 10. And instead of jumping from 5 to 10 to 15 pounds, the dumbbells increase by 1- or 2-pound increments.

For all these benefits, however, even advocates of women-only clubs say that a single-sex environment isn't always better than a coed club. When Susannah Sallin, 31, lived in Bend, Ore., she belonged to a women-only club that she adored because the staff and members were so encouraging. "You could go there looking like hell, and it didn't matter," Sallin says.

But when Sallin moved to Carpinteria, Calif., she found that the staff members at her local women's club were neither friendly nor knowledgeable about the equipment. After visiting a half-dozen clubs in her area, she settled on the YMCA. There, she's found a good atmosphere, devoid of the "scene" at other gyms. "I miss the women-only environment," Sallin says, "but the Y is low-key and casual, and there's a sense of community."

Suzanne Schlosberg is the co-author of Fitness for Dummies, second edition (IDG Books Worldwide, 2000), and author of the Ultimate Workout Log, second edition (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), and a freelance writer in Santa Monica, Calif.

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