That's how it should be, says Jay Ablondi, IHRSA's director of government relations. "We're trying to get more people to exercise," Ablondi says. "Some women are so uncomfortable exercising in front of men that, if that's their only choice, they won't exercise at all."
Psychologist Robert Tanenbaum came to the same conclusion in 1998 when he surveyed 500 members of women-only gyms and interviewed 100 others, in preparation for testimony before the Massachusetts statehouse. "Almost unanimously, these women said they would leave their club and would have to return to at-home exercise," Tanenbaum says, adding that most of the women had already failed to maintain a workout program at home. "A lot of these women had been overweight and were in transition with appearance."
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.