Motorcycles and Motorcycle Cultures

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Motorcycles and Motorcycle Cultures

Motorcycle culture exists on the margins of mainstream culture as both a social community and a mode of transportation, and the cultural stereotype imagines all bikers to be rebels, socially as well as sexually. The degree of freedom, individuality, and adventure found in motorcycle riding and culture distinguishes it as nontraditional in contrast with most car cultures, and the strong social community formed by motorcycle riders reinforces the idea that their culture exists according to its own rules.

Motorcycles have a distinct sex appeal that comes largely from the act of riding itself. Riders straddle large, often loud, vibrating machines between their legs, expose themselves to the elements of fair or foul weather, and feel the rush of wind, the thrill of fast speeds, and the sense of danger that comes from riding with so little between oneself and the road. Motorcycles are also distinctly masculine. The motorcycle can be seen as a phallic object (evidenced by its nickname, crotch rocket) that represents the rider's sexuality and potency, a real and metaphorical power that attracts both men and women to bike as well as rider. In addition, the leather clothing worn as a protective necessity has sexual connotations because of its natural connection to animal primacy and its cultural association with sadomasochistic sexual practices. Within gay male culture, leather outfits such as those worn by motorcyclists are worn by some men to emphasize their masculinity and sexuality. Leather also distinguishes its wearers as adhering to a set of social and/or sexual codes outside the norm.

While the community of motorcycle riders and passengers is diverse, the stereotypical motorcycle rider is white, male, heterosexual, and working class. Women have increasingly become involved as riders and members of biker communities, but they are more likely to be passengers than riders on their own bikes. Historically, women's roles in motorcycle culture have been subordinate to those of men, especially from the 1940s to the 1980s when men were the dominant riders.

Motorcycle clubs have existed since the early twentieth century to provide social community, and new groups continue to form as more people from increasingly diverse backgrounds become riders. A number of motorcycle groups and clubs are based on similarities among riders in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual preference, gender, political activism, occupation, and riding style (such as motocross or long-distance). Many clubs exist for gay men, lesbian, and women riders to support these individuals who constitute a relative minority within the largely heterosexual and male demographic.


Motorcycles were first invented in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. The first American motorcycle producer, Indian Motocycle Company, began in 1901, and Harley-Davidson Motor Company produced its first motorcycle in 1903. In the 1920s the new prevalence and popularity of automobiles reduced the purchase and use of motorcycles, and in the late 1950s and 1960s Japanese motorcycles competed with American and British models. In the 1980s Harley-Davidson manufactured new types of bikes that featured smaller frames for women riders and new engines that ran more smoothly and efficiently. These changes greatly increased the number of people, especially women, who could and did ride their own bikes.

Although motorcycles are generally considered masculine vehicles, women have ridden motorcycles as both drivers and passengers since the beginning. Until the late 1940s, women, like men, were depicted in advertisements as smiling, competent riders instead of passengers, and women rode bikes in organizations such as the Harley-sponsored Motor Maids (founded in 1940) and the U.S. military unit, Women's Army Corps (WAC). In Britain, motorcycle groups formed in the early twentieth century were open to both sexes, and some groups, such as the London Ladies Motor Club from the 1920s, catered specifically to women riders. In the 1950s British motorcycle culture became associated with rebellious youth culture and groups, such as the café racers, mods, and rockers, which were comprised mostly of men riders and women passengers. In the United States, motorcycle culture changed after World War II to reflect a masculine aesthetic that featured men as riders and women, if involved at all, as attractive and passive passengers. This change in advertising strategy and cultural practice mirrored the larger cultural attempts to provide returning soldiers with masculine tasks and to return women, who had competently filled many traditionally male roles in factories and other businesses, to the stereotypical role of housewife. Not until the 1980s did women visibly return as riders both in advertising and in practice. As of 2004, women owned almost 10 percent of all motorcycles in the United States, while many more women happily remained passengers on motorcycles belonging to men.


Within stereotypes of motorcycle culture, men and women occupy different roles, largely based on their position as either rider or passenger. Men are always riders, driving their own bikes. Most men form social groups based on age, style of riding, number of years riding, and socioeconomic class. Some large categories of men riders are the old bikers, new bikers, ten percenters, and one percenters. Both old bikers and ten percenters have been riding their entire lives; the former are part of the larger motorcycle community, whereas the latter do not join groups. New bikers ride intermittently and may be less passionate about motorcycle riding and culture. One percenters belong to outlaw clubs, estimated to be less than 1 percent of the population of motorcyclists in the United States. The term outlaw clubs was used originally to designate motorcycle clubs not registered with the American Motorcycle Association (now the American Motorcyclist Association) but it also describes groups whose members intentionally live according to their own rules instead of following the law. Most of the stereotypes about motorcycle culture as rebellious, illegal, and destructive originate from representations of this small group. The 1953 movie The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando and based on a 1947 motorcycle rally in Hollister, California, was the first film to represent and romanticize the image of motorcycle gang culture in rebellion against mainstream society. Brando was a handsome and sexy gang leader, and his outfit of blue jeans and black leather jacket, which contrasted with the suits then typically worn by men, started a trend in youth fashion. The sexuality of this character appealed to heterosexual men and women as well as gay men, because he was sexy as both a role model and a potential partner. This image of the dangerous and sexy motorcycle outlaw remains the ultimate stereotype of the motorcycle man.

Women both ride their own motorcycles and ride as passengers. Women riders challenge the stereotype by driving their own bikes, often outside the presence of men, and such riders have been castigated as "gender traitors." Nevertheless, the majority of women in motorcycle culture fit the stereotype of being passengers rather than riders, often riding with male partners and being seen as accessories to the bike and the man driving it. This rider-passenger dynamic has clear negative connotations, evident in expressions such as riding "bitch." Advertisements for motorcycles often feature women in bikinis or other revealing outfits standing seductively beside the bike or seated behind a male driver; rarely are women shown as drivers. While some women passengers do in fact enjoy motorcycle riding as an exhibitionistic and sexually stimulating activity, these representations do not account for the majority of women who ride as passengers because of genuine enjoyment of the motorcycle or the companionship found in the culture. Generally, women passengers ride either to be with their husbands or partners or because they are passionately attached to riding with any willing driver. Still others are less involved in motorcycling as a social culture, and these women, who are usually young, irregularly join up with motorcyclists or groups for adventure and the boisterous parties that occur in some clubs. This latter group of women often includes those who are sexually attracted to both bikes and the men who ride them, and they are more likely to have casual sex with one or more men in a motorcycle group or club. While these women are a small percentage of motorcyclists, stereotypical representations of women in motorcycle culture emphasize this sexual attraction.

As with men, the stereotype of women in motorcycle culture as sexual deviants comes from representations of outlaw clubs. A study of outlaw clubs in the southern United States (Hopper and Moore 1990) found that women play one of two roles in relation to the rest of the group. The first is designated by the term old lady, meaning the woman is faithful to and sexually active with only one man in a relationship similar to marriage, whether or not they are actually husband and wife. The second is designated by the term mama, meaning the woman belongs to the group as a whole and is sexually active with many of the men. Occasionally, women have sex with each other, but they usually do so as an act, to entertain the watching men. Women may be required to perform group sex, generally as a punishment for not following the scripted social codes held by the gang or club. Women in outlaw clubs are treated largely as companions to the core male membership instead of active, riding members who can make decisions about and for the group. Although such roles may seem sexist, these women have chosen to be part of this culture based on the appeal of a community that exaggerates masculinity and femininity and produces a distinct sex appeal based on its refusal to conform to cultural norms.


Carrick, Peter, comp. 1982. Encyclopaedia of Motor-Cycle Sport. 2nd edition. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Gateward, Frances. 2001. "She-Devils on Wheels: Women, Motorcycles, and Movies." In Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls: Gender in Film at the End of the Twentieth Century, ed. Murray Pomerance. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Hopper, Columbus B., and Johnny Moore. 1990. "Women in Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs." Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 18(4): 363-387. Reprinted in Deviance and Deviants: An Anthology, ed. Richard Tewksbury and Patricia Gagné. Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing, 2000.

Joans, Barbara. 2001. Bike Lust: Harleys, Women, and American Society. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Reynolds, Tom. 2000. Wild Ride: How Outlaw Motorcycle Myth Conquered America. New York: TV Books.

                                      Michelle Veenstra