Last Saturday, I was enjoying a long run in the trails at my local wildlife refuge. About 5 miles in, I emerged from the woods onto the levee which runs parallel to a highway. As I paused to snap the above photo, grab some water and enjoy the coolish breeze, a pickup truck slowed to a crawl as it approached. As I’ve learned to expect, what followed was a series of gawking stares, hand gestures and shouts from the two men inside. I thought to myself, “What, ***hole? You’ve never seen someone running before?” But, I didn’t shout anything. I just quickly moved behind the shelter of a tree, and spent the next 5 miles in fear, worried that those men would be around the next curve or waiting for me near my car at the end.
I’d like to say this is a rare occurrence. It isn’t. Not for me, nor most female runners. In fact, it is so common that we have come to expect it as a part of our running experience. According to a 2019 Runner’s World survey, 84 percent of women said they have experienced some kind of harassment while running that left them feeling unsafe.
As I researched the issue for this blog post, it occured to me that, whether I realized it or not, fear of being harassed regularly plays a huge part in my outdoor recreation plans. I try to run or bike with friends when I can. I always carry a phone and a whistle, and am considering adding pepper spray and/or a pocket knife. I prefer trails primarily for the experience of being in nature. But, I think subconsciously, part of me feels safer away from the gawking eyes of passing cars. Nearly a quarter of women surveyed reported changing their routine due to fear of harassment.
“I know I’m not the only one who thinks this shit ain’t okay, oh no” – Adam Lambert, Superpower
It isn’t right, and it makes me angry. Exercise should make women feel strong and empowered. How dare someone think they have the right to steal that away! I wasn’t trying to look sexy on my run. It was hot as heck, and I was focused on training for an upcoming ultramarathon. Should I have to linger in front of the mirror before leaving my house, questioning if my running attire is too revealing and thus might attract too much attention? (For the record, it isn’t. I’ve had the same cat calls during the winter when I was covered head to toe). I now tuck my hair under ball caps, and wear blues and black instead of the brighter pinks and purples I prefer. I changed to bone conduction headphones that allow me to better hear if someone’s coming up behind me. While I realize the chances of being killed while running remain small, the data does little to calm my anxiety when I read stories about women like Sydney Sutherland, an Arkansas jogger who was found dead this week by her home.
In response to the issue, Runner’s World has created a Runners Alliance and toolkit with helpful information on self defense, safety precautions and tips for dealing with harassment. These are all helpful tools, but it irritates me that they all put the onus on the victim rather than confronting the perpetrator’s actions. The #MeToo movement has certainly helped bring attention to sexual harassment and assault, but there’s more work to do, says Holly Kearl, founder of the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment (Runners World, Oct. 2019). Her organization shares what appear to be more concrete resources and real-world examples of how women have affected community change.
I can’t imagine ever slowing my car to holler at some random guy running down the sidewalk, so it’s hard for me to understand the motivation behind the harassment. But, I know enough to realize it’s about power more than sex.
“… the real point of catcalling (is) to remind those on the receiving end that their space is not theirs. It doesn’t matter what is going on around them — be it a pandemic, their impatient children tugging at the seams of their shirts, the sweltering heat or the blistering cold — they are only granted the ability to travel safely outside their homes by those in perceived positions of power. In this case, men who have long fancied themselves the arbiters of strength and potential, ownership and freedom.” Danielle Campoamor – NBCnews.com/think
Harassment is not a joke, or compliment, and it IS a big deal. It is not OK, and it must stop. Change must happen on the individual level. In our homes, in our schools, in our communities, in our country. It must start by teaching our children to respect others. By refusing to support objectification of women in entertainment and the arts. By speaking out when those in power promote violence against women and minorities. By campaigning for awareness and laws that prosecute harassers and support those who speak out against them.
“Told myself I won’t complain, but some things have got to change” – Deborah Cox, Absolutely Not
Have you experienced harassment while running? Has that experience changed your daily routines? What more do you think can be done to bring about meaningful change?