The Vagenda

Why Does Running Make Me the Target of Harassment?

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Ever since my teenage years, I have enjoyed going for the occasional run in my spare time.  However, it wasn’t until this year that I started devoting more time and energy to the sport, and I currently aim to run about three times a week.

In theory, running is a sport for everyone.  It’s cheap, casual and inclusive – you don’t need to be fast, you don’t need to join a team or club, and you don’t need to fork out for a gym membership.  All you need is a sports bra and a pair of running shoes, and you can hit the road!  Perhaps this explains the sport’s popularity with both men and women.  Running, like other forms of exercise, is good for your mind as well as your body – without wanting to sound like a Nike advert, it provides an opportunity to be mindful, escape the niggling annoyances of everyday life and feel the wind in your hair.

However, as a feminist, I am all too aware of the gendered issues facing women who run.  Unlike men, women are faced with a unique set of obstacles when they go running.  Although women use public space every day to get from A to B, many women feel particularly vulnerable while running – a sad fact that can deter women from taking up the sport.

It is well-known that all runners sometimes experience harassment.  Strangely, many people (mostly young men, if I’m honest) seem personally affronted by the sight of someone exercising in public.  Verbal abuse and jibes are a common experience for both male and female runners, as well as for cyclists.

However, the harassment experienced by female runners is often more frequent, more threatening and more sexually intimidating than the harassment experienced by men.  Although I regularly face street harassment while going about my daily life, for some reason I am harassed far more when I am running.  This includes anything from the usual wolf-whistles to more threatening behaviour, like sexual comments about my body and appearance.  I live in a city, and sometimes it feels like it’s impossible to go for a run without a car beeping at me or a strange man shouting something obscene.  Luckily, I have never experienced more serious physical harassment or assault while out running – if I did, it would probably put me off running altogether.

This unfortunate problem seems to support the theory that street harassment has nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with power.  I find it very hard to believe that there are hundreds of men who are instantly filled with uncontrollable lust when confronted with a sweaty, red-faced woman in her running kit.  It seems more likely that it is the perceived vulnerability of female runners that makes them so attractive to harassers.  It’s almost as though a woman running alone is fair game for unwanted attention.  After all, she’s out there, all alone, drawing attention to herself and taking up space.  It reminds me of the harassment I would receive when I used to go busking on Saturdays in the city centre.  Given that I was drawing attention to myself by singing in public, I felt almost responsible for the inevitable chat-up lines and frequent comments on my appearance.

What makes me really angry though, is the feeling that these guys are just trying to spoil my fun.  For many women, running is a hugely positive experience – it makes you feel energised, lively and, most importantly, free.  When a man takes it upon himself to disrupt my happiness by shouting “nice tits/arse” as I jog past, it makes me annoyed, humiliated and angry.  In these situations, the harasser makes a conscious attempt to make you feel uncomfortable, to draw attention to your body and remind you that, as a woman, you are not entitled to use public space.  As with all street harassment, this is a clear assertion of dominance and power.

As a woman, you learn to be vigilant when using public space, and many women take significant safety precautions when running.  This can involve carrying a phone or safety alarm, and some women prefer to run with a friend, rather than alone.  The advice that it is never safe to run after dark sounds sensible, but in practice it is incredibly restrictive, especially in winter when sunset can be as early as four o’clock.  Although it is sensible to stick to busy, well-lit roads during winter, this can be very limiting, especially when compared with men’s freedom to pop out at any time during the evening for a quick jog.  There seems to be very little outrage about this unspoken curfew, and how it affects women’s everyday lives.

In my experience, it can be very difficult to articulate this problem to men.  My stories of street harassment have often been met with utter disbelief by nice, well-intentioned men.  It’s almost as though, because they would never dream of treating women so disrespectfully themselves, they find it hard to even imagine that any man would.  While it’s nice that so many good men find this behaviour so despicable, a little less disbelief and a bit more anger might be more helpful in the long term.

I wish I could finish with a practical list of steps that could be taken to eradicate this problem.  Unfortunately though, there seems to be very little that individual women can do about it.  Obviously, initiatives like the Everyday Sexism project raise awareness and build solidarity amongst women, but I have the sneaking suspicion that the men who harass me on the street won’t be particularly bothered if I tweet about it later.  In reality, none of our attempts to counter sexism seem to come anywhere close to prevention of the problem in the first place.

Perhaps the most powerful thing that women can do is to try to ignore the harassment.  Don’t let it put you off doing what you enjoy – don’t change your hobbies, don’t stay inside, and don’t change what you wear just because some moron feels the need to point out that you have breasts or legs or any other completely normal body part.  Obviously don’t put yourself in any danger, but there is a big difference between staying safe and letting a small number of misogynists control your behaviour.  Be defiant and don’t apologise for being a woman with a female body.  Keep running, keep cycling, keep walking and keep having fun because, after all, that’s what these creeps are most afraid of.

- Bridget Coulter

20 thoughts on “Why Does Running Make Me the Target of Harassment?

  1. Wonderfully written article which really resonated with me. The last time I went outside for a run I felt so threatened that I have stuck to running on the treadmill.
    However this last line ” Keep running, keep cycling, keep walking and keep having fun because, after all, that’s what these creeps are most afraid of,” really made me smile and think it’s time to get outside again.
    Thank you!

  2. Really good article, although I fully appreciate this problem is much worse for women it is still a problem for me as well. Whatever the issues faced though as you say running is such a positive experience it should outweigh the negatives.

  3. Interesting article, but I run often around my area (South East London) as well as my hometown and haven’t yet experienced any looks, catcalls, or anything worse. I actually feel safer running than walking (I’m in the right gear! I can outrun you!)

    I’m sorry your experiences are not so fortunate. That’s got to be rubbish.

  4. I have really noticed this myself and have put it down not to the “perceived vulnerability of female runners” but that the fact that we are displaying our physicality which I can only assume men take to assume we are doing to invoke feedback. I have never really spoken to friends about it before because I haven’t wanted it to sounds like bragging (“oh, lots of men said things to me when I was running today”) but also because unless you are a girl runner, it is almost unbelievable. I can cope with the rather pathetic “keep going, love” or even the “the running’s paying off, look at that arse” type nonsense because these men I believe think they’re being either complimentary or amusing and let’s face it, probably try anything in order to get laid which they certainly never do but I was once grabbed from behind, in the dark, in Highbury Fields which was a place I thought to be quite safe. When I thought to myself, this is it, it’s rape time, fuck, he then asked for my phone number. Thank goodness I’m quick. Short of getting T shirts printed with “do not say anything to me”, I don’t know what to do about this. Mostly it is just harmless and pathetic but can still be horribly intimidating

  5. “All you need is a sports bra and a pair of running shoes, and you can hit the road!”
    No wonder you are getting harassed… at least add some pants to that outfit!

  6. This post raises so many points that I myself have found hard to address with friends and colleagues. I run around three times a week also and have done for two years.

    I’ve had all kinds of comments which I’ve responded to by buying better fitting headphones and cranking them up (not the safest thing to do running along roads or for my hearing, I admit) I just feel I’d rather not know something was said and carry on. I have also been made to feel “slut shamed” whenever I dare to wear anything remotely see through (as much women’s workout gear tends to be) or wear shorts.

    But a massive point I want to make is that many, many of the comments and in particular looks and actions have come from women. Dirty looks from women walking with their male partners (who half the time haven’t even clocked me charging towards them), muttering from women with buggies, groups of girls refusing to get out of my way as they take up the width of the pavement, girls sticking elbows out. It’s all happened. I can only assume it’s a form of “skinny shaming” me for making them feel guilty (?) for not exercising more themselves…. I don’t know but I find it incredibly sad. At least the men will move aside and let me pass as they wink or pass judgement on my kit. It feels much more intimidating when I’m forced to stop and ask someone to move or have to run into the road.

    • Samina, how do you know they don’t exercise? But whether or not they do, if you don’t like the “skinny shaming” idea, try to drop the “exercise holier than thou” thing, too. They both suck.

      I’ll tell you the only time I’d give dirty looks to someone running, whatever their gender: when they expect other people, on their own side of the pavement, to get out of the way of the oblivious runner. I use a walking stick, I can’t move that fast, and no, I am not dodging someone who treats the whole path as their private jogging track.

    • I don’t think it’s skinny shaming, I just think that some people are dicks and others aren’t.

      I’ve been grabbed at by men, perved on by men, scowled at by women, shouted at by women and all kinds of other behavior when running from both sexes. I don’t hog the pavement or go charging towards people, I’m a very attentive runner and get out of the way of people as much as I can because I want to be almost invisible. Sadly, I rarely am.

      So, yes, I agree with much of this article but I would say that at least half of the stick I get when running is from other women. And I have no idea why, probably just because they like being mean to people? Who knows!

      I keep running though, keep my wits about me, and always tell my husband where I am running (he often comes out the same time as me but is much faster, but it does help me feel safe knowing he is out there) and run where there are lots of other runners – luckily I live in Brighton so have the seafront where there are always runners around, in a safety in numbers kind of way.

  7. I really appreciate this article! It always ruins my train of thought. How dare they make someone feel embarrassed for exercising? I never know whether it is best to give them the finger or ignore them completely.

  8. This article really struck a chord with me. I’ve had a long running hiatus after numerous horrible treatments for endometriosis and was considering restarting, then this morning a woman was assaulted running at the bottom of my street. Makes me so angry that so something that should be so freeing is compromised by misogynist twats. I usually run with my dog too but actually I don’t think it has minimised the harassment at all. It makes me so sad.

  9. MK are you serious? If you’re serious I think you’ve missed the point not just of this particular post but of the entire Vagenda website.

    Moving on. I loved the phrase “unspoken curfew”. That’s a great way to articulate some of these restrictions adult women are faced with in order to even semi-safely venture outdoors.

    I’ve also found it hard to describe the issue. I suppose men who would never do such awful things and of course have not been subjected to it themselves must find it hard to understand.

  10. Thank you for this article. I’ve been a keen runner for 5 years and it’s rare that when I go running I don’t get cat called or have some guy and his friends openly looking at my body, or making fun of me as I run, just because i’m a woman running. For ages i tried to figure out why they do this, and the only thing i can come up with is that they see it as a threat, a woman who has the confidence to run alone in the streets in her sports gear, clearly not looking to impress a man, (or anyone else) and taking up space like she’s not an object but a human being, is massive threat and their ego’s can’t take it. so they shout and they make fun, because it gives them some satisfaction that they can remind us of our place in the world!

  11. Heh, no, I was not serious. The sentence conjured up an image of a woman running in just a bra and shoes, wondering why people were shouting at her.

    However, I do feel that even if a woman wanted to run around in just a bra and shoes she should be able to do so safely (allthough maybe not without getting some comments :) ).

  12. There must be this brave/stupid thing in harassing joggers. They can run after you, catch you in seconds and kick your butt, to Timbuktu.

  13. I am a swimmer and always accidentally been touched by man, and ONLY man who swim toward me. It is really ridiculous that man think he can touch my leg while I am wearing swimsuit. All I can do is avoid peak season & go to swimming pool which is less crowd.
    I am really sad that a lot of woman chose to stay inside because of that perverts.
    Don’t let the harassment discourage you to workout.

  14. I’ve just started running because I was doing the Cancer Research Race For Life event and I didn’t want to be slower than my friends. I’ve carried on because I really enjoy it. I’m fortunate I live in the countryside so there’s rarely anyone around to harass or callout. But a big problem I find, which is true for cyclists too – is people in cars just not being aware of the space they are in. If there is a pavement I will use it, but a lot of roads round me don’t have pavements. Or very skinny pavements.

    I don’t think Samina was being ‘holier-than-thou’ about exercise to express the desire not to have to run into the road. Joggers only take up the whole pavement if the pavement isn’t wide enough (which also negatively effects wheelchair users too). And although I know it’s dangerous I regularly duck into the road to avoid mothers with prams. It’s the drivers that don’t see those situations as they are evolving (I ALWAYS know whether a car is there or not) that are the problem – go do a hazard perception test! And when the drivers shout out the window and distract themselves further from the road by feeling the need to comment on you – then it is all the more dangerous. (A friend had this situation and felt intimidated because her harasser was in a car – but then amused at the stupidity because they narrowly avoided an accident on a windy country lane).

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