The Vagenda

Running with Wolf Whistles


It’s time to talk about the knotty little front wedgie of sexual harassment. Not because I’ve been doing a lot of it lately. In fact, I’m going to take the rather radical stance that sexual harassment is Not Cool.

But I want to talk about it specifically in terms of running. Because, when you’re sweating around the roads and rivers of a city, street harassment, cat calling, shouted insults and sexual heckling are all par for the course. Or so I’ve been told.

You see, I genuinely wouldn’t know. In all three years that I’ve been regularly running (about 40km a week, thank you for asking), it has never happened to me. Never. Never honked, nor hooted, taunted nor tooted, whistled or wailed at. I have been left unharried by builders and unnoticed by bankers. And that’s not among the heavily-fastened flies of London – I’ve pumped my thighs in Liverpool, Edinburgh, Auckland, Leeds, Wellington, and Newcastle, all to a ring of friendly silence.

Now, there are several possible explanations for this. Firstly, the clothes. I run in a lose assembly of garments possibly best described as ‘eccentric’. This morning I could be found pounding around the rabbit-infested, turd-slung marshes of Hackney in a pair of blue capri leggings I got given for free and a T-shirt with a large picture of a skeleton in a dressing gown on the front. The skeleton is holding a flying panther pose under a fork of lightning with the words “Karate is Life” emblazoned across my abdomen.

Karate, by the way, is not my life. Radio 4, swimming in ponds and eating too much bread is my life. Anyway, I topped this whole ensemble off with the waistband of a pair of 13-year-old boy’s underpants, instead of a headband. Now, before you all leap to any horrific conclusions allow me to explain – I bought the underpants myself, with my own money, from a shop as part of a Risky Business fancy dress costume. That’s right – I went to a party in nothing but a pair of white child’s boxer shorts, a pinkish shirt and some sunglasses. That I’m still single is nothing short of a miracle.

Anyway, clothing is a serious concern, particularly for female runners. My wonderful friend Nadia Kamil makes amazing one-off, hand-customised T-shirts with the slogan “Honk If You Love Feminism” stitched across the front. It’s a nice, funny way of facing the problem head on. But it also leads me on to my second point – I very rarely come across any form of motorised transport while I’m running. My friend Sophia once, very confusingly, told me she “didn’t believe in cars”. We were walking to school at the time so were, inarguably surrounded by swarms of the things. Dude, I thought, they’re not fairies – its not a matter of faith – they’re right fucking here.

So it’s not that I don’t believe in cars. I totally believe in them. I just hate them. They smell, they clog up the place and, because pollution isn’t like fairies either, they’re all slowly going to kill us. From a runner’s point of view, I dislike cars because their fumes make even the shortest inner city run feel like a heavy eight-hour shift in a dirty Detroit workshop. If I run on roads I get a metallic tang across the back of my throat like Midas trying to sneak a cup of coffee. So no, road running is not for me. I’ll stick to the marshes and rivers, canalsides and parks, heaths and hills. Which means that a drive by ‘oy darling’ or car horn isn’t impossible, but it would either take place at walking pace (awkward), or involve quite a lot of logistical planning on the hooter’s behalf, as they would have to actually carry a car horn down to the River Lea.

Another reason I never used to get harassed while I ran was because my 6’5”, 15-stone giant of an ex-boyfriend used to cycle along behind me, at night, to check I was okay. That’s right – a giant man, in a hoodie, would slowly cycle along a few paces from my back, through the pitchy black of Hackney as I jogged on in silence. It must have looked like the slowest, most inefficient mugging E5 has ever known. But it did the trick in terms of keeping the wolf whistles at bay (I would also make a point of talking loudly to him about Virginia Woolf and The Slits any time a stranger walked past).

The final reason I never get wolf whistled at by builders is because builders aren’t all sexist, dick-ignorant arseholes. And if you think they are, then I imagine you don’t actually know many. You haven’t had dinner with one, been on holiday with one, tried to squeeze out a splinter beside one as he talks to you about his love of West African kora music. You see, my father is a builder. And, if getting paid to learn how to do a job makes you an apprentice, then I am a builder’s apprentice. Together we’ve replaced roofs, built walls, dug drainage ditches and filled more skips than you’ve shoplifted Ginsters. He’s a feminist, university-educated builder and would no more likely wolf whistle at a passing woman than he would angle-grind his own chin.

So, I’ve always approached building sites and greeted builders with friendly respect. And, as a result, I always, always get it in return. To quote my friend Martin; if IT engineers had to do their work in the middle of the pavement, where we could all see their screens and hear their conversations, we’d quickly stop thinking of builders as the worst misogynists in the village.

Which isn’t to say that I’m completely ignored as I run up hill and down dale. Oh no. Like a ballerina at a hot dog eating competition, I still attract a fair bit of attention. Just this morning a gloriously drunk man in Adidas poppers stuck out his thumb, weaved dangerously towards the river and called out “good on yer girl” as I ran past. Not long ago a Hasidic teenager, carrying a white Costcutter carrier bag, specifically stopped me to ask how far I’d run and what trainers I used. A man by the towpath last month told me I looked like “a strong and healthy woman”. I’ve had the Rocky music, “keep going”s and extremely kind people chasing me through whole fields to say I’ve dropped my t-shirt. None of which has anything to my gender, none of which has made me the least uncomfortable and all of which reminds me that running makes us not just firmer people, but happier people.

Very happy, in some cases. Yes, I’ll admit it. I too have experienced what Hannah Pool calls the ‘rungasm’, where you feel so unbelievably happy during a run that you find yourself winking at poor, unsuspecting members of the public. But, as sexual harassment goes, hopefully they can cope. Hopefully they don’t mind. I really, really hope they don’t.

So I’ll keep on running, my waistband on my temples and the marshland at my feet. And, hopefully, the only people who will harass me are those stupid American voices on my Nike + app who keep telling me how many minutes I have left. And the only whistles I will hear are from the wind whipping through the long grass.

- Nell Frizzell

26 thoughts on “Running with Wolf Whistles

  1. sorry but this is quite a bad article. I don’t really understand what point the writer is trying to make. Is this putting forward the view of the builder who doesn’t wolf whistle? No one said all builders harrass women. All I got from this article was quite a boring account of where the writer runs to.

  2. I mostly run in semi-rural villages, where the main comments I get are from teenagers who gain confidence from being in large teenage groups. Just running-themed, nothing to do with my body shape or anything.

  3. While this was interesting and the writing was very good (and funny to boot). I’m not sure what the point is. “I’ve never been sexually harassed while running” is a fair enough thing to say but does it need to be said? Plenty of women are sexually harassed while running and it’s hard to not read someone going “I haven’t been” as attempting to disprove those other women’s experiences.

    I’m just curious as to what the point of this piece was (but again I did find it quite enjoyable otherwise).

  4. Just read this after coming back from a 30 minute run where no less than 4 different men voiced their sexist comments. This is entirely typical. One of these even included a bloke who turned to his 10 year old (ish) son and said “Bloody hell Jack have a look at the legs on that”. Appalling.

    I’m glad to hear that not everyone has to put up with this kind of crap but I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to take away from this. If you don’t want to be wolf whistled then run in baggy clothing, in parks, with a big bloke behind you? Avoid sexual harassment by being nicer to builders?

  5. I really like the way you write, very entertaining. But I would have to agree with the above poster in that I am not exactly sure what your point is..? It is great that you have never felt threatened or received inappropriate comments when out running… but you freely admit that you run in quiet spots, wearing ‘eccentric’ clothes and have at times been accompanied by a man. These measures are all things that some women who run may not be able to take, nor indeed should have to take to avoid harassment. On the other hand, some women do experience things that they consider harassment when running or simply walking down the street and it does not have anything to do with how THEY treat passers by, or if they don’t have a 6ft5 bloke accompanying them, or with what they choose to wear, or where they decide to run. It is because someone decides to make that inappropriate comment/wolf whistle.

  6. Again – seriously what was the point in this article? Good for you and I don’t think anyone was suggesting that all builders are sexist arseholes..

  7. Hello everyone,

    Thank you for your comments. I think my point, apart from just reflecting on my own positive experience of running, was to, hopefully, encourage other women to run.
    To not worry about spending a lot of money on fancy running clothes, to not worry about being hassled or jeered at in the street, to allow themselves to get sweaty, look ridiculous and feel brilliant. Because I, and many of my friends, find running not only physically beneficial but also incredibly important part of looking after our mental health.

    Running can be lovely. People can be lovely. Builders can be lovely. Strangers can be lovely. Cities can be lovely – and exploring them by squeaky foot can be lovely.

    Hopefully, if anything, this article reflects that.

  8. Maybe the point is to bring some joy back to the topic of running. Yes, harrassment while running is deeply irritating and can be very scary, but it’s nice to read something that focuses on how great running can be.

    I have literally just come back from a run in Hyde Park to read this, and it’s made me think about my experiences. I run about 3 times a week, always early mornings, always with music on, usually a mix of roads and parks. I don’t think I’ve ever been harassed, but I wouldn’t hear most things over the music!

    I do get a lot of stares though – today I was convinced that I had some mud on my face from the number of men and women I caught giving me a good once-over.

    I haven’t really got a deep and meaningful point to make, but like the author, I wanted to say how much joy I get from running and to encourage other would-be runners to get out there – especially now with the sun shining so early in the morning!

    I won’t run in the dark (apart from anything else, I’m super clumsy so would just fall over everything) so summer really is my running time. When you hit the right rhythm, when it’s early enough that the sun is shining but the air is still fresh, well, people can stare all they want – it’s bliss!

  9. I loved the piece (brilliant writing, I agree), and I’m glad you wrote it. I don’t run anymore (knee problems), but I’ve never ever once experienced harassment while running (or while being out and about for that matter), and I used to run in inner city spots, I didn’t have a guy (of whatever side) cycling behind me, and I don’t think what I was wearing was particularly eccentric or even noticeable. So when I read that piece, my gut level is, hey, I’m so glad it’s not just me. It’s nice to feel you’re not alone. Does it need to be said? Well, I don’t know about “need”, but personally, I think it’s no bad thing – just like I imagine that the sharing of the experience that plenty of women DO get harassed doing whatever it is they do (in this case, running) presumably is of some comfort to the women who have that experience.
    @monkyvirus I don’t want to speak for the original writer of the piece but do you really feel that someone saying “I haven’t been [whatever]” is disproving somebody else’s experience??? Seriously??? It’s a big complicated world out there, and we all experience it in various ways, and please please please don’t take this the wrong way, personally I find the idea that somebody’ s experience is somehow “disproving” somebody else…well, to me it seems a really strange thing to say, sorry.
    PS junebug makes a good point about the music, actually – maybe I did get harassed, just didn’t hear it. Well, I couldn’t run without music, so that works for me – maybe it’s an option for others too?

  10. The most disturbing part of the article is the following:

    ‘I’ve always approached building sites and greeted builders with friendly respect. And, as a result, I always, always get it in return.’

    Are you suggesting that those who do experience harassment do so because they didn’t show enough respect to their would-be harassers?!

    • No, she’s saying she’s polite to builders, and they are polite to her. I think she’s hinting at a class snobbery towards workmen that doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality. I’m with her all the way on this. Some of the worst harassment I’ve had has been from poshos in convertibles.

    • I also felt a bit like this. I’m sure that it’s not what the writer intended but it comes across a bit ‘do as I do’, not, ‘go out and enjoy running!’. I too run in Hackney, I run in whatever clothes are to hand, nothing provocative (sometimes my baggy pyjama top!) and I smile at people as a general rule. Yet it has been the norm, not the exception, that I am harassed. This is not something I ever encountered before moving to London, my friend has considered stopping running because of it, and this article feels to me like undermining the size and scale of this problem for many women. The point about not stereotyping did not need to be made in the context of this article…

  11. What.

    Considering the general feel of most Vagenda articles I’ve read… this article, while decently written, falls spectacularly short of the mark.


    It’s not an article about the joy of running. It’s an article about sexual harassment in terms of running. It says so, right in the beginning. What’s more, it actually says ‘Or so I’ve been told’ when speaking about sexual harassment! (Really?) Hell, it even puts the onus on women to ‘wear ugly clothes, or ‘bring a big dude with you’ or ‘be nice to the guys what might catcall at you, because #notallmen’ (are you KIDDING me?) when in fact the whole point of an article about sexual harassment (in terms of running, or anything else) should be ‘MEN NEED TO GROW UP’ while an article about the joy of running should’ve focused on, I dunno, let’s say the RUNNING (tell me about the pounding of your feet, what kind of shoes you like, your breathing methods, how your muscles feel like a ticking furnace when you’re done, how the miles and minutes fly by, how you never vary your path because you love the routine, how running in the rain feels like heaven), not the thinly veiled defensiveness/misogyny (My dad’s a builder,guys, and I know how to hold a hammer too, stop being so mean about men because not all men are awful like my dad is not awful maybe you just dress like a slut so you asked for it try wearing underwear on your head and then you’ll be a real runner like me I’m so funny!) so many people have seen here and are commenting on in confusion.

    And anger.

    Basically the statement ‘I know sexual harassment exists but *I* haven’t seen it’ is about as empowering as a slap in the face. Thanks for showing off your privilege, OP. Guess the rest of us should just mind our manners around the menfolk, or suck it up and borrow your boyfriend when we want to feel like we can leave the house without being harassed?

    Vagenda, you just put up a lovely article about why women don’t report rape. Pretty much because of this crap right here. We don’t need people (ESPECIALLY other women!) telling us the reasons we’re getting catcalled/wolfwhistled/sexually harrassed are because a) we wear sexy workout clothes b) we haven’t brought along a bodyguard c) we’re just so very unfortunate to have run into the very few men who are the jerks

    No love,

    • Actually having reread the article I see where you are coming from.

      The author says above she was trying to come from a positive place and that’s how I took it on a first read. Maybe she should have included a final reason she’s not experienced harassment while running as “I’ve been lucky”.

      But I would love to read another take on how, as a woman, running can be joyful if you feel like writing it – I really enjoyed reading that bit of your post. For example, running in the rain – it’s amazing.* If I’m out in the rain I turn the music off, slow down and appreciate how everything sounds softer and more distant.

      *Alas, only for the first few miles. After that, I find my trainers give in to the inevitable and it’s blister city from then on. Stupid feet.

    • I think you’re projecting a lot of stuff onto Nell’s piece that just isn’t there.

      It’s a funny piece about the joy of running. Just because the writer hasn’t been harassed doesn’t mean she’s saying that other women haven’t. It’s this tendency to jump to conclusions and this refusal to accept plurality of opinion that puts us off modern feminism. Only those extremely keen to finger-point could accuse this article of being slut-shaming and victim blaming. Sorry if you feel it falls short but we have never toed the party line and are not going to start now: it’s a good piece that encourages women to run and we stand by it.

      • Because Nell’s piece opened with ‘sexual harassment is bad’ but then followed it up with ‘it doesn’t happen to ME because I dress ugly, carry a big man, and am nice to other men I meet’ (This is not projection — those are the reasons SHE outlines) I maintain that this article isn’t about the joy of running, but about how women who run and complain about harassment are Doing It Wrong.

        An article about the joy of running should include more about the joy of running, and less about why I get catcalls, and you don’t.

  12. I think CJ you pretty much nailed the reasons for my discomfort with the article. I really enjoyed the parts actually about Nell’s enjoyment of running, more on that would be great. But the article doesn’t simply talk about the joy of running, does it? The whole premise of ‘hey! Lets talk about sexual harassment’ followed by only talking about it through the context of justifying why she thinks she has not experienced it while running, comes off at best a bit self satisfied for cleverly avoiding harassment and at worse a tad victim blamey.

  13. I was waiting for a really nice point to be made, just like other vagenda articles but this honestly just reads: to not get harassed while running like me, wear weird clothes, don’t run where there are lots of people and if you do bring your boyfriend for protection. Very disappointed.

  14. CJ I completely agree with your analysis and Vagenda, I’m really disappointed with your hypocrisy:

    “It’s this tendency to jump to conclusions and this refusal to accept plurality of opinion that puts us off modern feminism.”

    A lot of the articles on your blog shine a spotlight on uncomfortable inferred meaning and nuances. How are CJ and your other readers’ interpretations “jumping to conclusions” any more than you do when you deconstruct Grazia?

  15. Dear Nell, I personally take issues with :

    a) “I run in a lose assembly of garments possibly best described as ‘eccentric’ ” – I’m a don’t-care-what-I-wear kind of gal myself, and sometimes I even wear ugly or ill-fitting clothes on purpose to make sure I am not ‘encouraging’ any catcalling (I know, sad). Does it work ? Nope. Even in baggy t-shirts and sweatpants, I am regularly catcalled and followed. Your first ‘explanation’ made me cringe.

    b) The part about the builders. What on earth is up with that ?! If you want to address the prejudice, why don’t you pen an article entirely on that and publish it in the Guardian ? Oh wait, you did. Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly agree with you on the substance. But frankly, this topic deserves another article (which exists already) and should not be shoved in a piece that is supposedly just about “the joys of running”.

    Next time I’m running and someone whistles or catcalls -and unfortunately I know for a fact that there will be a next time- not only will I feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, I will also think about this piece and wonder whether, maybe, I should have been more ‘eccentric’ or respectful ? By the way, I rarely run by building sites (not necessarily by choice, but because none are on my go-to routes) and not to worry I still get catcalls a-plenty.

    The fact that you are assuming that the readers have an inbuilt prejudice against builders is also a tad insulting. You’re a strong, healthy woman, who reads Virgina Woolf, runs 40km a week, knows how to handle a hammer and you sometimes hang out with people whose job is being a builder. We get it. That’s awesome. I don’t remember anything being said on the Vagenda or the comments about “those nasty builders who are just sexist douchebags”. If there was something, it should be addressed. If not, maybe start with the assumption that readers are just as open-minded as you are. In any case, this has nothing to do with the love of running.



  16. Also, I really don’t see any point in the article that encourages women to run. I enjoyed the part about the cars, but apart from that the gist of the article is more or less :

    - I run a lot
    - I run in funny clothes – I’m eccentric – no but seriously guys I’m really eccentric !!!!!
    - maybe you should stop being so prejudiced against builders, you disrespectful close-minded snob
    - when I run I do get attention but it’s the encouraging kind

    Skipping the clothes/builders bit and expanding on the nice encounters (I want someone to sing the Rocky music while I run too!) or how running is an opportunity to see lovely scenery without cars etc. would have been more on point, if this was really about “the joy of running”.


  17. Your writing is very entertaining, and I love the self-deprecating humour (also well done on the 40km a week!). I read your comment about wanting to bring the joy back to running, so I get the article now. But I think that point could have been made a lot clearer.

    It read to me as if you were denying that street harassment of female runners isn’t a thing because you’ve never experienced it. I live in London, so it’s hard for me to run in rural areas – although my 5k route includes as much park and greenery as possible! But even in those parts, men will make comments or go out of their way to stare at me uncomfortably while I run past.

    Every time I run I get beeped at, shouted at, generally harassed…I love running, and believe me I don’t go to any special efforts to get dressed up to do it! Baggy cheap trackies, tank top, weirdly coloured trainers with half a lace (damn dog), wet hair, no make up, obviously red-faced and panting. But men will harass me anyway, from afar, just because they’ve noticed I’m a woman on my own in public and running seems to provide greater opportunity for humiliation.

    I’m too scared to run in the dark, or through isolated areas (park running really isn’t for me!). And while my partner is also a feminist, university-educated builder, he would agree that building sites can be misogynist places in which he feels really uncomfortable – why he picks his workmates very carefully! So yes, it’s not just builders – but it’s enough of the male population to have a very real effect on female runners who do come into contact with them while running.

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