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.