Why Is It OK To Harass Women When They Run?
Why Is It OK To Harass Women When They Run?
Is running a crime, punishable by verbal assault, sexual harassment, and public humiliation? If you're a woman, you might be forgiven for thinking so, judging by the frequency of such incidents.
In an article published by The Guardian, London-based writer Sarah Marsh details the lewd sexual comments that she and women she interviewed have endured while running, the worst of which included being shouted at by a man in a passing car to give him a blow job.
Sound extreme? Many female runners have stories of being heckled with equally and less-obviously demeaning comments, the bother of which can get a little harder to explain to those who haven’t suffered through such experiences themselves. For me, the worst part is the victim-blaming reactions that come out in response to these stories, seen—where else?—in the dark shadows of Internet comments sections.
In the comments on The Guardian story, some men (the emphasis is needed, apparently, because #notallmen, even though #yesallwomen) argued that they, too, receive unwanted attention while out running. Many commenters encouraged female runners to "laugh it off" or put their headphones in and ignore the hecklers, advice that doesn't take into account the feeling of being physically threatened that can accompany verbal harassment.
The Toast also recently published a similar account by writer Katie Prout, in which she says that throughout her 10 years as a runner, “I have been verbally harassed, physically chased, forcibly touched, and definitely followed. The severity and type of harassment varies, but the objective always feels the same: to try and take away my power as I do the thing that makes me feel most free.” A Reddit thread discussing the article devolved into a debate on whether or not a woman being offended by unwanted attention means she has a “victim complex” or is “overreacting.”
Rather than challenging whether an off-colour compliment (“You look good in those shorts!”) or words of encouragement (“Run faster!”) can be considered harassment, why don’t we accept that the only reaction that matters is that of the person being targeted? For one thing, there’s no foolproof way for the women in the moment to know what a harasser’s intentions are—he could simply be making a friendly gesture or offering kudos. Or, he could be trying to get you to stop your run to pay attention to him, and denying him could cause him to find another, possibly more aggressive way to exert his desired power and control. News agencies across the country regularly report incidents of sexual assault on women out jogging.
But, even when the harassment is of a less violent nature, it can make women think twice about future runs. Women’s running website RunHers.com has twice hosted Twitter chats on the subject, in partnership with Runner’s World Magazine and non-profit advocate site StopStreetHarrasment.com. During one of these chats, @StopStHarassment tweeted that: “In an informal online survey we did of 811 women in 23 countries, 46% said they have exercised [at the] gym instead of outside [because] of [the threat of street harssament].
I’m an occasional runner and have been lucky enough not to have been the target of offensive verbal attacks. But, as a woman living in a big city, I’ve certainly heard my share of comments, catcalls, and car-horn honks while out in my daily life, so I’m certain it’s only a matter of time before it happens while I’m on a run.
To illustrate just how wide ranging these incidents—and women’s reactions to them—can be, I asked a few female runners to share their experiences:
Jenny McConnell, a trainer at Toronto’s Academy of Lions gym, has been the target of one of those so-called-“harmless” comments. A particularly difficult run while training for her first marathon had her in a mental struggle with herself already, and the confrontation nearly pushed her past her breaking point:
“Long runs are tough; This particular morning I felt like defeated from the first step I took. I had to complete 28km and almost turned back in tears at 0.4km.
I was about 21km in, running on a major downtown street. The sun was hot and there was a lot of construction and traffic. I was pushing along when a man working construction literally stepped in front of me and asked me why I wasn’t smiling? I was so pretty… I should be smiling, right?
I was enraged. Who the hell was this person in my way? Why were they laughing at me? More importantly, where the hell do they get off questioning my facial expression in the middle of a 28km run? What was I suppose to do? Slap him? Tell him to f**k off? Why, so he could call me a bitch? I kept running, tried not to cry and resented the fact that despite the strength it was taking me to accomplish the task at hand, I was made to feel vulnerable and like I should still be doing more.”
I asked Jenny how fellow male runners and friends react when they hear incidents like this. “The group of men surrounding (the sport of running) are some of the most supportive and inspiring athletes I’ve ever met; that being said, they will never be able to understand what if feels like for a woman. Its not as simple as it’s annoying or rude; it has the ability to instill insecurity and fear which can prevent progress. That’s the real problem.”
Karen Cleveland describes herself as a fair-weather runner for about 20 years. She usually runs solo, as she was doing on a hot evening last July, when she remembers being catcalled: “I was running along the Danforth [a busy downtown Toronto street). An elderly man I ran past cautioned me to “not run off all the good stuff.” Karen says she didn’t feel threatened in any way. When I asked her why, then, the comment stands out in her mind, she said: “I thought his comment was witty. I laughed.” She added that it’s not her intention to make light of catcalls; her experience simply wasn’t as unsettling as others.
Nicole (who chose not to share her last name) is a Canadian competitive athlete living abroad in Europe. Last October, she was harassed while out for a run in a park near her apartment:
“As I was running, an older man (55-60ish) dressed smartly in black with a cap on was walking towards me. As I passed, he said something in a foreign language (not English or the dominant language of the country I am living in), raised his hands to his chest, and mimicked the bouncing movement of my breasts. I could tell from the tone that it was not a flattering comment, more of one with sexual overtones. I was shocked.”
Nicole completed her run and returned home. She says that, afterward: “I felt terrible about myself, I felt like I had lost confidence, and I haven’t returned to running in that park. I do hope when spring comes I will be able to gather my courage and start again. I am not concerned about my physical safety there, but there is a certain feeling of hesitancy to put myself out there again.“
Natalie Lodge has been running for over ten years, and has completed several races, including two half marathons and one full. She says she’s verbally harassed while running “typically about once a month, depending on how often I am running.” She often hears joking-yet-judgmental comments like “Run faster, you’re slow!” Surprisingly, she finds it happens more often when she’s out with her run club than when she’s alone:
“Last summer I was running with my crew on a Thursday evening. I was with was a group of girls at the back of the pack. There were plenty of people on the street, including a group of three guys smoking outside of a restaurant. As we passed them, one of them felt the need to say something along the lines of ‘Yeah, I’m going to run too’ and laugh. It was delivered in a very arrogant and condescending manner. In those situations, I tend to brush it off, but in this moment in made me angry as I was just try to enjoy a run with a group of people.”
While Natalie says these types of comments don’t affect her running, she does say she’ll try to pick alternate routes away from busy streets when possible.