Bodywork

The Female Runner’s Conundrum

Street harassment will ruin a perfectly good jog, and most female runners have experienced this before. So what are we going to do about it?

Women should feel safe when they go out running, no matter where or when.     Photo: ViktorCap/Getty Images

The other day as I left my apartment building to go out for a run, I realized my iPod was out of battery. I wasn’t far from my front door, and could have easily turned around to leave it at home, but I decided not to. That’s because the little black earbuds I bought for $10 aren’t just a source of sound, they’re a defense mechanism.

Ask any female runner, and she will probably know what I’m talking about. Alongside the mental solace that many of us get from our daily jaunt, there also comes a host of things to consider: what we’re wearing, whether it’s a good idea to take a new route if it’s nearly dusk, whether we’ve told someone where we’re headed, or whether we should cross the street before running past that construction site. And the earbuds? That’s just a simple way to tune out the high likelihood that someone will make a comment I don’t want to hear.

Encouragingly, the concept of street harassment and what we must do as a culture to address it has been addressed widely in the media recently. The coverage of campaigns like the Everyday Sexism Project—an online platform-turned-book that has crowdsourced accounts from well over 50,000 female victims of street harassment—and Brooklyn artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s “Stop Telling Women to Smile” project show that what has for eons been accepted as “guys just being guys” is increasingly being stigmatized.

Despite the progress though, myself and many of my female runner friends agree that the aggressive behaviour we experience from males seems to go up a notch when we’re running. Regardless of the season—spandex running tights in the winter seem to be just as bad as shorts and a sports bra in the heat of summer—there seems to be a certain brazenness that an anonymous harasser gains from watching you approach and knowing you’re going to move by him quickly. You name it, it’s probably happened to me: being followed by men in cars and on foot, countless gratuitous honks, being touched from behind, lewd and vile commentary, or, my personal favorite, being asked for “directions” by someone who really just wants to bother me and ruin my run. 

My reaction to street harassment is very often different when I’m running on a sidewalk versus walking on it. Blame the surge of adrenaline and confidence I gain when I’m running, but I find I’m more apt to take a risk trail or route I’ve never been on before, get pissed off and yell an obscenity to someone that is acting untoward, and perhaps be a little less cautious at the precise time when I should be doing the opposite.

Given this paradox, it can often feel hard to point to a solution in this case. Not running is, of course, out of the question. Ignoring it and not letting it ruin my run is probably the most straightforward response, but that doesn’t account for the times where I actually feel threatened by a car or someone following me. Urban running can increase the potential of unwanted interactions, but it also offers a sense of safety that solo trail running does not. Finally, running with a phone offers a measure of security. But in reality, I’m completely unwilling to give up the one activity in my life where I get to leave my phone at home.

Aside from joining a running group, stockpiling some responses (“What do I want? I want you to never, ever speak to another female like that ever again”) and employing the earbud method, there’s a general shift in culture that we can all participate in, regardless of gender. A female runner may choose to ignore and run past a male harasser, but chances are other people can hear what nonsense he’s hollering from that park bench. Wouldn’t it be nice if, once a while, someone intervened for her? She’s busy running after all.

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