Thoughts About Running
Keep Calling It Out
I was running quickly on a residential street in my neighbourhood when the striped lrt gates swung down, forcing me to stop. A car pulled up beside me and a smiling man stuck his head out the passenger-side window. “Do you know how to get to Northgate?” he shouted. Removing an earbud, I told him the shopping mall was far from where we were and in the opposite direction from where his car was heading. He feigned confusion. “Can you show us?” he asked, wearing a dopey expression that indicated he knew the mall’s location. “Come on, are you busy now?” For the next few minutes, I prayed for the lrt train to pass as the man complimented my smile, told me he wanted to get to know me and tried to persuade me to get in the car. Finally, the gates rose and I ran away. This kind of interaction is atypical. Usually, men whistle or honk as they drive by, or they fire off a few words about their body part of choice. “Nice shoulders.” “Nice ass.” “Nice legs.” “Nice tits.” (Whether or not breasts are large or actually visible is irrelevant, I should note. One could be wearing a compression sports bra, thick sweatshirt and rain-jacket, and men would still assume large breasts are underneath.)
The more sophisticated cat-caller uses full sentences: “You don’t have to run away from me, girl!” “Why are you running? You don’t need to lose weight.”
The line I won’t forget came from a man on a sidewalk in New York City.
“You’re fried chicken with pudding on the side!” he exclaimed.
Headphones can block out harassment, but not always successfully – once I was
cat-called while listening to a song about cat-calling – and wearing them can be dangerous in heavy traffic areas.
Investigative journalism and the momentous Me Too movement brought mainstream attention to the amount of sexual harassment and assault women face at work, at school and in sport. It seems that awareness, at least among men, is increasing as more women speak up. What has yet to change is the culture that allows harassment to happen.
For many women, running is one of the purest forms of freedom. The runner decides her route and her pace. For a short time, she escapes work and other obligations of modern life. It’s always angered me that a man can roll down his window and spoil that with one comment. When it happens, I’m reminded that men can objectify women in this way and get away with it every time. We don’t run these streets, after all – we’re reduced to our body parts, on display for others. And for those with skin that isn’t white or sexual orientation that isn’t straight, I’m sure it’s much worse. I can only imagine.
The problem is widespread. In 2016, an online Runner’s World survey of more than 4,000 runners revealed 43 per cent of women at least sometimes experienced harassment during their runs. Compare that with just four per cent of men.
Elite runners aren’t immune. Kara Goucher has said that catcalls and whistles were commonplace during her training. After being followed for the first time, during an evening run in Lake Tahoe, the celebrated American distance runner sprinted back to her hotel room. She had nightmares that night.
Not surprisingly, Canadian data from a 1993 survey on violence against women found that street harassment from strangers affected how women perceived their own safety. Furthermore, the majority of the Runner’s World survey respondents concerned about safety said they took measures to protect themselves, such as running with a phone ( 73 per cent), running only during the day (60 per cent) and changing running routes (50 per cent).
Cat-calling is more than an annoyance – it convinces women to restrict their behaviour in ways men do not. I’m sure that in time there will be more research on the psychological and physiological effects of street harassment. Perhaps women would be fitter if more hours of the day were safe for outdoor exercise.
I don’t often talk about street harassment because it’s a momentary annoyance that’s difficult to report. As far as sexist acts go, it’s more trivial than others. And I know that for the most part, Canadian cities are safe places for women to run alone. I may feel scared as I run at dusk, but I know there’s a much higher chance of getting hit by a car than assaulted by a stranger.
That said, as the Me Too movement continues, I think it’s more important than ever to talk about harassment – however small the act – because it keeps happening. Until cat-callers shut up, I’m going to keep a line from Running for Women, Kara Goucher’s 2011 training manual, in mind: “Run tall, run strong and make eye contact,” she wrote. “If you do this, people will be less likely to mess with you.”