Run­ning While Fe­male



RW in­ves­ti­gates the scourge of harassment

last sum­mer, over a pe­riod of just nine days, three young women in the US were mur­dered while out run­ning. Un­sur­pris­ingly, these un­con­nected mur­ders did not make the head­lines here, but for the UK’S run­ners they are shock­ing, be­cause noth­ing about the vic­tims’ fi­nal miles was dif­fer­ent to the miles we run here ev­ery day. In fact, noth­ing about those miles should have been out of the or­di­nary in any way. All three women headed out in day­light. All three were on routes they’d run safely in the past. Their deaths oc­curred while they were run­ning by them­selves, but al­most ev­ery run­ner trains alone some­times. That such or­di­nary cir­cum­stances led to such tragedy makes these sto­ries es­pe­cially un­set­tling to con­tem­plate.

As de­tails of the mur­ders spread in the US, well-mean­ing non-run­ners be­gan pep­per­ing the ath­letes in their lives (es­pe­cially the women) with ad­vice: Don’t run with head­phones. Don’t run in the dark. Don’t run alone. Run­ners also joined the dis­cus­sion – some ea­ger to share what they do or carry to feel safe, oth­ers de­tail­ing their new­found sense of vul­ner­a­bil­ity. The im­pact on the col­lec­tive psy­che was far-reach­ing.

‘ Emo­tional sto­ries about peo­ple we re­late to have a strong ef­fect on us,’ says Dr Jes­sica Gall Myrick, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor and re­searcher in me­dia and emo­tions at In­di­ana Univer­sity in the US, and a for­mer col­lege run­ner. When a per­son sees her­self (or a loved one) in a vic­tim, it’s eas­ier to con­nect with the story and the more sim­i­lar­i­ties, the stronger the con­nec­tion. Mul­ti­ple cases in­ten­sify the re­ac­tion: ‘It can make you think the threat is greater than it re­ally is,’ says Myrick.

It’s im­por­tant to strike a note of re­as­sur­ance in the face of such hor­ri­fy­ing events. For all the par­al­lels we may draw, no such mur­ders have been re­ported in the UK in re­cent years. In fact, the chance of be­ing mur­dered at any time is ex­tremely low – just one in 87,565, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions Of­fice On Drugs and Crime. Sta­tis­ti­cally we put our­selves in far greater dan­ger when we get in a car to drive to work – we are 2.3 times more at risk of dy­ing in a road ac­ci­dent than at the hands of an­other per­son, yet the idea of be­ing mur­dered gen­er­ates a dis­pro­por­tion­ate – though un­der­stand­able – amount of anx­i­ety. Still, while your risk of be­ing mur­dered on the run is ex­tremely low, new RW research shows that se­ri­ous harassment is some­thing many of the UK’S fe­male run­ners have to rou­tinely en­dure.

Many run­ners (women as well as men) still don’t think twice about train­ing alone. They may use the run as a stress­re­liever, an es­cape from every­day cares, a chance to feel free. But a great many oth­ers feel ner­vous about log­ging miles solo be­cause they’ve been pestered in in­tru­sive and some­times fright­en­ing ways. In our sur­vey, 46.5 per cent of women re­ported that they at least some­times ex­pe­ri­ence harassment on the run, com­pared with just 9.2 per cent of men. These fig­ures are higher than the

per­cent­ages in a sim­i­lar re­cent sur­vey con­ducted by Run­ner’s World in the US (43 per cent for women and four per cent for men). In the vast ma­jor­ity of cases, the harassment is not lifethreat­en­ing, but it is per­va­sive and it’s fright­en­ing, and it’s al­most cer­tainly hap­pen­ing to you or some­one you know.

A man will look a woman up and down as she runs past. A driver will shout a lewd com­ment, laugh­ing with his friends as they speed away. Some­one on a bike or in a car will fol­low a woman, and she might dart down a side street to es­cape. Even if noth­ing like this hap­pens most days, know­ing that it (or some­thing worse) could hap­pen in­evitably causes stress. As the re­cent global di­a­logue sur­round­ing Don­ald Trump’s sex­ist com­ments and al­leged as­saults brought to light, en­dur­ing un­wanted sex­ual at­ten­tion is a fact of life for many women, run­ners or not. And no mat­ter how swift a woman’s pace, it’s im­pos­si­ble to out­run harassment. Of course, not ev­ery fe­male run­ner has to deal with in­tru­sive and un­wanted at­ten­tion on ev­ery run, nor is ev­ery woman who laces up her run­ning shoes sud­denly hy­per-vig­i­lant and fear­ful. But the more of­ten she or her peers ex­pe­ri­ence such in­tru­sion, the harder it be­comes to ac­cess the care­free headspace many run­ners seek and ought to be able to take for granted.

Stef Jack­son-horner, 28, reg­u­larly re­ceives un­wanted at­ten­tion on the run. ‘ When I’m run­ning in cities, I of­ten get wolf whis­tles. Even if I’m run­ning with my hus­band or our run­ning club, peo­ple will cheer sar­cas­ti­cally or say, “Hurry, he’s beat­ing you!”. It can be quite in­tim­i­dat­ing.’

When run­ning in North Lon­don, Cather­ine Kol­ubayev, 24, has of­ten ex­pe­ri­enced heck­ling and beep­ing from pass­ing cars. ‘ Beep­ing is jar­ring. When­ever any­one beeps, you don’t think “Oh they want to tell me I have nice run­ning form,” you im­me­di­ately panic, think­ing some­thing’s wrong.’ But in­stead of be­ing told she’s dropped some­thing or that she was al­most run over, driv­ers shout sex­ual slurs. ‘It wor­ries me be­cause what if you were in le­git­i­mate dan­ger and some­body wanted to shout to tell you, but you didn’t stop be­cause of pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence?’ Ur­ban dwellers are most likely to face un­so­licited at­ten­tion: 55 per cent of all city run­ners in our sur­vey say they some­times ex­pe­ri­ence harassment on their runs. That’s a sim­ple func­tion of pop­u­la­tion den­sity – the more peo­ple you see, the greater the odds that one of them will act like an id­iot (or worse). The con­verse is also true – if you run in a quiet sub­ur­ban or ru­ral area, you may not see any­one at all on your morn­ing four-miler. How­ever, while ru­ral run­ners are the least likely to re­port be­ing targeted, those who do en­dure harassment don’t ben­e­fit from the rel­a­tive anonymity that larger com­mu­ni­ties pro­vide. ‘There’s a high chance women in ru­ral ar­eas will see their ha­rasser again,’ says Holly Kearl, founder of US or­gan­i­sa­tion Stop Street Harassment (SSH), ‘be­cause they can’t avoid a store or run down a dif­fer­ent road.’ Imag­ine run­ning down the street, in the zone, and some­one beeps at you for no ap­par­ent rea­son. Your heart rate quick­ens, you start to sweat from alarm (in ad­di­tion to ex­er­tion) and you bris­tle at the fact that a stranger has dis­turbed your pleas­ant run. Now pic­ture the peace of a quiet coun­try road and how that peace might evap­o­rate when a stranger driv­ing a car slows down to fol­low you. Over 27 per cent of women who re­sponded to our sur­vey have been fol­lowed by some­one in a car, on foot or on a bike while out run­ning. Now imag­ine that your pur­suer rolls down his win­dow and asks if you’d like to (in­sert sex­ual act here) – a propo­si­tion like the ones 13 per cent of women told us they’ve re­ceived mid-run.

All of these sce­nar­ios, plus il­le­gal be­hav­iours such as flash­ing and grop­ing, fall on the harassment spec­trum. ‘Street harassment in­vades a per­son’s space



and rights, like any form of sex­ual harassment,’ says De­b­jani Roy, deputy di­rec­tor of Hol­laback!, a global ad­vo­cacy group ded­i­cated to end­ing street harassment. Of the women RW sur­veyed who have been targeted mid-run, al­most 90 per cent say it both­ers them. And it’s not just an­noy­ing or in­con­ve­nient. ‘Sex­ual harassment is a gate­way crime that cre­ates a cul­tural en­vi­ron­ment that makes gen­der-based vi­o­lence OK,’ states the Hol­laback! web­site, and a grow­ing body of research shows chronic harassment can af­fect a woman’s con­fi­dence and ex­ac­er­bate is­sues such as de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety, body-im­age con­cerns and eat­ing dis­or­ders.

Harassment re­minds women that they’re vul­ner­a­ble, rob­bing them of a sense of safety. Jack­son-horner will pick up the pace after an un­wanted en­counter. ‘In some ways it spurs me on be­cause I’m strong and I like know­ing I can run fast, but it is ap­palling that this is a sit­u­a­tion that even needs talk­ing about. Peo­ple shouldn’t just shout at run­ners on the street; you don’t find peo­ple be­ing shouted at as they walk through a su­per­mar­ket.’

Some women re­act by al­ter­ing their run­ning be­hav­iours: among RW sur­vey re­spon­dents with con­cerns about safety or un­wanted at­ten­tion, 79 per cent say those con­cerns have led them to in­form peo­ple where they’ll be run­ning and to run with a phone, while 48 per cent have changed their run­ning routes. ‘ Even though I’ve never had any­thing very se­ri­ous hap­pen, I’m aware that I con­stantly po­lice my­self when I’m run­ning,’ says Ox­ford-based Sarah Ken­drew, 36. ‘I’m con­stantly as­sess­ing in my head: “Is this street safe? Is it too iso­lated? Why is that man look­ing at me? Maybe I’ll cross the road. Is it get­ting too dark to run through this park?”’

Given this cal­cu­lus – pop­u­lated ar­eas breed harassment, while re­mote ar­eas can pro­vide cover for po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous peo­ple – some women turn to the safety of the gym. In fact, 11 per cent of women RW sur­veyed say con­cerns like these have driven them to ex­er­cise in­doors or on a tread­mill at least once. Some women find even that doesn’t mean harassment is left at the door. Lon­don-based run­ner Laura Mur­ray was wolf-whis­tled dur­ing one in­door work­out. ‘ Hav­ing never ex­pe­ri­enced any­thing like that in any gym be­fore, I was just out­raged. I was OK, but it was very easy to see how girls can see the gym as an in­tim­i­dat­ing place.’ If a fe­male friend were to tell you that ‘some id­iot said some­thing dis­gust­ing to me while I was run­ning’, you’d prob­a­bly as­sume said id­iot was a man – and you’d al­most cer­tainly be cor­rect. Of the women who re­ported be­ing ha­rassed in our sur­vey, more than 80 per cent said men were the per­pe­tra­tors. ‘The pub­lic sphere is [still] a male space,’ says Dr Michael Kim­mel, a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy and gen­der stud­ies at Stony Brook Univer­sity in New York. That’s why any woman who leaves her home for any rea­son – to run, to work – could po­ten­tially be ha­rassed, and why this is not just a run­ning is­sue but a so­cial one. Honks, in­nu­en­dos and so on are a man’s way of say­ing, “You are present in my space and I’m go­ing to let you know it’s my space.”’

This power play is present in the ma­jor­ity of un­so­licited sex­ual at­ten­tion, par­tic­u­larly when men are with other men, though not all men are con­scious of it. ‘ In a sex-bi­ased cul­ture, street harassment can be­come in­grained in male be­hav­iour,’ says Dr Shira Tar­rant, a pro­fes­sor of gen­der stud­ies at Cal­i­for­nia State Univer­sity. Boys and teens model their be­hav­iour on that of the men in their lives; if the adults ob­jec­tify women or treat them with dis­re­spect, the young learn that it’s ac­cept­able or even ad­mirable.

Kim­mel con­ducts in­for­mal polls with his stu­dents, and he says that while men or boys may think they’re whistling or call­ing to women to get a date, harassment has lit­tle to do with ro­mance, or even with women. ‘The real cen­tre of at­ten­tion is a man’s re­la­tion­ship with other men,’ says Kim­mel. Men and boys want to look cool, be funny or find val­i­da­tion and ac­cep­tance from other men. So­ci­ety teaches that to be a man, you must be pow­er­ful, ag­gres­sive and dom­i­nant, and some men ap­ply that to how they treat women on the street. But this nar­row def­i­ni­tion of mas­culin­ity is only part of the prob­lem, says Tar­rant. A man’s own ego, self-es­teem and sex­ual or per­sonal is­sues also come into play.



This is one rea­son harassment can turn vi­o­lent: if a woman ex­erts her author­ity by ig­nor­ing a man or speak­ing her mind, he may feel hu­mil­i­ated and act upon that anger.

Men who would never think of call­ing out vul­gar­i­ties to a woman can per­pet­u­ate in­equal­ity in sub­tle ways, of­ten un­con­sciously. Some every­day ex­am­ples in­clude talk­ing over women in meet­ings, so­lic­it­ing ideas from only male col­leagues and dis­miss­ing an­other man’s bad be­hav­iour with an ex­cuse such as ‘some blokes are just scum­bags’. When a woman run­ner shares a story of be­ing targeted, ask­ing her what she was wear­ing or whether she was alone im­plies that at least some of the blame might fall on her, when, in fact, the choice to ha­rass be­longs to the man alone. ‘I wear tight run­ning leg­gings not to show off my body but for com­fort, but as soon as some­one shouts some­thing, that em­pow­er­ment is pulled from un­der you,’ says Sally Rose Mc­cor­mack, 23, from Coven­try. ‘I want to be strong and fit for my­self, but when some­one shouts some­thing I’m re­minded I am noth­ing but my body or an ob­ject to some peo­ple.’

Women deal with the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing targeted by con­trol­ling the only fac­tor they can: their own be­hav­iour. ‘If I am alone I tend to run in more built-up ar­eas on main roads, de­spite the fact I’d rather be on the trails, just so that I’m not as alone,’ says Michelle Mortimer, 37, from Lin­coln. ‘I take my dog with me, too, to feel a bit safer. I also only run with a run­ning club at night – I wouldn’t go out on my own after dark.’

When harassment does oc­cur, it’s hard to know how to re­spond. Some run­ners avoid con­fronting ha­rassers in case of ret­ri­bu­tion. For ex­am­ple, 38-year-old Char­lie Hooson-sykes, from Manch­ester, had a sex­ual slur shouted at her while run­ning. ‘I was in the mid­dle of a dodgy area of the city, com­pletely on my own, so there was no way I was chal­leng­ing him.’

Oth­ers have chal­lenged, but found this hasn’t had the re­sponse they’d hoped for. ‘I shouted at a man who grabbed me while I was run­ning and he found it hi­lar­i­ous,’ says 24-year-old Lau­ren Hickey from


Lon­don. ‘Next time I would def­i­nitely try to stay calmer be­cause I feel like he got a real kick out of my re­ac­tion.’ How­ever, Coralie Frost found a pro­duc­tive way to tackle harassment that didn’t re­quire chal­leng­ing the per­pe­tra­tors: ‘ While do­ing hill re­peats I was wolf-whis­tled by builders work­ing nearby. Un­for­tu­nately, as I was do­ing quite a few sets, it meant re­peated abuse from the men. I took their busi­ness de­tails and phone num­ber down from their van to re­port the in­ci­dent.’ The po­ten­tial for of­fen­sive words to es­ca­late into some­thing more se­ri­ous is why some women carry pro­tec­tion. Fol­low­ing sev­eral in­ci­dents of harassment, Frost bought an alarm to wear while run­ning. ‘I have felt safer since wear­ing it. It’s now like rid­ing a bike with­out a hel­met – I don’t feel pro­tected with­out the alarm.’

What a woman is wear­ing doesn’t pro­tect her from be­ing ha­rassed, agree ad­vo­cates such as Kearl and Roy, but even so, there’s a wide­spread per­cep­tion that the less you wear, the more likely you are to be targeted. ‘I’d never wear shorts or just a sports bra out run­ning,’ says El­iz­a­beth Ren­frey, 22. ‘I wouldn’t want to bare my legs or torso, be­cause I feel it would draw at­ten­tion to me. I feel I blend in more when I wear full-length leg­gings. I ran the Lon­don Marathon in shorts for com­fort, as you’re not go­ing to get heck­led among thou­sands of run­ners, but I al­ways wore leg­gings when I was train­ing.’

And it seems that’s what nearly ev­ery fe­male run­ner has to do: find her own per­sonal tip­ping point be­tween feel­ing safe and com­fort­able, and feel­ing that she’s giv­ing in to ha­rassers. ‘There is al­ways the temp­ta­tion to an­swer back, but I know it will just lead to jeers and fur­ther abuse,’ says Cadi Lam­bert, 36, from Nottingham. Colch­ester-based run­ner Angela Ish­er­wood, 30, says she used to think twice about what she wore to run in case of un­wanted at­ten­tion, un­til one ex­pe­ri­ence made her de­cide to al­ways dress as she saw fit. ‘In the sum­mer, I went run­ning on a very hot day and was wear­ing short shorts. Just over a mile into my run, I passed two teenage boys who yelled, “Check out the ass on that, ass tit­ties, ass tit­ties.” When I got that heckle, I thought, “No more.” I had dressed ap­pro­pri­ately for the weather. Why should I be any less com­fort­able than I can be when I’m run­ning just be­cause some peo­ple think it’s OK to ha­rass oth­ers?’

There’s no im­me­di­ate, easy so­lu­tion, be­cause sex­ual harassment is a com­plex so­cial prob­lem. But open and hon­est con­ver­sa­tions about the is­sue – that in­clude men as well as women – are a step in the right di­rec­tion. ‘Too of­ten, street harassment is nor­malised and min­imised,’ says Kearl. ‘ Lis­ten­ing to peo­ple’s sto­ries with em­pa­thy is im­por­tant be­cause these ac­tions sig­nal that street harassment is a se­ri­ous is­sue.’ Kim­mel en­cour­ages men to speak up when they wit­ness sex­ist be­hav­iour. ‘If I say noth­ing, even though I don’t like the be­hav­iour,’ he says, ‘other men as­sume I sup­port it.’ Even if fe­male run­ners can’t be en­tirely spared harassment when they’re out on the road, dis­rupt­ing the sta­tus quo is cer­tainly a good place to start.






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