Week 14: running, sexism and street harassment.

From Hollaback! Des Moines

I wish I didn’t feel like I have to write this blog post, but I do. This is about running, sexism and street harassment.

I know plenty of men get abuse when they’re running too, and I don’t want to discount that, but I’m going to write specifically about the sexist abuse that I get as a woman who runs. (I get it when I’m walking too, but it’s far more common while running.)

Firstly, I’d like to give you an idea of the kind of stuff I’m talking about:

  • Physical abuse, including having mystery cups of liquid thrown over me and having my bum smacked. This doesn’t happen often – three incidents in three years of running.
  • Verbal abuse, which tends to be a variation on one of three main riffs: ‘I do/don’t want to have sex with you’; ‘Smile’; ‘You’re fat’. If I don’t respond in favourable way to the riffs, I get the chorus: ‘Bitch.’ Something like this happens to me about once or twice a month. There have also been some more severe incidents, including a borderline rape threat that left me feeling shaken for days.
  • It always comes from men. (This isn’t hyperbole.)
  • There’s no obvious common thing linking these men – they seem to come from a wide range of backgrounds and age groups, as far as I can judge from the brief encounters I have with them anyway.

I’ve complained about this a lot since I started running, and most people are sympathetic and supportive. A few people have tried to tell me that street harassment isn’t sexist, which I find infuriating. The harassers are male, and the harassment always focuses on the fact that I’m a woman, on my body, and on whether or not the abuser finds me sexually attractive. If that’s not sexist, what is?

Most women experience street harassment, whether they run or not. But as I mentioned, in my experience, it’s far more common if you run. Why? Maybe running makes us more noticeable and more of a target? Because we’re likely to run alone? Because we spend more time on the street and therefore are more exposed to it?

I think another factor is that to a misogynistic or sexist man there’s something threatening about a woman who runs. A woman who runs is doing something strong, physical and independent with her body. To these men, women are meant to be weak, passive, dependent. A strong, physical, independent woman upsets the balance, makes them feel weaker and off-centre on a sub-conscious level. So they try make that woman feel intimidated or threatened, that her body has no value other than being sexually attractive, that they have a right to dominance over her.

Pseudo-psychology aside, I hate it. I hate that it upsets me. I hate the idea that it might put other women off running. I hate that I didn’t call the police in the case of the most severe incidents. I hate that people tell me to ignore it.

Most of the time, I swear at these men and keep running. But I worry that meeting aggression with aggression like this might get me into a worse situation one day. I’m trying to limit myself to a more moderate ‘Not cool, bro.’ I might even get some cards like the one in the image above, or the ones from Stop Street Harassment to hand out, but that would involve getting a bit closer to them than I’d really like.

I’d like other people to do something about it too. It it happens to you, or if you see it happening to someone else, call it out. These men are a small but vocal minority; us normal, decent women and men outnumber them, but it doesn’t feel like it if we don’t speak out.

Maybe if we all speak up, we can help them see that this isn’t OK, and collectively shame them into stopping.

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3 comments

  1. Great Post. It upsets me so much that runners are being put off by abuse from these people. I’ve been called all sorts and even had a lighter thrown at me once! Never from women, it’s always men! Why is that? Why me running has any impact on them is beyond me, I’ll never understand it. It is however really hard to know what do in these situations, I run without a phone/ID so if I was to engage in further I could be in an extremely vulnerable position. This minority of people want engage in conflict, I just ignore them and don’t give them the satisfaction of my time. If ever I’m witness to other runners getting abuse I will always try an encourage the runners. I take so much happiness from the occasional high fives, nods and smiles I get from other runners knowing that what we are all doing is a great thing.

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