Running while female

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 stress-reliever, 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 life-threatening, 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.

YOUR WIFE, YOUR FRIEND, YOUR DAUGHTER – SHE’S BEEN HARASSED

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.’

THIS BEHAVIOUR IS NOT OK. IT MUST BE CHALLENGED

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.’

REALLY, WHAT ARE THESE MEN THINKING?

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.’

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

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.’

THERE IS NO EASY SOLUTION, BUT WE HAVE TO ADDRESS THIS ISSUE NOW

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.


Use the hashtag #harassedwhilerunning to share your reactions to this story and/or your own experiences, and help us to continue the important conversation about mid-run harassment. Alternatively, you can email us at letters@runnersworld.co.uk.