In today’s post, I’m going to be addressing quite a serious topic. For a while, I’ve wanted to write about sexual harassment in sport – more specifically, running – but have been worried that it might get negative response. However, I think it’s too important of an issue to not share, and I know, from personal and friends’ experiences, that it’s all-too-common. This post may contain sensitive subject matter, so please bear that in mind while reading.
N.B. I also appreciate that I am a white woman from a privileged background, so my experience will be very different from others’. I am comparably lucky, and I am aware of that.
Defining Sexual Harassment
Before properly getting into this post, I want to quickly define sexual harassment, so that we all have the same working definition in mind. According to Google, it is “behaviour characterised by the making of unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances in a workplace or other professional or social situation.”
In running, this takes the form of catcalling, wolf-whistling, being followed or made to feel uncomfortable and/or vulnerable. Typically, this is felt by women far more than men, and men are more often than not the perpetrators. Since I’m female, and I spoke to female friends, this is the angle of today’s post. However I am NOT belittling Male experiences of sexual harassment.
Catcalling and wolf-whistling
Some boys I’ve spoken to have said that if you get catcalled and/ or wolf-whistled while out on a run, it’s because you’re attractive.So it’s meant to be a compliment. But, if you’ve experienced this – as I & many of my friends have – then you’ll know that it is not a compliment in any way, shape or form. It makes you feel profoundly uncomfortable, targeted, singled out. For no reason other than your appearance. Living in the patriarchal society that is our reality, this is a continuation of the ideology that states that women are objects to be viewed, used and subjugated to men.
This might sound extreme, but it is not. When we are catcalled, we are being filtered through the male gaze and reduced to our sex. When this happens to me, I suddenly feel incredibly vulnerable and hyperaware of the facility with which I could be hurt. Not nice things to feel while out and about, let alone while running.
In summer, my & my friends’ experiences of the above are worsened. Why? Probably because of our clothing. Due to the hot weather, most people will want to wear shorts while running. To keep cool – NOT because they are in some way “asking” for attention. Sometimes, when it’s extremely hot, I’ll just wear a sports bra and shorts. However, I haven’t done this in a while, because whenever I have, I’ve always felt hyper-visible. Stares, whistles, shouting seem to follow in my wake. Not because I’m attractive (I’m a sweaty mess because I’m RUNNING), but because of my bare skin on show.
Bare skin is not an invitation for any comments from anyone. It’s literally just a way of not overheating. The majority of men would never think twice about wearing shorts/ stripping their top off if it’s hot, but trust me, ask a female friend and she’ll probably have hesitated. This extends itself to the world of social media, too. I do sometimes feel nervous about posting photos of me in shorts and a sports bra, because often I have received unwanted messages from men. Messages that replicate catcalling and wolf-whistling in the streets, but from the safety of their phone.
And I’m not talking about social media following here. This is probably the most serious threat I have ever felt while running. It has happened to me twice, and unfortunately I don’t think my second time was the last. And I’m lucky! Both times were during the day, there were other people around so I never felt entirely isolated or vulnerable. The worst was during a long run, when I was about 15km into a 20km run. A drunk man shouted at me, and then started running behind me, saying he would catch me (amongst other, less pleasant things).
Luckily, because he was drunk, he collapsed a few metres later and couldn’t catch me. But still, was I scared? Yes. Sh*tless. It doesn’t matter that the threat was never entirely “real”, because there were other people not far off; it still felt real at the time. It still planted the seeds of fear in me that have never quite gone away.
Winter, darkness and danger
In winter, all of these things are heightened. Daylight is limited. Skin is less commonly on show, so people are even more in tune to runners wearing shorts. Running in groups is the safe option, and at the very least, with a phone and a backup plan. I’m not sure how many men have to think about all this before going for a run, but I know it’s a common thought-process for women. I’ve had friends not wanting to run back to their house for fear of revealing where they live to their pursuer. Friends who have worn leggings so as not to show more skin than necessary. Friends who have stopped running and gone into their corner shop to see whether they were being followed, or it was merely paranoia. Friends who have run on the treadmill to avoid running outside, where they are more vulnerable.
You get the point. I don’t know what the solution is, but something needs to change. And I’m hoping that by speaking about it & opening up the conversation, it will gradually decrease and no longer be so prevalent – in running but also everyday life.
I hope you’ve found this post insightful and, if you have your own experience that you’d like to share, feel free to DM me.