As a female runner, harassment is something Ive come to expect from the car that sounds its horn when I choose to run in a sports bra and shorts, the white van that follows me on a quiet residential road and the delivery driver who purposely swerves to splash me with a puddle. Like getting a blister from a new pair of running shoes, harassment is something I go out of my way to avoid, but have learnt to accept.
In the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard, I, like many other female runners, took a long, deep breath. Weve already got the apps on our phones, we already choose well-lit paths, we already know to keep our keys close to hand should we need to use them as a weapon. And we know that, sometimes, this just isnt enough.
In partnership with Womens Health, we at Runners World have launched the Reclaim Your Run campaign, with the aim of raising awareness of, and reducing, the harassment and endangerment women experience while running. Together, we asked over 2,000 runners to tell us about their experience of harassment and from being masturbated at, to catcalled, to physically assaulted, the responses speak for themselves: a large number of female runners do not feel safe on the streets. Worryingly, 60 per cent of the women surveyed said they have been harassed when running, 25 per cent reported being regularly subjected to sexist comments or unwanted sexual advances and 6 per cent said they had felt threatened to such an extent by harassment while running that they feared for their lives.
Here, we share the responses of 50 women, who tell their stories of harassment while running:
Karen: I have been fat-shamed on more than one occasion and Im not the person who can shout back or take it on the chin. It really upsets me. I dont want to show people that this is the case, so I keep on going, crying as I go or when I get back.
Anon: Im on edge when Im running. I assess the environment for escape routes or hiding places. I use location tracking on WhatsApp. I feel more relaxed in the morning, but after the commute rush. Even in summer, I dont like to run after 5pm even if its light, it just feels uncomfortable. I wear extra-long shorts in summer, as I dont want to draw attention to myself. I also bought baggy T-shirts.
Chloe: As a woman who runs, I find unsolicited attention very stressful, even if it isnt overtly sexual, aggressive or abusive. There is a constant feeling of being observed, critiqued and being on the receiving end of unhelpful and unsolicited advice from people.
Jo: Nowhere is safe. Not even the gym. If youre female and moving, youre a target and if youre female and not moving, youre a target.
Molly: Whenever I run outside, I put my phone and my drivers license in a pocket. My phone so that if something happens, I could still call someone. My licence, so that if something bad happens, they could identify my body and let my family know.
Caitlin: I constantly fear for my safety as a female runner. I have changed my scenic routes for more well-trodden routes to keep myself safe.
Dee: I never run with music because I was followed once over 10 years ago now and ever since, Im nervous about anyone behind me. Id rather run in silence and be aware if someone is nearby.
Cat: Every run, I wear my hair up so it cant be grabbed and I hold my keys between my fingers for defence. Misogyny and street harassment needs to be criminalised. It stops so many women from feeling safe in their local areas. Ive been told by many women that its knocked their confidence to run and by some new runners that it made them question whether to start at all.
This is something that has been completely overlooked by the government in lockdown being forced to run alone or not being able to travel very far to run in a safe space is elitist, not everyone has somewhere safe they can run from their doorstep. Lockdown highlighted this issue for me and has made it so much worse.
Ive started a blog talking and writing interviews about womens experiences on it. It seems that weve all been brought up to avoid the danger, but never is the stress placed on not becoming the danger. There needs to be serious reform in how we treat women and girls as they experience a disproportionate amount of public sexual harassment. It IS a gendered issue. Perpetrators need to be dissuaded from seeing this as casual behaviour or banter. France, for example, has criminalised gender-based harassment. It may not be easy to police, but government recognition is the first step to changing public outlook on the topic.
I want my nieces to be able to grow up feeling safe to run outside whenever they want, not put it off for years, as I did.
Holly: Ive been spat on and had rubbish thrown at me while running.
Rachel: I was hit over the head by two youths on bikes. It was dark, but I was running on a busy, well-lit road. I was so shocked. I yelled back at them, might have told them to f*** off. I'm not sure where it came from, I was just so surprised and angry. I thought about calling the police, but I didnt in the end. I just never ran on that road again.
Alice: I feel anger. Anger that men think its OK to harass women. Sometimes I shout back through anger, sometimes I run quicker through anger. I try not to let it affect my choice of run route, but I have changed roads before to avoid certain cars. I will never let them stop me from running or wearing shorts.
Anna: When I tell people about these issues the general response is that I should change my habits. I dont think its right that women should have to change their actions because men are harassing them. It makes me feel like its my fault.
Gemma: I would usually just ignore car horns and catcalls, but on one particular occasion I was waiting to cross a busy road when a man in a white van slowed right down, wound his window down and shouted, You fat c**t. I was just gobsmacked.
Yasmin: The whole reason I run is for my mental health. I am a survivor of sexual assault and I started running after my attack. When I feel in danger or intimidated on a run, it takes the meaning of the run away from me because Im back to feeling scared.
Chloe: Women are entitled to take up space in this world and we should be able to exercise without fear and without experiencing lewd comments meant to intimidate us! It's infuriating and scary.
Coren: A man grabbed my arm. I screamed because I was scared about what he might do. Luckily, it was outside a busy station at rush hour, so another man intervened and told the offender to back off.
Ellie: Safe spaces for women to exercise have been taken away during the lockdown. Most of my female friends dont feel comfortable running alone in the dark, so we run together, but theres limited daylight in the winter and it makes it really hard to stay active and feel safe.
Emily: Im extremely conscious running late at night and am in a constant state of vigilance analysing men around me, listening for people following or watching for shadows behind me. I feel very vulnerable running in the evenings but its my favourite time to run
Anon: Once, a man stopped and crawled along in traffic to mime moving breasts at me. There was a man running towards me who didnt notice or receive any attention from the driver. The driver only moved when other cars started to beep at him.
Helen: I was being followed by a car. I didn't know where the nearest police station was, so I ran into a shop and waited there until I was sure they had gone; then I walked home. I checked the position of the local police stations when I got home. I stopped running for a while after that incident, and when I started again, I ran with my partner until I felt comfortable running alone again.
Emily: I was followed by a man in a van while running, in daylight, in a residential area that borders rural land. The van kept coming up close, stopping, driving away, waiting ahead. I felt very threatened. The van then pulled in opposite me and I feared the driver was going to get out. I think he was masturbating. My home was only a few minutes away. When I got home, my husband, who is a police officer, advised that I call the police, partly as it was strange that a van is cruising around slowly. It turns out he was a dangerous man and had threatened others. The police took action, and he was charged with a string of offences. I was very scared to run for a while. I still get frightened when I see men on their own and I feel very vulnerable. It made me realise how easy it would be for someone to harm me when out running. In lockdown (three years later) I ran on a lot of rural routes and felt I was less scared, but I dont think anyone should be complacent; runners really need to trust their gut.
Jennifer: I wear baggier clothing and only run certain routes when alone or when its dark. All this is in the hope of avoiding unsolicited sexual attention/comments, even though, realistically, I should be able to run alone on any street I like, wearing whatever is comfortable, and expect to do so without harassment. I also wear headphones whenever alone so that I can remain oblivious. The onus should be on the harasser to change their behaviours rather than on me to change my own habits.
Maddy: I often get comments about running in shorts, so now I usually wear 3/4 lengths or full tights when I run around my neighbourhood. I dont wear headphones anymore because Im scared that I wont hear someone coming up behind me. I dont run in the park at certain times because I know people drink in the evenings and will make horrible comments. I make sure I have a guy friend to run with me home from training because I run through a dodgy part of town, where Ive been catcalled in the past.
Charlotte: I'm shocked that it's something we have to go through. It's not always the dangerous aspect of being harassed and beeped at, it's the humiliation having to analyse where I jog to avoid a bunch of builders outside, crossing the road when there's a parked car and focusing on how I look while jogging to avoid being laughed at is horrible! If I jog in the daytime, its safer but Im more seen. if I jog at night, I feel very scared something worse will happen. I'll continue to put my music on loud and try and focus solely on running I don't want to ever have to stop running.
Emma: It frustrates me that as a woman I can't just go for a run. With young children, the evening is very often the only time I can go. I want to get out but to have these additional concerns is a genuine irritation to me. It seems that men just don't have to engage in this thought process at all if they want to run, whereas, as a woman, I experience that vulnerability every time I go out alone.
Ashleigh: I once got followed by a car that kept passing and shouting sexist comments. The car kept turning around and doing it again and again. I ran off the street down an alley that was pedestrianised even though it wasnt my route, and I didnt know where it would go. I waited until they had moved on, then I walked home.
Dawn: I run without headphones, so I am always aware of what is going on around me. I tell people where I am going or allow them to track me on Strava. I dont enjoy running alone in the dark because Ive been filmed when running before. This fear has seeped into walking in the dark, too previously, I would walk to and from the station early in the morning and late in the evening, but I am now much more aware of being vulnerable, plus the pandemic means fewer people are around. My sister has had experiences of being filmed, yelled at and harassed on runs, so she no longer goes running. It infuriates me that people think it is acceptable to harass others while they are minding their own business out running.
Jo: If Ive got my male partner with me, it's just men name-calling/telling me Im fat, ugly, need to go on a diet and that hes taking the dog for a walk from their vans or bikes. If Im by myself, its that, plus unwanted sexual advances, groups trying to surround me and just talk to me or if Im in the gym, cornering me on the stairs to tell me Im too fat to be there and I should go away and eat a salad. Its worse when there is more than one man and the anger/deliberately scaring me is far more likely in that situation. Theyre bigger than me, stronger than me and faster than me, whether on foot or in a vehicle.
Francesca: I consider my safety when running, plan where I run and avoid areas that could have potential dangers. I never run with headphones, as I want to be aware of whats going on around me at all times. I run past many women who wear headphones who are alarmed when I pass. Its great that they feel so safe. I dont think they are.
Phoebe: Its exhausting having to constantly be on guard when running. I can never run past a man, building site or van without expecting to be catcalled, whistled or shouted at. It is something to be expected now. Im not scared to shout back, but it should never have to come to that. I know so many women who are put off for fear of having comments about their size, weight or how they look. Running should be something to enjoy, not something to think twice about because the wrong people look at you.
Kate: I usually ignore comments (I get a lot of hellos or comments about my body) or run faster past people who stand in my way, but once I was out running in winter after work when it was dark (but relatively busy), and a man tried to talk to me. When I sidestepped around him to dodge him, he grabbed my arm to stop me because he wanted to talk to me, and I was being rude. I pulled my arm away and threatened to call the police if he ever touched me again. He called me a snobby bitch and a c-word in return, as he was only being friendly. I wish Id requested the CCTV and reported it now, although its unlikely anything would happen. This was nearly three years ago. Nothing as bad has happened since, but I always remember it.
Robyn: I was once on a run that sticks with me. It was only about 6km around a route I took regularly. It was about 7 pm and dark outside. The route was mainly main roads in Islington, London. During the 25-minute run, I had four separate people make comments at me. One was an older man on his own who wolf-whistled. I ignored it. Then two younger guys stood in my way deliberately, like playing chicken, which was intimidating. I told them to f*** off and carried on running, as there were other people around, which made me feel as though I could rely on safety in numbers. And finally, someone shouted something about my legs or appearance at me. I ran home but stopped running at night for a while. I also posted about it on social media and a lot of people suggested wearing baggy clothes or running with headphones to drown it out. Horrible.
Pippa: When I run, I go into my own world. When someone catcalls, it is a real shock it makes me lose my concentration, focus and enjoyment for running. So, if I am catcalled, I've found I've often ended up finishing a run earlier or taking a different route back so I can shorten my run because it sucks the enjoyment out of it.
Mary: I was followed by a guy on a bike. He sped up behind me and pushed me as I ran. I screamed and he carried on going. I continued my run and he looped around the estate, coming behind me once again. This time he pushed me to the ground as I ran. Once again, I screamed and shouted and hit out at him. He sped off once more, I changed my route and headed home as quickly as possible. My run was in the dark on an evening but along a street-lit estate. I dont run alone in the dark anymore. I also once had handfuls of eggs thrown at me from a van as I ran through town alone.
Michelle: Its really sad that women feel they cant run at particular times or places. I would love to be able to go and listen to music while running without looking over my shoulder and having to plan my route point by point. I wish people would realise how serious an issue this is, it shouldnt be about women staying safe, it should be men learning not to harass!
Kat: I only ran in just a sports bra once on a hot day, crossing a busy road, and felt very uncomfortable about white vans honking me. I usually wear a vest, even if it is really warm. When running with my running club with three male runners, a dog walker shouted, Dont worry, you can keep up with them, darling. The runner I was with thought it was really sexist.
Sophie: Women shouldnt feel the need to wear baggier clothing while running or have to avoid certain run routes. Men need to be educated from a young age that catcalling is immature, threatening and not acceptable. The burden needs to be on men to teach each other, not for women to have to normalise this behaviour and just cope with it.
Charlotte: I run less outside because Im scared.
Athene: I ran faster when a group of men at a bus stop made sexual comments at my appearance. I ran faster when I saw an old man rubbing himself as I stopped at the red light to cross the road on my run. I ran faster and ignored a man when he tried to get my number during a run.
Hannah: I think harassment has increased during the pandemic, I don't know if this is because we are all out in the same (limited) local places more, so there is more opportunity to be harassed, or because people are more anxious and it comes out in strange ways, but it has definitely been much worse.
Caitlin: I think its something women think about a lot more than men, I think it's just something women have to consider when planning a route, when men simply dont. My partner has never told me a route hes going out to run or change the time of day or route due to lighting. Im not so much fearful, just something I always consider.
Katy: I recently felt I had to make a quick decision to shorten and re-route my very early morning run in a poorly lit area of my local town, around a pond/lake. I felt I was being watched and followed by a man in dark clothing who was on a pushbike and wearing a full-face balaclava. He had no lights on his bike and was behaving suspiciously, initially stationary and then cycling towards me, then stopping and watching me pass before turning and slowly following me at a short distance, then turning back and cycling very quickly around the opposite side of the pond, as if to circle around and cut me off. I wear a chest light so I switched it off so that he couldn't track me so easily. I felt very nervous and unsafe and ran very fast to get to the main road and into the well-lit main street before he could reach me. Since then, I always ensure that I tell my husband the route I'm taking and when to expect me back. I've even looked up whether I can carry pepper spray but have learnt that it is not legal to do so. If I need to run in the dark now, I do try to stick to the lit streets of our small town and take my dog with me, but it is limiting and gets a little boring. I have also experienced catcalling from passing men, usually in vans, which makes me feel uncomfortable.
Tessa: The experience I remember the most clearly was when I was running one of my usual routes and a group of lads in a car slowed down and rolled down their window and shouted, Get those knees up you fat f***. Because I was running on the path by the side of the main road through town, I diverted course to go through a more residential area, as I thought the lads were probably cruising and would pass me again. I'm not particularly concerned about my weight, I'm a size 12, but this was still really upsetting. I didn't run that route for a long time afterwards, and I have never worn the top I was wearing since. It's a nice top. Gutting, really, when I think about it.
Stacey: The unwanted attention makes me feel uncomfortable. I dont receive this kind of attention when Im training in the gym, so why is it acceptable when Im running outdoors. We rarely hear of men being catcalled so what makes it acceptable for women? My body shape doesnt necessarily lend itself to running, but Im out there and Im working on me and my confidence to run, but the unwanted attention really knocks me sometimes. My partner doesnt particularly like me running in the area I live in, due to safety concerns, but owing to Covid restrictions, Im unable to travel to nicer areas to feel more comfortable, or even to be able to run with him. Im stuck I either drive myself mad by not leaving the house or chose to follow routes I know there is a lot of traffic and avoid dodgy routes/places where possible.
Sarah: I run to relax, to switch off, to be free. Many places in London seem scary or risky, especially in winter when its dark, which defeats the whole point of running. How in 2021 is this still a thing? We should be able to run freely.
Lauren: I've never confronted the people harassing me, I usually ignore them completely, as if I haven't heard or I will give them a stern look, as if to say That's not acceptable. I now live in Denmark and in the year that I've been living and running here, Ive only been harassed twice. I say that like its OK and I know it's not. When I lived in Croydon, South London, it was incredibly rare to go for a run and not get some form of negative attention. I think on almost every run some builders or van drivers would shout at me or beep their horn. The worst incident was the Croydon Council bin collectors while on duty at 7 am shouting and laughing at me as they drove past.
Jill: There are two times l really felt for my safety; one when a man came up from behind and dropped his trousers; the second time was when a man bolted out of a cafe when Id stopped running and asked me if Id like a lift in his car. He didnt take the rejection well, but soon shot off when he saw my husband come up and asked what the hell he was doing.
Kiera: I was out for a lunchtime run on a weekday, running through a local green space. I passed two men walking two abreast with a dog and felt a slap/elbow/hit on the back of my right shoulder. I turned around, assuming Id failed to see someone I knew, and was faced with a man yelling at me that I needed to be two metres away (I had not touched him, and he could quite easily have also stopped if he felt uncomfortable passing at that point on the path). I was honestly shocked, and I couldnt believe that Id just been physically assaulted, so I reacted out of instinct telling him that I had as much right to be on that path as he did. He continued to viciously yell at me for another 20 seconds or so but I did not hear the content, as I had my headphones in. Despite being shaken, I decided to carry on with my run and hill sprints as planned. I was determined not to let him get the better of me and thought it may help dissipate some of the shock. After, when I got home, I rang some loved ones. I still find it hard to believe that I, as a 30-year-old woman who was clearly visible (wearing an unnecessarily pink florescent top in the middle of the day), got physically and verbally abused in broad daylight. Im sure if I had been male or had a male with me that the situation would have been different.
Rachel: I have noticed as a woman running during the pandemic that men are less likely to move to one side to make space for me on the pavements to ensure social distancing. I have been forced to jump into doorways or go into the road by men who insist on walking or running in the middle of the pavement, without making space for me to pass safely. When I occasionally run with my fianc, we do not face the same issues. Some men have actually stared me down as they refused to move. I have also had at least two instances where I have been harassed for wearing running shorts. In one instance, a man on a tube escalator tried to take a picture up my shorts. My fianc caught him and made him delete the photo.
Natalie: One time I yelled back. This caused my harassers to circle back in their car and further harass me from inside their car. I was heading home, but I didnt want to go inside as theyd know where I lived so I kept going. It wasnt until I took out my phone and took a photo of their license plate that they sped off. I did it because, for one, it scared the hell out of me when they yelled at me going by. It startled me. I was mad. Im sick and tired of feeling like I am asking to be yelled at; Im sick and tired of feeling unsafe when I run. Id rather run in the woods alone in the dark I am less afraid of wild animals than unpredictable male predators.
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50 female runners share their stories of catcalling, harassment and abuse - Runner's World (UK)