July 18 2018
These women started running later than most but have proven runners of all ages can be successful.
It’s very common for people who have been or are being harassed to change their lives in some way. Before we’re old enough to be harassed regularly, girls in particular are told things like, “Don’t go out by yourself,” or, “Have a buddy.” There’s a study that came out in Australia that said that even just hearing about a woman being sexually assaulted in your area can make you feel less safe and can make you feel distressed or anxious.
When I was 12 or 13 years old, I went to my first cross country camp, with boys and girls. Girls and boys did everything together; except there was one session where we were separated. The head coach’s wife gave the girls a safety lecture and told us exactly the kinds of things that we’ve discussed. The one that always stuck with me is to not become predictable in your route and the times you run. She shared a personal story of running the same route every day, at the same time, and how a man figured out her schedule, waited for her and then attacked her. All these years later, I remember that story. I go running by myself mostly, so I don’t really listen to that, and sometimes I run at dusk…but I always change my schedule, I always change my route. It was very telling that the boys didn’t have to be there; the boys got to do something fun. It was very clear that this was a girl problem.
That’s exactly why I say street harassment is a form of gender inequality and a human rights violation. We don’t have the same rights and abilities and comfort levels of most men in public spaces. I hate that we feel like we have to do these things. It makes me mad that women feel like they have to [take these precautions] in the first place. I want women to be able to run at night or to run in a sports bra, to do whatever we want.
I wish there was a magic answer. Every situation is different, your comfort level is different, your personal history. If it’s a big group of men, I’m probably less likely to say something than if it’s one man. Or if it’s dark versus if it’s light. There are a lot of situational differences that may make me feel more comfortable saying something versus not. Ultimately, I want to tell women that whatever they decide to do is the right response. That said, I think that if responding helps you in that moment, then respond. So often women wish they could have said something, they wish they could have stuck up for themselves. I think that’s something that can be useful, and some phrases that you can say quickly are, “Back off, that’s harassment,” or “Don’t harass me.”
I know people are worried about escalation, but the truth is, you can ignore a harasser and he can still get upset. Or you could yell back and he could get upset. You don’t know how he’s going to respond. I do find that, whatever you do to surprise the harasser makes it the least likely that he’ll do something, because he’s too surprised. Often having some sort of response (not cursing, not getting really angry, not flipping them off–which are things that men tend to trigger back on), like saying, “Don’t harass me” or “Back off, I’m not interested” can be surprising because they won’t expect a response. In my experience, when I’ve said those kinds of things, guys will go completely silent, or I’ve even gotten apologies before. It definitely makes me feel better than the times when I’ve been quiet because I can’t think fast enough. My advice would be, first: however you decide to respond is fine. Second, figure out what makes you comfortable, because you ultimately don’t know what’ll work to get the guy to stop. But if you can get through the moment safely and in an empowered way, I would say that’s the goal.