Hit the headphones button above to listen to the full episode, where co-hosts Lucy, Georgie & Jess speak to women about their experiences and glean insights from researcher Dr David Hindley.
Harassment while running
Reports and recent events bring to the fore how harassment in public spaces is widespread and often normalised, and overwhelmingly affects women and girls.
This carries over to outdoor exercise and running, where women frequently encounter intimidating and inappropriate behaviour. It can be wolf-whistling, catcalling and kerb crawling; it can be sexual assault.
Women’s experiences and what the research tells us
A survey of 1,000 UK women conducted by Runner’s World in September 2020 found that 46% of women reported that they at least sometimes experience harassment on the run, compared with just 9% of men. With female runners reportedly facing increased levels of abuse and harassment while exercising alone in lockdown.
More and more women are coming forward, speaking out, and using their experiences to shed light on a pervasive problem. Including elite athlete, Sarah McDonald, who recounts her experience of being assaulted while training on a canal path in Birmingham, in this episode.
By speaking out, athletes and recreational runners are empowering women and individuals who experience harassment to challenge the behaviour and reclaim their run.
5 key takeaways from the harassment episode
It’s alarmingly ‘normal’
Women often face harassment in the form of unwanted attention and unsolicited comments whilst exercising outdoors – and have come to expect it.
Dr David Hindley, a Senior Lecturer in Sports Education at Nottingham Trent University and researcher in the area of running and harassment, spoke of a “weary normalisation” and the “pervasiveness” or “ingrained nature” of street harassment which has led runners to “describe themselves as kind of fair game.” “There was a kind of an expectation that they were going to experience some form of unwarranted attention.”
It’s rarely reported
Though widely experienced, most harassments go unreported, for a number of reasons including:
The misconception it’s harmless and just something runners have to put up with.
The wider societal narrative around blame that puts the victim at fault, rather than the perpetrator – placing the responsibility on victims to change their lives and their behaviours to stay safe.
The subtle and often fleeting nature of harassment which makes it difficult to substantiate or prove.
The debate around criminalisation and calls for street sexual harassment (verbal or physical) to be made a punishable criminal offence.
Women react by altering their running behaviours.
Female runners (often unknowingly) change their behaviors to avoid unwanted attention. Some fearful for their safety, stop running altogether.
Dr David Hindley describes how “women runners alter their behaviours and develop everyday habitual strategies in response to either their own lived experiences of harassment or the fear that they have that they will encounter harassment.”
These strategies include using headphones, “not to listen to music, but to create this illusion of separation.” Plus the timing of their run, their route choice (to avoid particular areas like pubs, schools or colleges), and the attire that they’ll wear.
Perhaps you recognise some of these behaviours? You may even do them automatically without thinking.
It’s a systemic issue
It’s clear that there’s no immediate, easy solution, because harassment is a systemic social issue.
It’s important to speak up and speak out
Having open and honest conversations about the problem is a good place to start. By calling-out negative and unacceptable behaviour and how it’s high-time it stops, individuals and collectives can drive cultural change. Such is the aim of initiatives like the Runner’s World Runners Alliance and This Mum Runs and Women’s Running#WeWill campaignwhich are committed to improving runner safety.
Dr David Hindley rightly states in the podcast that we should be able to live in a world “where anybody, regardless of their ability or disability or gender or sexuality… [can] go outside and exercise without any fear of judgement or any kind of unwarranted attention or harassment.”
This is unfortunately not the case in reality and whilst harassment persists as steps are taken to get us there, we would recommend that runners and non-runners follow the recently updated British Athletics Running Safety Guidelines. These offer guidance on staying safe while running – including how to react to and how to report negative behaviours if you encounter them during a run.
Among other things, the guidelines recommend that as a runner you:
Let someone know where you are likely to be running and also a likely time to return.
Download the What3Words app, especially if running in rural areas. (The app is used by emergency services to locate your exact position to within a 3 metre square.) It’s worth noting here that newer Garmin watches have a safety and tracking feature called Incident Detection & Assistance, which allows runners to quickly signal for help. When triggered or pressed, it sends your real-time location to emergency contacts (provided your device is paired with your phone on the run) which can provide extra peace of mind.
Resist the urge to react to or return negative behaviour encountered during a run as it can make the situation worse.
Report any incidents of negative behaviour to the relevant authority, to inform others as to where problems may be and help avoid repeat issues for runners.