Well Being

How To Respond To Street Harassment While Exercising

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I feel like 2013 has been a banner year for raising awareness about street harassment. With the work of Hollaback! and Stop Street Harassment, plus that of regular women and allies (like the photographer who captured the faces of men just after they catcalled her), that uncomfortable, cringe-worthy aspect that used to be considered an unchangeable part of being a woman or LGBTQ person is slowly changing. One thing that's still set in stone? Running or exercising in public, as a woman, is almost sure to garner street harassment.

Writing in The Guardian, Anna Hart discusses her complicated feelings about being a runner who is often subjected to street harassment. She loves running, she writes, but she hates the way it makes her feel when men make comments to her about her appearance. Does her husband have the same problem when he runs in public? No.

Meanwhile, my husband enjoys blissfully silent, commentary-free, meditative jogs on the same circuit on the same park – a depressing indication of how men and women still experience the world differently. Talk to any male runner about it – sure, they get the occasional dumb comment from a group of teenagers or a drunk, but nothing like what women get every time we go outside, especially in running shorts.

I don't run often, but when I do, I'm achingly aware of every man I pass. I can't count the number of times I've been beeped at, whistled at, or otherwise had my body commented on when I'm running. I usually ignore street harassment, look straight ahead and keep going, although I have on more than a few occasions given someone the finger once their back was turned (Never where they could see it, because who knows how they might react? It's risky to react in a negative way, so I'm always scared if I shoot a dirty look or flash the bird).  Hart suggests that perhaps we're past the point of ignoring street harassment, especially while exercising:

But is ignoring these remarks really the best strategy? I’ve been a runner for 10 years now, and I don’t think the heckling is getting any milder. If anything, it’s more explicitly sleazy in nature. And I’m getting close to feeling that I can’t rely on running to improve my mood, because I might come back furious at the injustice of everyday sexism.

So, Hart decides to use one of the laps of her run to talk to other joggers and see how they respond to harassment. One woman listens to an iPod so she doesn't even hear the comments at all. One runs in a mixed-gender running group so perpetrators won't feel comfortable singling her out of a group that includes men.

Hart herself writes that she's joined a running group and now runs with music. But she also recounts a recent story, where she actually talks back to a man who made a sexual comment to her on her run.  There doesn't seem to be one method for either preventing or responding to street harassment while you're exercising; Music will work for some people, ignoring will work for some people, exercising in a group or with a partner might also be a good option. You should always run with a phone, so you can easily call 911 or a friend or family member if you feel unsafe in any situation. You can also use a phone to report a harasser right there on the spot.

If you'd like more ideas for ways to respond to street harassment, either while you are exercising or just going about your daily life, I recommend the “Assertive Responses” and “Creative Responses” sections of the StopStreetHarassment website.

How do you respond to street harassment, catcalls, unwanted comments etc while you're running or exercising?

Photo: Flickr user MikeBaird