“Running While Female,” and The Comforting Lie of Safety

Runners across the nation recently emerged from the warm haze of endorphins to express shock and disbelief that 43 percent of women runners have reported being harassed while running

The statistic came from a Runner’s World online survey—in which I participated—about how safe runners feel on the road.

As surveys go, this one was particularly skewed (if Donald Trump were a runner, he’d be yelling that it was rigged). It was conducted while the running community was freshly spooked over the murders of three women who were running when they were attacked. We were all scared in September, and many of us still are, since none of the murderers have been caught.

When Runner’s World crunched the data and filed its report, however, it was sexual harassment that came to the forefront. “Running While Female” highlighted the boorish behavior that many women encounter while they run, particularly if they’re young and pretty. One twenty-five-year-old from Boston recalled a man saying “mmm hmmm,’ like he was salivating over a steak.”

In the aftermath of the piece, men (and some older women runners) expressed shock that sexual harassment was so pervasive, and vowed to help. “Men must own this issue and create a safe environment for women everywhere,” one man wrote.

At first glance, this is a wonderful sentiment, the idea that decent men everywhere will form a sort of protective barrier around women who run, keeping us safe from the minority of bad guys who threaten us. I want to believe that the guy who approaches me—or passes me—has got my back, and will watch out for me with the sharp eye of a mother who sees an unaccompanied child in a park and immediately goes on high alert for another’s offspring.

Unfortunately, even male runners get scared sometimes, as we learned from the two guys who ran away from a clown.

But it’s even more misguided to believe that we can create a safe environment for women everywhere.

The fact is, it’s not a safe planet. It’s not safe for rabbits or cows or gazelles, or for women or men. This is a truth that Western societies have beautifully concealed with antibiotics, airbags and security systems, and so it’s always upsetting when a murder or a survey suggests that we’ve been comforting ourselves with a lie.

Yes, it is disturbing that so many women runners are harassed; that they do not feel safe; that they are, in fact, not safe, as the tragic deaths of Alexandra Brueger, Karina Vetrano and Vanessa Marcotte remind us.

It’s easy to ride around with our Coexist bumper stickers and assume that we ought to be safe, but nature laughs at the concept. A rabbit doesn’t have the “right” to be safe while sitting exposed in a field. Should humans? The inherent brutality of the world, which theologians and philosophers have grappled with for thousands of years, has been papered over so much that we believe safe is the default and become outraged when it becomes clear that it’s not. That’s our bad.

We are not safe, none of us, and we become less safe when we start to believe that we are.

We are not safe when we run in big, noisy cities. We are not safe when we run down quiet, rural roads. We are not safe when we run down a public path accompanied by two children—one of whom who is eleven years old. We are not even safe while running in an organized marathon—witness the woman who was attacked by a bear in the midst of a marathon in New Mexico in June.

As a runner who hasn’t ventured on my favorite wooded trail since Vanessa Marcotte was found dead, I don’t celebrate this. Nor do I excuse the verbal harassment that assaults not just women runners, but all runners. (I’m looking forward to equally indignant reports on Running While Fat, Running While Slow, and Running While Old.)

But the Runner’s World survey, and the recent deaths, remind us that yes, good people should have each other’s backs; it’s also a good idea to carry a handful of sand or a can of mace when you are out running alone.

But we should also never forget that we live in a world with both boors and bears—and for that matter, the biggest bad guy of all—cars. Because the biggest danger that runners face is not harassment or murder. It’s getting run over by a car. More runners are killed by cars than strangers. There have been at least two deaths in recent weeks—one in Texas, one in New Jersey—and just yesterday, a jogger was hit in Georgia.

The solution for all of these problems is the same: Get off the roads and onto a track or well-traveled park or rail trail. If you must run on a road, go with a friend, wear orange, and be prepared to defend yourself.

And never, ever believe you are safe.

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  • patriarchal landmine

    men are significantly more at risk of all forms of violent crime.

    women are pathetic cowards.

    • The solution for all of these problems is the same: Get off the roads and onto a track or well-traveled park or rail trail. If you must run on a road, go with a friend, wear orange, and be prepared to defend yourself.

  • steve bourg

    Talk about seeing the ‘big picture’ — such a SMART article and perfectly written with its grammar and punctuation ! YOU GO GIR…..oops, not PC, almost descended to sexism.

  • Micha_Elyi

    One twenty-five-year-old from Boston recalled a man saying “mmm hmmm,’ like he was salivating over a steak.”

    Meanwhile, twenty-five fifty-year olds from Boston complained that they were “sexually invisible” and ragged on men for that too.

    I no longer bother to ‘understand’ females. Females understand females and they hate each other.

    • Some Guy

      Females don’t understand females. Look at feminism. You get a different definition and degree of application depending on whom you talk to about it.

  • Paul Hacker

    “Hand full of sand”?? I suggest a ‘hand full of S&W’ instead.

  • silvermount

    Good article, well written

  • oscarbravo1

    Stop being victims. Take a martial art where you actually spar. Learn to defend yourself.

    • Vizzini

      You’re buying into the “kick-ass women” myth. Even fit, well-trained women are at a huge disadvantage against even an average man in physical combat. A woman serious about defending herself carries a gun, the true equalizer.

      • oscarbravo1

        Actually I am not buying into that myth at all. Yeah, I know they are at a physical disadvantage. I am not proposing they fight a fair fight or even fight much at all. A handful of keys in the hands of someone who knows how to throw a punch can cause a lot of damage. They just need to do enough quick damage to be able to get away. All they have to do is make the criminal think twice…most criminals intentionally go after those who they perceive as victims who are easy prey. Don’t be easy prey. As for carrying a gun, if they have a victim’s mindset, that gun will do them more harm than good. It will get taken away from them and used against them.

        • Vizzini

          It will get taken away from them and used against them.

          From:

          http://www.forbes.com/sites/larrybell/2012/02/21/disarming-the-myths-promoted-by-the-gun-control-lobby/2/#776a4f0623ab

          Whereas gun control proponents often argue that having a gun put people at risk because a criminal will take it away and use it against them, it seems the reality is more often to be the reverse situation. The Cato data contains only 11 stories out of 4,699 where a criminal took a gun away from a defender, but 277 where the intended victim disarmed the bad guy, although the authors acknowledge that these event reports may be printed more frequently due to newsworthiness.

          • oscarbravo1

            If you think I am a gun control proponent, you are very much mistaken.

  • Vizzini

    Maybe if the reporter had bothered to do some research and answer the questions: are assaults on female runners going up, down, or holding even. How do they compare to assaults on male runners? To the population in general?

    But doing reseach is hard. Whining emotionalistically is all too easy.

    Oh, and “mmm hmmm’ is a compliment.

  • AlCarn

    There’s a huge difference between a runner being the target of a cat call and a runner being raped or murdered. To lump them together is not right. My guess is the vast majority of those that responded to the survey considered themselves harassed because some man yelled out something they perceived as rude and aggressive. Although this may be unwanted it is not an attack. In most cases it’s probably some misguided young man that’s thinks it’s a great way to get the attention of a pretty girl.

    Hiding makes little sense. They chances of being attacked are small but are greatly exaggerated by a media that needs to get your attention to sell their product. That said, it’s always smart to run with a friend, be aware of your surroundings (quit wearing headphones; that’s really dangerous) and carry a weapon of some sort such as pepper spray.

    • Johnathan Swift Jr.

      One is boorish behavior, the other is a murderous predator, too very different things. I suspect the serial killers out there have never drawn that type of attention to themselves. They seem to pass without notice most of the time until their nefarious deeds are discovered.

  • RAYTUS

    The sexy outfits I see on some chicks look painted on.

  • DoctorSeuss

    I’m a runner, and just for the record, the cat-call thing doesn’t only happen to women.

    When I run in the summer, and it’s brutally hot, I sometimes run with no shirt. More than once I’ve been whistled at, or gotten a “Haayyyy” from other men.

    Yeah, it’s awkward, but whatever. Some people are like that… just keep running.

    • MPH

      And it isn’t just men that do it. I had a friend on college that would run shirtless, and he got cat-calls and wolf-whistles from women frequently.

  • Pave Low John

    If you’re worried about your safety as a runner, male or female, here are the steps you take:

    1) Enroll in a CCW class at your nearest sheriff’s office

    2) Purchase a light, easily concealable pistol that you can wear while running

    3) Conduct regular practice with your pistol so that your skills don’t atrophy over time.

    This isn’t a 100% guarantee that you’ll be safe, but it’s the best solution to an age-old problem.

    Bottom-line: If you’re talking self-defense and not mentioning firearms, you’re not serious about self-defense (and that comes from a guy who did BJJ for a decade…)

    • Kathy Leicester

      AMEN.

  • Joseph Pickett

    I read about that sad case in NYC where that very fit and attractive woman went running alone in a desolate area and was raped and murdered. She was very strong and fit, and yet, a guy was able to drag her off into the bushes and kill her. It was clear that she fought fiercely and still lost.

    I run a lot, and I don’t know as a woman if I’d want to run alone. One thing I see too much of are young attractive women running half naked to show off their bodies. That’s what the woman in NYC was doing, and well, it didn’t work out so well…..look in a perfect world, an attractive woman should be able to run around mostly naked on the street and not be bothered But that’s not our world.

    • Charlotte Aines

      You forgot the earbuds

      • Johnathan Swift Jr.

        People used to walk or run to think, not to be entertained, which we can be at home. Know your surroundings, watch, look, listen.

    • Johnathan Swift Jr.

      Young women seem to live an almost schizoid existence these days. One one hand we have the hook-up culture, people who barely know each other having relations, then the desire to be admired and attract men, which causes then to wear clothing that is often as revealing as something in a strip club.

      On the other hand there is the third wave feminist desire to do away with men, especially the white men, their hatred of men and everything male. Then there is the boorish behavior that is a small part men being attracted to women, especially when they choose to display their wares by wearing nearly nothing.

      The irony is that it isn’t the cat calling construction worker that women runners have to really worry about, it is the quiet, deadly predator, who often passes without notice, like man who just kidnapped the couple and killed the man, while making a captive of the poor woman. The predators wait for an opportunity, in a lonely place most of the time.

      Many people have the illusion of safety but it is just that, we ALL need to be awake and aware.

    • Kathy Leicester

      Learn how to shoot and carry a Glock 17 while you run.

  • Charlotte Aines

    My recommendations, carry something like the spikey tool and learn how to use it … http://www.spikeyhand.com, and don’t run with headphones on. Be aware of your surroundings

  • RichardAubrey

    I used to run on country roads. When I overtook a woman–didn’t happen often, there not being many people out there–I would cough, scuff my feet, cough. Never failed, when I got to within about ten feet, the woman would start and gasp. And that was before earbuds were common. At least I never saw any. I wonder if any of those encounters were considered problematic. Situatonal awareness. Learn it, live it, love it.

    • Johnathan Swift Jr.

      Yes, ditch the freaking music. It isn’t only men that the infernal noise hides, but automobiles, trucks, cars and busses. Have a few thoughts perhaps.

      • Kathy Leicester

        Pack a weapon. I’ve run quite a ways with a pistol tucked next to my lower back, and mysteriously never got harassed. Works every time.

  • His Highness

    I do not believe that 43% of female runners have been sexually harassed any more than I believe the claim that 23% of college women have been raped.

    The only way you get to those numbers is by having an incredibly broad definition of harassment.

    • ToursLepantoVienna

      Harassment could be something relatively innocuous, like a whistle or hearing “lookin’ fiiiiine”. In poor taste perhaps, but hardly threatening.

      In our demented culture, that equates to being murdered in some people’s minds.

      • His Highness

        My belief is that all that a male should do for a female is open the door for them. Be polite.

        Of course, some call that harassment. If any were to glare at me for doing that, then I would invite them to go back so we can repeat the exercise, but this time with me slamming the door in their face.

        No, we shouldn’t whistle or, OMG, compliment their looks — though they spend much time on their looks.

    • Kathy Leicester

      Agree.

  • MPH

    I wonder how many women have been “harassed” while in their runner’s outfit, or something similar, while at the grocery store? I wonder what the “rate” of such harassment is? Like, on average, a woman runner gets X cat-calls/mile (or hour, or whatever), while running. But how does that compare to how many they get while not running. And do they count compliments by friends as “harassment”? Is some random guy saying “you’re looking good today” considered harassment, while the same statement from an acquaintance not? And if the source of the statement changes the perception of it, please explain why. I’m sorry, but while I am firmly in the camp of “it doesn’t matter how she was dressed, she didn’t deserve to be groped/raped/killed”, when you go out wearing a workout outfit that is barely more than a bra and panties, how could you possibly be so naive as to think that nobody will notice or comment? Are there not some women who do this SPECIFICALLY to be noticed? How are men supposed to tell the difference? Yet, when a woman went out in NYC wearing paint instead of pants (they looked like tight blue jeans), only one person appeared to notice, and no comments were made. Could it be that what you’re wearing has an impact? What’s the difference in other’s reactions based on clothing? Does wearing loose floppy sweat pants and shirt that don’t show off your figure reduce the harassment compared to a running outfit that resembles a women’s beach volleyball team’s uniform that barely covers what is needed to avoid arrest for indecent exposure?

    Want to run in safety? Get a treadmill and use it at home. Even then, you’re at risk of a home invasion. But you won’t get run over by a car, nor will you receive any harassment from people you don’t know. Find it boring? Watch some show you like that you’ve recorded on your DVR. Kill 2 birds with one stone: get your exercise, AND see your show. Now you’ve got an extra 30 minutes a day to do something else.

    • Central Scrutinizer

      MPH, Exactly. The hunk in accounting gives you “the look” and it makes your day. The schlub in the mail room gives you the same exact look and you’ve been harassed, demeaned and forced to eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

      • caradoc
  • charlesepperson

    The best thing anyone can do is be aware of their surroundings. If someone cannot come up on you unawares the risk plummets greatly. A weapon can help but you have to have enough time to bring it to bear so we come back to situational awareness.

    GET RID OF THE EARBUDS!!! Pay attention to where you are.

    • Johnathan Swift Jr.

      Yes, the headphones are an awful idea.

  • Kathy Leicester

    You know what, you had a great article going till you decided you had to interject a Trump slam. Cowardly, Chica. COWARDLY.

  • Kathy Leicester

    You know what, you had a great article going till you decided you had to interject a Trump slam. Cowardly, Chica. COWARDLY.

  • Robert What?

    Of course the question many of us want to know but are not allowed to ask is, what is the racial and ethnic breakdown of the assailants in most cases of harassment? We know one thing for certain: the majority are not white men. How do we know that? Because if that was the case it would be blasted all over the news media.

    • caradoc

      There was a film made by some SJWs a few years ago of a girl walking through the city and documenting all the catcalls and how awful and sexist men were. Not a single one of the men shown were white, and when it was pointed out, the filmmakers assured us there were lots of white guys doing it too but they “accidentally” forgot to add them in. Sure, that;s what happened.

      • Robert What?

        Yes, I remember that one.

  • peckerwood

    Forget the sand & mace and get a gun, learn how to use it safely and effectively (NRA courses are good) and get a concealed carry permit.

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  • Abu Nudnik

    Go to the park and watch the dogs.

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