According to a report from Running USA, the sport of running is dominated by women-nearly 63 percent of registered road racers in 2017 were female and about three quarters of them fell between the ages of 25 to 54. Running is a sport that spans age, race, social/economic status, language, and background. It is one of America's most accessible sports, and the market for road and trail racing/running continues to grow. Despite the diversity of its participants, most female runners do have at least one shared experience-being harassed.
A survey by Runner's World of over 4,500 runners (2,533 women and 2,137 men) found that 58% of women under 30 have experienced harassment while running. This is hardly surprising. Women are regularly subjected to aggressive and subtle harassment anywhere and everywhere-on the street, in the workplace, and even in the home. Unfortunately, part of learning to move through the world as a women is learning that harassment is normalized and goes largely unpunished. Whenever I've voiced a complaint about being harassed while running, common responses are "Brush it off," "Stop running alone," "Stop running," or my personal favorite, "What do you expect?"
I've taken self-defense classes, carried pepper spray, and avoided running outside in new places. None of this seems negative, until the script is flipped to men-are they encouraged to take self-defense classes in order to go for a run? Do they carry pepper spray, or avoid participating in a sport they love and enjoy? The burden of women's safety continually falls on our shoulders, while the men who perpetuate our unsafety slip beneath the radar, the existence of their harassment as true and normalized as the air we breathe and the water we drink.
People turn to running for different reasons-for stress relief, to stay in shape, to socialize, or to catch a few minutes of cherished alone time. Telling women we should not run alone is essentially telling us, "Do not run," under the guise of keeping us safe but in reality, keeping us inside. Inside, we are more easily controlled, we are not seen, our physical prowess is limited and hidden. Inside, we fulfill a certain expectation of domesticity and submissiveness. It is men who do the bulk of harassment, and men who do the bulk of concerned cautioning about the men who harass us. Sexism allows this strange dichotomy to exist-man as both violator and protector.
"Why don't you just run with someone then?" both men and women have queried. A few reasons: conflicting schedules and time constraints make it difficult to always run with someone. Sometimes, there is no one available who runs at the same pace, and sometimes, we simply need time away from everyone for some quietude, to mentally untangle a problem, or to lull our brains into meditation. It is a privilege to run, but it is a right to feel safe. This is the floor of feminism-the right of all women (and all people) to safety. Without safety, there can be no real or lasting attempt at equality. If one sex continually and violently asserts their power over the other we cannot begin to address the more nuanced gender disparities like income inequality, sexist language, or the division of household labor.
One of the most famous stories of a woman endangered while running was that of Karina Vetrano, a young women who went missing On August 2, 2016. The man who killed her, Chanel Lewis, was arrested and sentenced to life in prison on April 23, 2019. Vetrano was abducted less than a block away from her home in Queens, New York. She ran alone that day, despite the concerns of her father, her usual running partner, who was suffering from a back injury. This story brings me, and so many others, great sadness and pain.
In the aftermath of her disappearance, a handful of women went missing across the country, a story that continues to play out in myriad forms every day. From the woman who is catcalled, to the woman who is followed in a strange car, to the woman who decides to stay inside and run another day. We all could have been Karina, and she could just as easily have been us. I am not here to ignite any more fear than already exists. I'm here to point out that the problem with street harassment and violence burdens women unduly and unfairly. We are not the problem, yet we are tasked with defending ourselves as if we ought to expect to be violated.
I've said this millions of times, but it bears repeating: 1 in 6 American women report being sexually abused or assaulted. This might seem obvious, but women are not to blame for this, no matter what we are wearing, no matter what we are doing, no matter where we are or who we are with.
I know, you know, we all know that we live in a world in which women are targeted and abused, but we shouldn't have to. A man recently told me that sexism will never fully die, and he might be right. But he might also be perpetuating sexism in his belief that its infinite. The slow untangling of sexism is the only thing that will bring any of us closer to safety.
We are not heckled and catcalled and raped and attacked because our shoulders or stomach or ankles are showing. We are heckled and catcalled and raped and attacked because men feel validated in asserting dominance over someone or something, always. A woman running, joyful and free and utterly untethered is an easy target for a men looking to establish or reiterate his power. Further, those who warn us to stay inside where it is "safe," to cover our skin or carry pepper spray, may be well-intentioned, but fail to address the underlying issue: the strong, pulsing misogyny that normalizes violence against women.