We know that sexual harassment is an all-too-common experience for many women in gym settings, but what exactly can we do about it? Writer Victoria Stokes speaks to the gymmers who have taken matters into their own hands.
“I always breathe a tiny sigh of relief when I walk into the free weights section of my gym and spot another woman there,” says Rachel*, a 32-year-old gym-goer who has experienced leering and catcalling while working out. “I somehow feel safer knowing it’s not just me and a bunch of testosterone-fuelled men inhabiting that space.
“Being around other women in the gym doesn’t stop the unwanted comments or the staring, but it certainly feels like an extra layer of protection.”
Like Rachel, leering, unwanted advances and inappropriate comments about our bodies have become part and parcel of working out for many women. According to a recent study, 60% of women have felt harassed by a man while working out and two in five have avoided the gym because men made them feel uncomfortable.
Some of the most common complaints include being stood too close to or brushed up against, receiving patronising or lewd comments and being followed. Sexual harassment can also include more serious offences like stalking and flashing too.
What should your gym be doing to protect you?
If you’ve been on the receiving end of any of these behaviours, it can be difficult to know what to do about it. You might dismiss your experiences as something women simply have to “put up with” or fear that by filing a complaint, you’ll be seen as “making a fuss”. Perhaps you worry that if you were to report it, your claim wouldn’t be taken seriously.
According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), a global health and fitness association that represents gyms, your gym should have policies and procedures in place to protect you.
An IHRSA representative tells Stylist that, ideally, gyms should have:
- Established a strong, detailed written policy regarding sexual harassment
- Internal procedures for receiving and investigating complaints
- A commitment to take complaints seriously and investigate them immediately, following swift corrective action if the complaint is substantiated
You should be able to find details of your gym’s specific policy on sexual harassment by consulting your contract or speaking with a member of staff. Some clubs publish their policy online too.
What to do if you experience harassment at the gym
Confront the perpetrator, if it’s safe to do so and you feel comfortable
Communicating that the behaviour is unwelcome and must stop can, in some cases, be enough to bring an end to unwelcome advances.
Michelle*, 27, was growing increasingly uncomfortable with a man who was constantly invading her personal space during spin class. “I think he thought he was just being playful, but he’d often stand too close to me or reach out and touch my arm in the middle of class. Once, he even put a hand on my hip while he was bending over to pick something up off the floor,” she explains.
“I simply told him, quite loudly so that others in the class could hear, that I felt uncomfortable and wasn’t OK with him touching me. He apologised profusely and seemed really embarrassed. Fortunately, he hasn’t done anything like that to me since.”
If you are choosing to take this approach, be sure to do so in a safe space where there are other people and only when you aren’t in any immediate danger.
Report it to gym management
Most gyms should have procedures in place for reports of sexual harassment. “Procedures for conducting an investigation typically come down to interviewing the victim – or complainant – first, then any witnesses, and finally, the alleged harasser, and requesting confidentiality at the end of each interview,” the IHRSA tells Stylist.
What happens next? “Employers who find the alleged harasser guilty should discipline the guilty party as indicated by their policy,” the IHRSA explains. “Punishment can range from verbal and written warnings to formal reprimands, suspension, transfer, probation, demotion or dismissal. The nature of the offence should dictate the punishment.”
Before reporting, it might be helpful to gather evidence, such as recording the date, time, and nature of each offence. Many gyms have CCTV and require membership cards to enter, which can provide an element of traceability too.
What about the other women at your gym? Have they experienced similar from the perpetrator? Or have they noticed them behaving inappropriately with you? Having others who can substantiate your experience can strengthen your claim.
Seek out female staff members
While it’s helpful to know that most gyms have procedures in place for these kinds of reports, relaying your experience to a stranger can still feel pretty scary and uncomfortable.
Rachel, who routinely experienced catcalling from a group of men at the gym, sought out a female supervisor to make a report.
“I had this idea in my head that my complaint would be taken less seriously by a man, so that’s why I chose to speak to a woman,” Rachel explains. “I felt a woman was more likely to escalate my complaint and would probably be able to relate to my experience.”
After making her complaint, the gym issued a warning to the perpetrators and made them aware that further complaints would lead to their memberships being revoked.
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“They also sent around an email to all members reiterating that inappropriate behaviour of any kind would not be tolerated,” Rachel adds.
“All in all, I was very happy with the way the gym handled my complaint. I think the Me Too movement has made people more aware of sexual harassment and companies know they need to act.”
Take things further
If you’ve made a complaint but aren’t getting the help or support you thought you would from gym management,, take things further.
Becky*, 44, who was flashed by a stranger in a gym steam room 15 years ago, said she was disappointed with how her gym responded to her complaint and says that if she were to have a similar experience today, she would be persistent with gym management and take things further.
“If I was in that situation now, I would definitely make more of a fuss and insist the gym do more,” she muses. “I would probably even go as far as to have called the police myself and have them take it further.”
If, like Becky, you find you aren’t getting the support you need from your gym, you can report your experiences to the authorities. There are many ways to do so: call the UK police on 101 to report an incident or get advice, visit your local police station, or make a report online. If you’re in immediate danger, you should call 999.
For many of us, the gym is our sanctuary. It’s a place where we can leave our troubles at the door and you deserve to feel safe, comfortable and empowered while you’re there. If you’re feeling vulnerable or uncomfortable for any reason, know this: your experiences are valid. Speak up when you’re ready.
For more fitness and gym experiences, visit the Strong Women Training Club.