“Women are scared to run alone, but running groups are not the answer”

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Moya Crockett
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Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. New research suggests that a third of women have faced harassment while running alone, and joining a running group is being touted as a solution. But, says Moya Crockett, the responsibility for avoiding harassment shouldn’t lie with women.

January is traditionally the time that many of us decide that we’re going to start exercising properly (um, again). It’s also the time that everyone tends to be a bit skint, which can make an expensive new gym membership out of the question. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to get fit for free – and running is up there with the best of them. Jogging through nature has been shown to have a positive effect on mental health, improve self-esteem, and even give you a better workout than sweating it out on a treadmill. All of which is fine. All of which is great.

But because relatively few things in life are so straightforward if you’re a woman, a new survey has revealed that a third of women in England have been harassed while out running alone. Of course.

The poll of 2,000 women, conducted by England Athletics, showed that 32% of women had faced some form of harassment while exercising outside on their own. More than 60% said that they had felt anxious while out running solo, while nearly half said that they had fears for their personal safety. More than 50% of the women said that they would feel safer running in a group.

I remember vividly the anxiety I often felt as a woman exercising on my own in a public space. It would hit me suddenly, like a splash of cold water to the face

The research was commissioned ahead of the launch of RunTogether, an initiative that provides access to 700 local running groups, with the aim of getting a million people into athletics and running by 2020. So yes, England Athletics have a clear (if noble) motive for releasing these findings.

But they also reflect the reality of life for many women. When some 64% of British women have experienced sexual harassment in public places, and 35% have experienced unwanted sexual touching (figures that rise to 85% and 45% respectively for women aged 18-24), it’s hardly surprising that we’re anxious about getting out and about on our own.

I’m not much of an exerciser, largely because I’m afflicted with a syndrome I like to call chronic laziness. But I did have a brief fling with jogging when I was in my final year of university (I particularly liked to run when I should have been working on my dissertation), and I remember vividly the anxiety I often felt as a woman exercising on my own in a public space. It would hit me suddenly, like a splash of cold water to the face, and jolt me out of the semi-trance induced by the rhythm of my feet hitting the ground.

I remember them all: the teenage boys in the kids’ playground in the park who jeered as I ran past, repeating “don’t make eye contact” in my head like a mantra. The blokes who yelled at me from car windows. The men who thought it was funny to jump suddenly into my path, startling me, and the guys who grabbed or slapped or pinched my body as I passed them on the pavement. I’ve never felt more self-conscious, more like a piece of public property, than I did when exercising in public.

And I was experiencing these things as a 22-year-old who felt reasonably comfortable in her own skin. Exercise can lift self-esteem in ways far beyond body image: it boosts endorphins, tests us to our limits, makes us feel powerful and strong. However, anxiety about running solo is likely to be even more heightened for women who already struggle with confidence about their appearance.  

“When I started running a couple of years ago, I was a little self-conscious about how others would perceive me,” agrees Sam Mollaghan, the face of the This Girl Can Run campaign. “I completely empathise with how many runners feel anxious when running alone.”

Joining a running group sounds like a fun, positive thing to do – and if you feel like you’re being held back by your fears about exercising alone outdoors, then it might be worth checking out a group in your area. But wouldn’t it be nice if women didn’t have to bond together in a protective pack in order to simply move through the world? Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could exercise the way that men exercise: carelessly, happily, whenever and wherever we like? And wouldn’t it be great if the responsibility for avoiding harassment, fear, assault, didn’t lie with the victims, but the perpetrators?

Women should join running groups because they want to, not because they’re afraid of being intimidated or assaulted. It shouldn’t be our responsibility to modify our behaviour in order to avoid harassment. It’s the men who harass us – and worse – who need to change the way they act.

We owe it to ourselves not to let the bullies win

Of course, that’s easy to say and notoriously difficult to enforce. Perhaps if the government stopped dragging their heels and introduced comprehensive, compulsory sex and relationships education (SRE) in schools, more young men might come to understand just how unacceptable street harassment really is. Perhaps if more regions in the UK were prepared to follow the lead of Nottinghamshire Police and start really cracking down on sexist abuse (by recording incidents of street harassment as hate crimes), women might feel more confident about running alone.

Until then, however, we owe it to ourselves not to let the bullies – because that’s what harassers are, bullies – win. The writer and runner Bridget Coulter says it best: “Keep running, keep cycling, keep walking and keep having fun. Because, after all, that’s what these creeps are most afraid of.”

Images: iStock, Rex Features