THE BLOG

Do You Exercise Inside Because You Don't Want to Be Harassed?

11/09/2012 05:33 pm ET | Updated Jan 09, 2013
  • Soraya Chemaly Feminist, writer, and satirist (not always in that order)

You know what the ultimate symbol of healthy living will be? Not having to buy mace to go running or have to talk to girls about "rape whistles" before they go to college, where they might also want to run or exercise, you know, outside. As Lilit Marcus put it last month in an article about exercise and harassment in The Frisky, "Crack open an issue of Cosmo any given month and you'll probably read a scare-tactic-filled article about a woman who got killed or attacked while out for a run. And how many episodes of SVU start with a woman's body being discovered in Central Park?"

I write all the time about street harassment as social control of women in public space, but there is an additional and quite startling aspect of street harassment that isn't often counted as part of just "walking while female," as Hollaback! DC's Collective Action for Safe Spaces in DC recently put it: Women do not exercise in public. They don't walk, run, bike or canoe. Zero, zilch, nada, rien du tout.

Guess what percentage of American women surveyed by Stop Street Harassment in 2008 do not exercise outside because they don't want to be harassed or out of fear of getting assaulted?

a) 3 percent
b) 8 percent
c) 17 percent
d) 24 percent

The correct answer is 24 percent, according to the survey. How many women is that, you ask? Well, there are roughly 150 million girls and women in the U.S. So, without going into age or disability factors, for the sake of fun, let's go for a high estimate -- 36,000,000 don't exercise outdoors. That's as if the entire population of Canada just didn't ever go outside for recreational sport. I'm using the high estimate because exercising limitations are just the tip of the iceberg for how women modify their daily lives because we tolerate it as a society.

Like most girls and women, harassment and the threat of assault have just always been part of my life. And I live in a "safe" place. It came to my attention recently that many women don't think about it or think they are harassed on the street or in public places. Once you dig a little deeper, however, it becomes clear that these women don't feel they are being harassed because they do one or more of several things:

  • They never make eye contact when they are in public (like 69 percent of American women surveyed by Stop Street Harassment in 2008) -- so they ignore and don't engage in public spaces
  • They avoid routes where they feel "uncomfortable" or otherwise limit their time in public spaces
  • They choose to see certain types of comments and actions as flattery and don't mind the ego boost, although they admit that they can never be sure when the "compliment" might take a turn for something nastier.

Holly Kearl, author of the book Stop Street Harassment, as well as an international movement to document and address the harm harassment causes, puts it this way:

Outside of war-torn areas or areas with high crime, most men do not think twice about entering and being in public spaces. For many women, however, going in public anywhere requires some level of planning because of male street harassment and the threat of male violence. Sometimes, women decide it's not worth it and "choose" to stay home. Cynthia Grant Bowman terms this the "informal ghettoization of women.

Take this "Project Unspoken" video:

"It should be a right to walk down the street and be safe." What gives harassment its power, other than its unpleasantness, is the threat of rape and sexual violence that all women are subjected to, regularly.

Are you one of these women, and do you pay for a gym? Guess what percentage of women pay money to go to a gym because they don't feel comfortable exercising outside?

a) 1 percent
b) 4 percent
c) 7 percent
d) 11 percent

Eleven percent, according to the Stop Street Harassment survey from 2008.

So, that's about 1,650,000 paying an average of $55.00 a month each, or $90,750,000. Not only are these women individually incurring $660.00 more a year to exercise, but, it is actually $67.65 for a woman considering the pay gap, which makes that number more like $811.00.

If you ask many of these women if they feel harassed on the street they might very well say "No, not really." Now, ask them why they don't exercise outside? Well, they don't want to be "bothered." Let's see what "bothered" looks and feels like by sampling stories submitted by women to the Everyday Sexism Project:

"Feeling very upset. Just had to cut my run short & go home as felt very unsafe due to men driving past and slowing down, beeping and shouting obscenities at me out the window. I was out 5 mins. How is this fair???"

"Beeped and shouted out by two men in a white van while out running on my own a week ago, same thing happened yesterday. I'd hoped that by my age, I'd be invisible to these losers.
It makes me sad to think that many women may be put off running because of this kind of unwanted attention. The only way I've found to stop it is to be running with a man!"

"I've been running with my roommate lately because she wants to run a 5K. She needs to stop occasionally to catch her breath and so while she does, I do high knees to keep exercising. Yesterday she and I were running down our road, and a man rolled down his window, and as he drove by, yelled, 'Work it Bitch!' I couldn't believe it."

"I'm training for a 10km race, so I go out for a training run around the streets near my house a few nights a week. This means a couple of times a week I get 'nice tits,' 'keep running love and you'll catch him,' 'bloody hell' (while staring at my chest), 'you don't need to lose weight love,' alongside general whistles, catcalls and leering at my lycra sports kit. I doubt the male runners I pass get this kind of crap..."

"For the second time in a week I have been heckled whilst out running. I stand out in absolutely no way and it's worrying evidence of the fact that men and boys in this part of town (Lewisham) feel it is normal and that they are entitled to make offensive comments of the sort that they would tolerate directed at their own mothers and sisters. Today 3 teenage boys shouted something after me and when I didn't react ('cos I couldn't hear it), they demanded "well LAUGH then" and then one of them shouted 'I'm going to smack you in the fanny.' Sexy."

"I had my left foot up on the kerb, my right on the pedal. A car pulled up alongside, with two males in. The passenger reached out and grabbed my bum, giving it a hard squeeze. I was so shocked. I braced my weight on my left leg, and shot out a side snap kick through the window. I hit the molester so hard, he cannoned into the driver. I leaned down, right into the window and screamed at him 'FUCK OFF!' The lights turned green, the passenger was limp in the front seat, and the driver took off like a bat out of hell. I was overcome with fear and the backwash of being violated, waiting another set of lights through to recover."

"I've been a keen runner for years and often get wierdness from men when out running. The most egregious example being two uniformed police officers in a marked police car in Middlesbrough. I was running along Acklam Road, which is several miles long. The squad car coming head on towards me slowed down and both occupants leaned towards me and made a leering gesture. I ignored them but the car turned behind me and flew along the road with blue lights on and sirens. It turned round in the distance and came slowly past me again and they repeated the leering thing. They did this four or five times following me the full length of the road."

This isn't a "bother." It's assault. Women find this behavior annoying, intimidating, threatening, inhibiting, enraging and upsetting. At best, it is a thick sludge of testosterone-entitlement that women are supposed to fight their way through with a stiff upper lip just to go outside for a run or a bike ride. At worst it is real and meaningful violence.

I spoke to Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, and I urge you to visit the site and submit your own. The Everyday Sexism Project has received thousands of reports of women describing being groped, grabbed, "man" handled, slapped, pinched, stroked, verbally assaulted and casually and not-so-casually smacked in public.

"Women frequently report being made to feel unsafe and uncomfortable whilst exercising outside, to the extent that they might alter their route, clothing or the time of their run, or even abandon the exercise altogether," explained Bates. "It is incredibly sad to hear so many accounts of yet another intrusion on the rights of women to exist in public spaces and the impact it has on their freedom of movement."

So, to the gym many women go. Unfortunately, some of them may get harassed there as well. The first time I explained to my husband that I always locate exits and find objects that I can weaponize in unfamiliar places and spaces, he was shocked and laughed. Doing either of those things is hard to do in a moving elevator, though. Recently, late for a game at the gym, I ran into an elevator, dressed, well, to exercise. A man got in, positioned himself opposite me and randomly announced,

"I love dancing with the sweaty, hot girls."

To which I raised my eyebrows and smiled uncertainly -- not having remembered asking if he did. He went on!

"I do the aerobics class. I mean, where else can I be surrounded by hot young bods in a dark room with mirrors on the ceiling for an hour. Are you going today?"

When I explained that no, I wasn't, he noticed I was holding a racquet in my hand and took it as my secret signal to persevere!

"Maybe today I'll come down to the courts and run around with you. Are you married?"

By now, we'd walked out of the elevator and into the gym, where I wouldn't give my name in front of him at the desk -- which delayed me even more.

"That's irrelevant," I explained, smiling without even being asked to, "You're harassing me. And, while it might not seem like a big deal, on a macro level, it's a form of gendered control of public space. I write about it all the time. You are practically your own chapter." At which point, after his involuntary, Oh. Shit! I actually laughed. He apologized, stuck out his hand and we parted ways.

And, this is why we have a growing trend: women-only gyms. India has women-only trains so that women can get to and from work without total strangers verbally and physically assaulting and intimidating them every day. And, although clearly not so extreme in terms of women's ability to function in the public sphere and do things like just get to work unmolested by cretins, you know what we have? Female-only gyms. How is this fundamentally different?

Women cannot be sure, on any day, that they can walk down the street or go for a run without threat of harassment, assault or molestation. Sometimes they ignore it, sometimes they fight it -- with good results and bad. And, although I personally would love to see more headlines like "Teens Attack Runner, Don't Realize She Is a Kung Fu Master," for every one of those there are many more like "Blade Runner Arrested After Slashing Girl's Face." The message that comes with "street harassment isn't a big deal" is, if you are female, go outside at your own risk.

Harassment like this is sexist bullying. (Don't forget: Feminism is just the fight against sexism.) And it happens everywhere. It's expensive in many ways with its costs to civil society, equality in the public sphere, and not to mention actual money. What's a gal to do? Well... apparently a lot. Like start organizations like Everyday Sexism Project, iHollaback and Stop Street Harassment and make films like the one above and the one below. Everyday Feminism just ran "7 Steps You Can Take to Address Street Harassment," and here are some tips for younger girls. These are valuable awareness raising campaigns and resources. And I, for one, am very happy they exist!