"Don't knock yourself out love!"
Have you heard this whilst running?
What about "Hey Sexy", or "Mmmmmm mmmmmmm" or "nice ass" or...
Put it this way, it's very rarely "Good morning" or "Nice effort"!
You know what I mean! And chances are if you do, you're female because 47% of women who run have experienced some form of wolf whistle or cat call versus just 4% of men.
In a study of 800 women, 80% reported that they had experienced gender-based harassment from unknown men in public, including whistling, sexually-explicit comments, groping, stalking and assault.
You should take it as a compliment
That's what we're told, right? We should take it as a compliment. Only it's not. Not really. And it's all connected to one bigger issue - gender equality.
Speak to any woman about her feelings on receiving comments about her body - whether positive or negative - whilst walking, running or cycling outside and she'll tell you it fills her with dread. In fact, it may even have stopped her from going out at all; it's almost certainly changed the route she takes and where she dares to run. Does that sound like it's a compliment?
The fact is, it's restrictive. It restricts the public space that women feel comfortable moving about it. It's intimidating. It's sexual harassment.
It's just having a laugh
When kids who are bullying use this as an excuse, we correct them; we help them understand that it's only a laugh when both parties are willing participants in the joke.
Now, don't get me wrong, I've joked with my friends in this way... in fact, my ENORMOUS boobs when growing up were often the subject of much banter between mates... not a problem! The boundaries are different, you know each other, you're comfortable and safe with each other but a complete stranger, hanging out of a car window, hollering lewd comments across the street, honking his horn and making gestures, following alongside you? No... that's not acceptable and if you're willing to argue it is, just ask whether you'd be happy for your daughter to be on the receiving end!
Make the streets safe for everyone
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable towards women, I'm saying it's unacceptable full stop. However, the statistics clearly show that women are far more likely to experience street harassment than men. And, for those women who choose to train in the great outdoors, the harassment is all the more frequent.
The statistics also show that it has nothing to do with what a woman is wearing. In just the same way that there is no evidence that a woman in a short skirt is more likely to be raped than a woman covered from head to toe in a big baggy t-shirt and sweat pants, neither is there any evidence to support the idea that women in lycra are 'asking for it' either.
Hang on a minute... how have I gone from hollering in the street to rape? Because it's part of the same culture. In fact, studies have shown that street harassment is a gateway crime with men who later go on to commit more serious crimes, using it as a 'warm-up' so to speak... a way of checking out how someone responds, a way of testing the waters. Of course, not every man who shouts at women running in the street is going go on to rape. However, he is already demonstrating controlling and manipulative behaviour that is designed to prevent women from moving freely, equally and safely wherever they wish.
It's a power thing
Ultimately, we can make all the excuses we like for this behaviour either because it makes us feel better or because it protects us or someone else. Excuses won't change anything though and things need to change.
Perhaps you don't even realise you're making these excuses. In fact, quite often we hold related beliefs that we just haven't identified as restrictive but also reinforcing gender inequality.
For example, we tell girls to be careful about the length of their skirts because we don't want men to get the wrong idea. We look accusingly at the woman who runs down the street in a sports' bra on a hot day even when the man running alongside her is topless; we ask whether she smiled at him or whether her behaviour could have been considered flirtatious as though it's her behaviour that was unacceptable rather than his.
It's internalised misogyny and it's an attitude that's as likely in women as it is in men; in fact more so with 1 in 3 women believing that it is a woman's responsibility to 'behave appropriately' around a man as opposed to 1 in 5 men.
Until we recognise that these beliefs aren't truths but socialised norms, we won't do anything to change them.
Street harassment is harassment, pure and simple. It sits at the lower end of a spectrum; a spectrum that ends with violence, rape and murder. It's a psychological way of putting women in their place and ensuring male dominance in a public space.
We deserve to move equally; we deserve to feel safe.
All of us.
Tell your story
Perhaps we need to talk about this more. Perhaps if, rather than smile, laugh it off, or make excuses for it, we were to 'shout back' things would actually start to change.
That's not necessarily something that can come from women either or even something that can happen 'in the moment'. From the lads who told me in explicit detail on a train all of the sexual things they'd like to do to me; to the guys who slowed their car down alongside me running to tell me I had a nice ass, then threw a barbecue sauce pot at my head when I failed to respond correctly to such a 'compliment'; to the guy who jogged alongside me, for an extremely inappropriate amount of time, asking me to marry him, I've never once felt comfortable to tell them to [email protected]!* off and maybe I never will... because it's intimidating!
That's not what I mean. Let's stop excusing this behaviour in our community. As runners, we have the ability to come together and speak up against any street harassment whether it's related to gender, race, religion, sexuality, age... or anything else. The reason I think it's important that we recognise the gender implications of this is because currently our society accepts it as a 'norm'. When someone is harassed based on the grounds of religion, sexuality or race, we all stand up and deplore it; we recognise that this is unacceptable behaviour, just in the same way that any street violence, mugging or assault is socially deplorable. But a complete stranger wolf whistling, honking, shouting, making lewd gestures, even following women in public places is all too often passed off as something light hearted, a compliment even, rather than what it actually is - a power play that prevents women from feeling safe and openly accessing and occupying the same public spaces as men. If this behaviour is no longer acceptable in our work places, why is it acceptable in the streets?
Most of all, we need the men in our community to shout back against this too. As women, it's up to us to make them aware that this is an issue in the first place and to highlight how often it happens and the effect it can have. And as men, we need you to speak out against it when you see it happening, to tell other men that it's unacceptable and to help them understand why.
16 days of activism
Sunday 25th November is the UN International Day of the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the beginning of 16 days of activism.
In this time in conjunction with The F92 Plodders, we're asking you to join us in making the streets a safer place for women. We want to hear from you and ask you to share your story of street harassment using the hashtag #RunnersShoutBack. We'd like you to 'shout back' against any harassment that you see and look out for others in your community. And we'd like you to tell us where this has happened to you or where you've seen this happen to others.
Perhaps if we can make a small difference here, we can make a bigger difference to the issue of violence against women full stop. and as 6 out of 7 victims of violence are women and 9 out of 10 defendants are men, this is an issue that needs dealing with.
Because you know what, it saddens me that we will continue to teach our daughters, nieces, and granddaughters how to behave around men, rather than tackle the real problem which is that we haven't seen the importance of teaching our sons, nephews and grandsons how to respect and behave around women!
Follow the hashtag #RunnersShoutBack on social media and join in the conversation. Let's make a change!