Home » Catcalling is a daily reality for women runners – most men don’t grasp the extent of it

Catcalling is a daily reality for women runners – most men don’t grasp the extent of it

Some 60 per cent of female runners have experienced harassment of some kind – most of it from men in cars. MPs have intervened and campaigns have been launched, but it continues.

by Narges Mohammadi

Is there any way forward, asks Olivia Peter

If it happens to me twice, then it’s a good day. Twice is, on average, how many times I’m catcalled while I’m out for a run. Sometimes it’s as high as seven; rarely is it ever zero. When this first began to happen, I’d ignore it. Turn the volume up on my music. Keep my head down. But as I got older, and the catcalling persisted, I started to react more viscerally: shouting back, telling them to “f*** off”, generally trying to confront them. Then I’d run off again as quickly as possible, trying to get my body to stop shaking.

How dare these lewd men shout out obscenities while I go about my daily exercise, I’d think. What do they even want from me, anyway? A conversation about how my day is going? The pride of knowing they’ve humiliated me? Do they expect me to turn round and have sex with them?

Even in 2024, catcalling remains a daily struggle for most women. It can happen in many contexts, whether it’s simply walking to your local coffee shop in the morning or heading to your GP for an appointment. But one of the most insidious – and common – spaces for catcalling is wherever a woman has gone to run. Last year, MPs approved plans to make catcalling a crime, carrying a sentence of up to two years. But that hasn’t stopped it from happening. A survey by Runner’s World magazine found that 60 per cent of female runners have experienced harassment of some kind, largely from men in cars.

“I have been catcalled more times than I can remember,” says Claire, 44, who has been running for 20 years. “Sometimes it doesn’t bother me much. But occasionally it’s very unnerving.

The problem is, you often don’t know if they’re jeering or getting angry with you for being on the road, and it’s really intimidating.”
Given some of the headlines surrounding female runners – like the 22-year-old nursing student who was abducted and killed while jogging around her Georgia university campus in February – it doesn’t take much for these thoughts to spiral.
“It sounds ridiculous, but the first thing you think is ‘What would I do if they bundle me into the van?’”, adds Claire. “Is my watch connected if they take my phone? Can my husband locate me? Can I outrun them? This is how you think as a woman, and it’s why I started sending tracking links of my runs to my husband. I’m also conscious of wearing ‘feminine’ colours and having my hair in a ponytail.

It’s something my husband doesn’t have to give a second thought to when he goes out.”

Culturally, women have long been taught to take the blame for their own experiences of catcalling. We shouldn’t have been running at night. We shouldn’t have worn such tight leggings. We shouldn’t have bought that low-cut sports bra. And so on. There will always be those who reinforce such victim-blaming narratives, too; historically, anti-catcalling campaigns have targeted victims rather than perpetrators, or have simply been woefully misguided – remember Sadiq Khan’s “Say maaate to a mate” campaign?
People are taking more effective action, though. In March, female police officers in Bradford posed as runners to clamp down on men catcalling women who are exercising. Those found to be harassing women could be fined up to £1,000. Speaking in a “JogOn” campaign video, Superintendent Beth Pagnillo said she had witnessed “cars slowing down, men beeping their horns, and comments being shouted out of the window” while running.

“While these incidents in isolation may not seem serious, when they become a regular occurrence they can have a significant impact,” she added. “A build-up of these incidents can make women change their running route, avoid certain locations, and choose not to run in the dark. This is not acceptable. Women should be able to go out [and] run freely without being concerned.”

The incidents of street harassment I’ve experienced while running are as varied as they are numerous. I’ve been called a “sl**” by men in a van, approached and later intercepted by a man on the pavement, and wolf-whistled at by a group of men lingering and leering in the park. Once, I was even chased by two men, and only managed to deter them by entering a nearby nail salon. None of this is abnormal, nor is it as bad as it gets.

“I was on the final leg of an 8km run on a weekday morning in summer 2020 when a van went past and the two guys inside wound down the windows and shouted ‘Keep it up, fatty!’ at me,” recalls Isabel Mohan, 43. She has since launched a Substack newsletter titled just that, where she writes about fitness, body image and diet culture.
“It made me really angry that, as women, we choose to do something positive, only for men to want to humiliate us,” Mohan adds. “And we’re told we should exercise to get to an acceptable size, but then are belittled when we get out there and try.”

Since writing about her experience, Mohan has been inundated with similar stories from other women. “I think the dynamic of a woman alone on the street while a man is feeling powerful in a vehicle is probably quite key,” she adds. “Road running in a busy area, like I tend to do, is probably the safest for women in terms of not being physically attacked, so we have to make a choice to go through being verbally abused, or run in more isolated areas where there are greater risks. It feels very unfair.”

It can be almost impossible to know how to react in these situations. While my confronting approach felt more satisfying than ignoring the catcallers – there’s an impulse to hold them to account – it only exacerbated the anxiety I experienced afterwards and made me feel more unsafe. That’s not to say there aren’t other ways to do this that might work.
“There are some academics who argue that the way out of it is for women to learn self-defence,” says Katarina Polonska, a social scientist from Oxford University who studies gender dynamics. “But that’s problematic and puts the onus on women, so it’s not a viable solution to me. What I have learnt to do is stop, turn round, and stare at them.”

Polonska, who is also a relationships coach, is an avid runner herself, and once tried this approach. She noticed how the perpetrator simply turned round and started to walk away from her. “My next move would have been to keep watching them, maintain eye contact, and then – had they tried to come closer to me – I would have just said, ‘You will not come nearer to me.’ These [actions] show that you aren’t someone that is going to take bulls*** and you’re going to confront them. But it requires a lot of strength and will.”

It’s good advice. But for some, it might be easier said than done. It’s impossible to know how you’ll react in the moment; whenever I’m catcalled, even if it’s just a wolf whistle, it immediately has a deep psychological impact on me.

I suddenly feel hyper-aware of my physical vulnerabilities and the potential dangers I could be exposed to at any moment. It is, and always will be, very unsettling, regardless of how many times it happens.

Major campaigns and law changes are helpful, of course, but I also have some doubts. I’m not entirely sure how easy it is to charge someone who catcalled you out of a fast-moving car, whose number plate you haven’t had time to memorise because you’re too stunned by what they’ve just said to you.

Perhaps the only way forward is to educate on the realities of what women go through each time they step outside to go for a run. I’m not sure any of the men I know have ever even had to consider any of this. If they did, or had at least learnt about sexual harassment in school, maybe it wouldn’t happen quite as much.

Source: Independent

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