Public Displays of Harassment

Lisa Ingarfield | @tritodefi

While riding my road bike alone in Aurora one summer afternoon, a Ford F-250 truck flew past me, much closer than the allowable three feet. Out of the window, multiple men whistled and yelled. I don't recall exactly what they said, but I do recall the feeling of fear as my heart jumped into my throat and my mind started to race. Do I speed up? Slow down? No one else was around. I reached back to touch my phone--my security blanket--tucked away in my jersey’s back pocket. My heart was pounding as I pedaled to its beat. The truck sped off leaving me to regain composure. I have not cycled there alone since.

This is not my  first or last experience of harassment while out training. This type of harassment is a phenomenon many women face when training alone and something few men understand or experience. In fact, many men, when hearing these stories are shocked to learn about the strategies women adopt to feel safe when they head out for their daily exercise. For women, the daily ritual of working out is rarely as simple as throwing on a pair of running shoes and heading out on the open road without a second thought.

Girls first experience street harassment at alarmingly young ages, according to research sponsored by the ILR School of Cornell and Hollaback!, a nonprofit organization. 

Girls first experience street harassment at alarmingly young ages, according to research sponsored by the ILR School of Cornell and Hollaback!, a nonprofit organization. 

The Gendered Experience of Street Harassment

Street harassment experienced by women, largely perpetrated by men, is a big issue; according to the advocacy group, Stop Street Harassment, 65% of women have experienced some form of street harassment. Folks in the LGBT community experience street harassment at higher rates, leading many to avoid public spaces. Flattering is not a word that comes to mind when I am hollered at from a car window or the other side of the street, or told to smile more during a speed interval. In fact, I find it offensive and sometimes scary. My desire to get outside and run or ride does not give someone permission to assume I do so for their pleasure. My body is not theirs to comment on.

Beyond my own personal experience, I have read numerous articles about the shared experience of “running while female.” This piqued my interest regarding the experiences of women athletes in Denver and the surrounding area. To learn more, I developed a poll to share with my various athletic communities and to shed some light on the issue of street harassment. While the  poll is not overly  scientific, a substantial number of women--48--participated and the results affirmed my own experiences and those I have read about across the US in larger surveys.

Of the 48 women athletes in Denver who answered my questions, two thirds of the respondents shared they had experienced street harassment while exercising. Types of harassment ranged from catcalls and whistles to comments about women’s  bodies, being followed by cars, and even flashed by men. One woman shared: “I get honked at or yelled at every single time I go running. Every. Single. Time.” Another woman shared she keeps her headphones in at all times while at the gym, even if they are not working, as a tactic to avoid comments.

What I think is most upsetting is over half of the women who responded reported the experience or risk of street harassment has influenced how and when they exercise. It definitely has for me. I don’t run early or late if I am alone, and I tend toward more crowded locations. One woman shared “I've come to realize how vulnerable I am. I now run at least once a week with my parents' large dog, and I also have a switchblade knife that I occasionally carry with me.” Another shared “I try to stay away from any roads or routes away from my neighborhood. I generally stay close to home when I run and avoid running during my workday because it means I would have to do a run downtown.”

Jimena Emeson, 47, a runner from Parker, shared she feels differently when it is a group of men catcalling her versus a single man. In the former instance, she will likely cross the street or speed up her pace to avoid any possible encounter. Many women commented they no longer run or ride downtown because of the constant stares or whistles. As Emeson has gotten older, her response to street harassment while running has shifted. As a younger runner, she would get angry and shout back at the harasser, but now she tends to avoid a confrontation because she feels it's easier, and perhaps safer.

Street Harassment is not "Normal" 

While rates of street harassment are high, many women, like Emeson, shrug it off or try to ignore it. I think this response is both a survival strategy and a socialized reaction to a behavior we as women see as pseudo-normal or unlikely to change. It’s also tiring to have to deal with it in one way or another; at the gym, at the pool, outside, and even while pregnant (as two respondents shared).

The thing is broads, this behavior, while frequent, is not something we should consider normal. It is unacceptable and born of a cultural and social environment positioning women, both implicitly and explicitly, as objects for men’s pleasure. I have often been told by the men in my life how I should take random men’s comments about my body as a compliment or they otherwise suggest I’m overreacting. This minimizes the harm done to women who experience street harassment. Sticking resolutely to a belief that women want it or like it is a false assumption resulting in the maintenance of a culture where such behavior is unexceptional. It’s  just one layer in a larger sexist structure perpetuating men’s supposed entitlement to comment on or touch women’s bodies without women’s permission. This should always be exceptional and unacceptable.

As one of the respondents so precisely articulated, street harassment is “Just one more thing women have to think about that [doesn’t] really cross men's minds. And it is NOT a compliment. It is not flattering. It makes me feel uneasy.” As a bystander, if you hear harassment, step up and make clear it’s not okay. And for those who experience it, remember: it’s not “normal” for you to be treated that way.  As angry as this makes me--and many of you--feel, there is no easy advice or quick comfort for women who experience street harassment. What is clear is the need to disrupt the widespread acceptance of its normalcy.

There are numerous organizations nationally and internationally addressing this issue through research and public outreach campaigns. If you are interested in learning more or getting involved, check them out.