That was the question Caitlin Pereira, a mother of two in Fairfield, Conn., posed after repeated comments from men about her shorts, her legs or whatever else they found interesting. She ignored the comments, changed her route and tried to forget about it. But it always burned her that she was the one left feeling annoyed, afraid and vulnerable.
This is a commonplace scenario for many people. Two years ago, Runner’s World published a piece called “Running While Female” based on a reader survey about harassment while running. Fifty-four percent of women said they were concerned about the possibility of assault or inappropriate contact during a run. Other surveys have shown that number is much higher, hovering around two-thirds. At least a quarter of LGBTQ individuals also claim regular incidents of harassment.
It doesn’t necessarily have to happen while you’re running, either. You could be crossing the street just waiting for the light to turn. Ask Lindsey, who prefers to be identified only by her first name. She lives in Minneapolis and started her campaign, Cards Against Harassment, in 2014. Make a lewd comment? Get a card. Wolf whistle? Get a card. Inappropriate touching? Get a card. She was fed up with strangers shouting nasty things and then speeding off without any consequence for their actions. So, she did something about it.
What do these cards say? Things like, “When random strangers walk down the street do they comment on how you look? No? That must be nice,” and “Someone walking/jogging/biking in your line of sight is not an invitation to comment on how they look. It’s not a compliment. It’s harassment.” (The cards can be downloaded as PDFs for free.)
Erin Bailey, who runs Erin Bailey Fitness in the Boston area, has her own story. While working out in the park on a new fitness routine, a man walked up to her to tell her all the profane-laden things he wanted to do to her. It got her mad enough to write a blog post about it. With 80,000 shares on Facebook, she got as much positive feedback as negative, including death threats. But what could she do about it?
“My mission became to empower women to be the strongest they can be through fitness,” she said. “Be strong in every aspect of life. That was my way of spreading awareness.”
Sometimes these incidents can be deadly. Ashley McNiff launched The Vanessa T. Marcotte Foundation in 2017 with the sole purpose of making sure women live free of objectification and harassment. Vanessa was gruesomely murdered in 2016 while out on a run in her rural hometown of Princeton, Mass. McNiff couldn’t change what happened to her friend. But she could prevent it from happening to someone else.
“We have the opportunity to use a tragic event for something positive,” said McNiff, whose organization puts an emphasis on women’s self-defense. “With the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up, there’s been more interest in our mission in just the last couple of months. Not sure why it took so long, but I think this is just the beginning.”
Being strong together is the message coming from other activists dedicated to eliminating street harassment. Art projects like Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s Stop Telling Women to Smile put a bold face on harassment with messages like, “Harassing women does not prove your masculinity.” Stop Street Harassment, launched by founder Holly Kearl, a lifetime runner herself, has been dedicated to eliminating gender-based street harassment worldwide since 2008. Located just outside Washington, D.C., Stop Street Harassment led a campaign on the city’s mass transit system and started a national hotline that individuals can call when in trouble. Hollaback in New York City kicked off in 2005 when seven friends, four women and three men, resolved to change the culture that accepts that kind of inappropriate behavior. Aside from training and workshops, they have initiatives like the People’s Supper, a shared meal for those from different backgrounds for the purpose of greater understanding, and Heart Mob, which specifically targets online harassment.
Emily May, Hollaback’s executive director, explained the organization had tried everything to shift the behavior through direct confrontation. Unfortunately, their strategy of being a “one-woman street harassment education machine” wasn’t getting to the root of the problem.
“To end street harassment, we had to change the culture that made it acceptable to begin with,” May said. “History shows that cultural shifts start with people coming forward to boldly share their stories, and story by story, we’ve been building the case for why street harassment matters.”
May offered these words of wisdom for those who find themselves in an uncomfortable situation: First, safety is a top priority. But should you choose to respond directly to your harassers, here are some general guidelines:
Be Firm. Look them in the eye and tell them that what they are doing is harassment.
Lindsey pointed out that many of the men she has directly confronted looked scared once she turned around. “They would start to look around like they were afraid for their own safety, which is ironic.”
May advises to skip phrases like “I’m sorry” and “Excuse me” when confronting your harasser. You are not the one who has to apologize.
Don’t engage. Once you’ve stated your case, leave it alone. If they try to talk to you or even make fun of you, it’s not worth the hassle.
As Bailey said, “I’d rather ignore it and walk away than escalate it.”
Keep Moving. “Harassers don’t deserve the pleasure of your company,” noted May, “so why stick around?”
Jamie Miles runs the Columbus, Ohio chapter of Moms Run This Town. With more than 4,000 members, she’s heard plenty of harassment stories that were “eye-opening.” Most of it was verbal, with some of it involving fat shaming for anyone less than petite. In some cases, there was outright physical assault. One thing that Ohio has that other states may not is a concealed carry licensing law for handguns.
“There are special holsters for them that allow you to run comfortably,” she explained. “One of these days, someone is going to scare the wrong person and it won’t end well.”
Lots of women around the United States elect to carry pepper spray. If you need something a little tougher, check out Damsel in Defense. The company has spray, stun guns and even cute little bags and clutches to conceal it all. McNiff suggested ROAR for Good’s Athena wearable safety device. You can clasp it on your shorts, push the button and help is on the way. You can also try the Surefire Defender flashlight with beams powerful enough to temporarily blind your assailant.
Another option? Have a phone number on speed dial. Miles mentioned that her running group has the local park ranger’s phone number as one of their contacts. If that doesn’t work, you can always call 855-897-5910, the Hollaback national hotline. Of course in an emergency, dial 911.
“We are part of a larger movement to ensure that everyone has the right to be who they are without fear of walking down the street,” May remarked. “We have yet to find a culture where street harassment doesn’t exist. [But] everywhere it exists, there also exists resistance to it.”