Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Running, Clothes, & Sexual Harassment

aphrodite"Another run in the city, another bout of sexual harassment."

This was my facebook status sometime around a year ago or so. It could easily be my status once or twice a week when the weather is warm. It could be my status so often that I'm almost used to it.


It was one of the hardest things to orient myself to when I first moved to San Francisco. Prior to that I had lived on the SF Peninsula, kind of off the beaten track, and did most of my running through a canyon that ran behind my place, on one of the many breath-taking trails nearby, or on a gym treadmill. I had never once been the victim of cat-calling or sexual comments while running.

In response to my facebook status, a few non-San Francisco-dwellers (and a few who are) responded incredulously, "Really? In San Francisco?" Yes; in San Francisco. Apparently being somewhat progressive and enlightened overall doesn't necessarily extend to how we treat women we don't know.

The first couple of times it happened, it shook me up a bit. After it happened enough times to form a pattern, I started changing the route that I ran to avoid areas where it seemed to happen more often than others. This didn't really change much. It turns out that if you run more than five miles at a time in a city that's barely seven by seven square, sooner or later you're bound to run into ignorant men who are more than happy to objectify you.

The one redeeming factor about SF in this respect is the weather. When I decide what to wear for a run, I decide roughly 10% based on what is clean, 5% based on what doesn't clash, and 85% based on what will be comfortable. Even in the summer, even in the middle of the day, it doesn't get particularly hot all that often, so there are plenty of days when I'm perfectly comfortable running in shorts and a T-shirt (and a fair share of colder, windier ones when tights are called for). But if it's above 70 and sunny, I know from experience that by the time I'm 2 miles into my run I'll be utterly miserable if I'm wearing more than shorts and a sports bra, so that's what I'm going to wear. I don't think that's unreasonable. I think I should have the right to do this without being accosted by strangers and becoming the target of lewd remarks.

The comments range from the reasonably benign (marriage proposals, honking, kissing noises, loud incitements to "work it, baby!," requests for my phone number, etc.) to the slightly troubling (comments about specific parts of my body, warnings not to "run that sweet ass off,") to the sincerely distressing (requests for sexual favors, descriptions of what the harasser would like to do to me, comments about my clothes that include words like "bitch," "slut," "hoe," etc.). Some of them are the kinds of things I could shrug off easily if they weren't part of a larger pattern. Some of them really aren't.

(I feel like I want to take a moment to drive home the point that I am NOT in any way offering these incidents as evidence of my hotness or attractiveness. I think that sometimes when a woman mentions being sexually harassed, her complaints are dismissed because people interpret them as a way for her to draw attention to her physical appearances without seeming conceited -- "Oh, woe is me, men think I'm SOOO hot, they just won't leave me alone!" That's not what this is. Anyone who's studied it will tell you that ALL kinds of women face sexual harassment, not just those who meet certain societal beauty conventions, and not just those who wear skimpy clothes. This is about something that makes it really hard for me to enjoy one of my favorite activities and leaves me feeling like I want to crawl into a hole after.)

I've discussed it with a lot of different people and gotten a lot of different responses. They've included:

  • Advice: I shouldn't let it bother me because "men are men" and this is all natural, normal behavior that men can't help engaging in when they see a woman they find attractive for whatever reason.
    Why it's bullshit: I don't buy this because I am a firm believer that, while we might not always be able to control our thoughts and feelings, we can ALL control our actions and the words that come out of our mouths, and we all have the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others and consider how our words and actions affect them. I think that this logic discredits all the wonderful, amazing men I know who are 100% capable of controlling their words and behaviors, no matter how attractive they find someone.

  • Advice: I should take it as a compliment (hey, at least guys notice you!).
    Why it's bullshit: I can't see the logic in taking as a compliment a comment that reduces me to my body / how I look. Honestly, I have a feeling that these guys who find me attractive enough to make sexual comments about find me so mostly because of the amount of skin they can see, and would treat most women in the same outfit the same way. And if I was in the same outfit and they didn't find me attractive for whatever reason, something tells me I'd just end up the object of comments intended to make me feel bad about myself.

  • Advice: I should enjoy it while it lasts. In particular, this is advice I've gotten from a couple of women in their 40s or 50s; they remind me that there will come a day when no one is interested in objectifying or harassing me, and I will miss it and find it affirming on the few occasions when it does happen.
    Why it's bullshit: First, it's very, very difficult for me imagine this is true. (Do they also expect me to believe that there will come a day when I miss strange men grabbing my ass in crowded bars?) Second, how I may or may not feel about something 10-20 years from now does not change the fact that it makes me feel GOD AWFUL right now and makes it difficult to enjoy an activity that I usually love. I don't understand how someone can miss being treated with disrespect.

  • Advice: I should change what I wear, that as long as I wear "revealing" clothes when I run, I'm inviting this behavior.
    Why it's bullshit: To me, this is just a variation on the "men can't help it" argument above, and one of the most insidious arguments out there, because it perpetuates the idea that men simply can't control their own sexuality and it is the role of women to control it for them by altering OUR behavior. I run in what I know will keep me comfortable, and I can't imagine anyone would view what I wear as unreasonable (eg, I'm not running around topless or in a thong bikini or anything). To anyone who insists on clinging to this position, I invite you to read a piece from entitled, "Your Body Is Never The Problem" (which, by the way, I think should be required reading for all kids upon entering puberty).

At the very least, I have accepted that there's nothing that I personally will ever be able to do to change the behavior of these men. So it really seems to come down to a) getting over it, b) accepting that I can't be comfortable on an outdoor run on a warm day, or c) limiting my warm day runs to circling the track (which seems to be a harasser-free zone, thankfully).

So....yeah. A super-cheery post, I know. I really find it difficult to believe that I am the only one who has this problem, even in SF, yet I so rarely hear anyone else talk about it. Am I? Or am I just the last one to accept & get over it?



  1. Hi. I know this is an old post, but I read it after reading another post of yours that linked to it (the one about reasons to run, which was great).

    I haven't had too much of a problem with catcalls in Seattle, where I live now (the last time it happened was a guy in a van inviting me to suck his cock, which, you know, I have a hard time considering that a compliment), but I grew up in the D.C. area where it is positively endemic. In my teens it was a near daily event.

    I hated it, and I'm really glad it's a rare occurrence now. I don't know whether it's less of a thing in Seattle (suspect this is the case) or my age (I'm almost 40) or the time of day I choose to run (usually twilight or after dark when there are few people around; in my neighborhood this is reasonably safe), but I am entirely fine with it.

    I think what those women in their 40s and 50s are referring to is...well. I'm a reasonably good-looking woman, I think. And there is a privilege that comes with that, that one doesn't really notice until you start to age and notice that people are a bit less solicitous, a bit less friendly, etc. Having said that, I definitely don't consider street harassment a privilege; not only is it awful behavior, but women everywhere get harassed, regardless of age, physical attractiveness, etc. I think what these women are doing is lumping the extra attention you might get from a bartender or salesperson in with being catcalled on the street as evidence of not being invisible. Frankly, when I'm running I'd prefer invisibility as long as I don't get hit by a car.

  2. I know this is an old post but I'd also like to add that the most horrible, sexually explicit comment I have had while running was in the depths of winter wearing rainproof gear and compression tights. Your outfit is not the problem.

    1. Totally agree -- it isn't. Women definitely get sexually harassed in all kinds of non-revealing clothing. But I have definitely found that I get left alone a lot more often when I'm wearing more clothes rather than less. (This is why when I'm running in my neighborhood rather than at the track or in the park, I almost never wear booty shorts or only a sports bra. It sucks, but it does seem to be the case.)