A few mornings ago, as I laced up my sneakers for my morning run, it dawned on me that I had forgotten to charge my headphones. NBD, I thought, I’ll just meditate or whatever it is health-conscious people do when they’re trying not to throw up their Clif bar mid-run in a public park.
I was no more than four blocks into my run when I heard the first one: “BEAUTIFUL TATTOOS, BABY!”
Then another man started to make kissing sounds and wave.
Later: Another man pretends to race me while yelling “RUN FORREST, RUN!” (No joke, he really said that.)
Each of these things happened within a short span of a five-mile run. Without my usual mix of angry punk music blaring in my ears, I could hear it all.
You might be thinking: Are these comments really that bad? I mean, one guy said he liked my tats. And maybe the others were just showing support! Anyway, if I’m a woman who is running around Brooklyn at 7 a.m. shirtless, sweaty and covered in tattoos, aren’t I ... asking for it?
According to Runner’s World, 43 percent of women runners at least sometimes experience harassment, compared to 4 percent of their male counterparts. That’s not counting the women who are followed, physically assaulted and worse. Let’s not forget Karina Vetrano, Vanessa Marcotte, and Molly Tibbetts, all of whom were murdered in the last few years while running.
Why is street harassment so detrimental? All runners and non-runners alike deserve to feel safe. Street harassment strips away that feeling of safety, reminding us that we too could be targeted in a violent crime. And, let’s be real, getting screamed at by strange men on the regular doesn’t fare well for our mental health. The thing is, harassers KNOW this. Street harassment is a power trip; people who engage in it do so because they think runners are easy targets.
It took running without my headphones to remind me just how much I tune out rampant street harassment on a daily basis.
I love running in New York City and for the most part, I do feel safe. But I’d be lying if I said there weren’t certain intersections that I need to power through, no matter how tired I am. There’s nothing like taking a flying leap over a pile of hot garbage because you know that if you don’t, the dudes outside the bodega will have more time to undress you with their eyes.
There is one particularly awkward scenario that plays out on nearly every run. A car stops at a stop light, and I stop too, in anticipation of the light turning green. The driver notices me standing there, sweating and panting, and proceeds to stare. I pretend not to notice. The light turns green. The driver isn’t paying attention because he is leering at me. Other cars start honking impatiently. The driver angrily motions for me to cross, as though I am the reason for holding up traffic. The driver begins to inch the car towards me as I cross the street, apparently unable to wait any longer. Now in panic mode, I continue my run.
I’m telling you. Every. Single. Time.
I used to think that covering up my body would help me sidestep the stares and the catcalls. When I first started running in the city, I gave myself a bunch of stupid rules to abide by. On the rare occasions that I wore shorts, I’d pair them with a baggy T-shirt so I wouldn’t show too much skin. Tank tops had to cover my belly and be paired with long leggings.
Since I do my marathon training in the summer, these rules applied during peak East Coast heat and humidity. I can’t even tell you how many tourists’ photos I’ve ruined while staggering around Battery Park clutching my Gatorade for dear life. (As a side note: I can hardly think or breathe when I’m in the middle of a double-digit run. This is not a great time to test-drive a new pick-up line on me.)
I’ve since abandoned those rules in favor of a sports bra and shorts for most runs, because the sad truth is that someone who is intent on harassing me is going to do it, no matter what I’m wearing. (Did you hear that? You can wear whatever you want! Present your body however you’d like!)
And, more important, it’s what I feel most comfortable wearing while running, catcallers be damned.
I’ve considered coming up with a few snappy comebacks I could use when faced with my next harasser. But there are two problems with that: One, my brain just doesn’t react fast enough to comprehend and respond to surprise comments when I’m running. (The most I can usually muster is a disgusted look.) And two, it’s entirely possible that the harasser would strike back, perhaps even violently.
It’s sad, but I’m so used to encountering creeps that there have been a handful of times when I’ve physically recoiled from good-natured high-fives from other runners.
Are there other ways I could avoid street harassment while running aside from tuning it out completely? Maybe. I could run on a treadmill (I hate the treadmill). I could only run with my boyfriend (he never gets screamed at by strangers, so this could be a viable option). I could stop running altogether (just kidding, not happening).
But the thing I love about running is the freedom to hit the pavement whenever and wherever I want. I’m not the one who needs to alter their lifestyle. It’s the street harassers of the world that need to shut up, get some manners and learn to respect women. And let me sweat all over the city in peace.