Writing about women’s inherent vulnerability while exercising outside alone has been on my mind for some time. It’s been very difficult for me to sit down and put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, to be more accurate). This is due, I’m sure, in no small part to its deeply personal nature; it’s an issue that touches on several parts of my identity.
Female runners are susceptible to attacks and harassment at an alarming rate. A recent Runner’s World survey found that more than half of female runners under 30 had been harassed (this is in contrast to just 4% of men who reported being victims of the same behavior). Moreover, over the last six months there have been three high profile murders of female runners - Queens resident Karina Vetrano, 30, near Howard Beach; Google employee Vanessa Marcotte, 27, in Princeton, Mass.; and Alexandra Brueger, 31, in Rose Township, Mich. Plus, here’s some anecdotal data for you – around this time last year, a female runner was sexually assaulted along the East River path (where I run nearly every day). About a week later, I took a trip to Philadelphia, and investigated running along the Schuykill River path. One Google search later and I decided to avoid it – the path’s Yelp page was full of female runners complaining about how gangs of young men would yell and grab at them as they ran.
Running brings me solace – I live in a major city full of people, and running is sometimes one of the only times I can be truly alone and find inner, if not outer, quiet. It’s helpful and necessary to exercise alone, and it’s frustrating to feel like I have to take extra precautions to do so, precautions that men don’t have to take. It adds insult to injury when women who want to act on the very reasonable desire to be alone are penalized and blamed for doing so when and if they are harmed. A cacophony of victim-blaming still accompanies many of these incidents – no sooner is a crime reported than a chorus of voices saying “She shouldn’t have been running after dark/She shouldn’t have been alone/She should have been more careful” STILL emerge.
So, what do we do about it? Technology has begun to tackle the problem. The running app Strava has added a beacon feature that broadcasts your location to contacts so they can see where you are in real time while you’re out for a run (or a bike ride). If you’ve stopped for too long, that can be a signal to your contact to get help.
Ultimately though, features like Strava’s are a band-aid for a much larger, systemic problem. Long term solutions involve creating better support for victims, more sensitive and insightful systems for criminal prosecution, and cultivating a culture that promotes the bodily autonomy of women. Over the last few years, we’ve made many strides on these issues, though the election of a man who has openly bragged about sexually assaulting women to the presidency suggests that we have a lot more work to do on this front. In the meantime, we can all look out for each other and do our best to bring up a new generation that understands that abuse should never be stood for, and that no one is entitled to touch anyone else without affirmative consent.