Reason for Writing
As I write this, it has been announced this past week the the remains of a young lady, Sarah Everard, walking home from her friend's home have been found in the woods. The amount of conversation this incident has begun surrounding the safety of women alone is astounding. One I am very keen to be a part of and listen to.
It is so sad that it takes an incident like this for these conversations and improvements to be made. Our thoughts and prayers are with the friends and family of Sarah, and I really hope these conversations can help us get to a place where no women feel unsafe or fall victim to these types of crimes ever again.
This week a survey posted by UN Women found that 97% of young women in the UK have been sexually harassed, while 80% of women of all ages said they had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. This is a deeply stocking statistic and brings us to think, how safe do women feel when they are exercising alone?
Exercising Safely in Lockdown
In the wake of this incident, one of the topics that have come to rise in this time is the things women need to do to help themselves feel safe when exercising alone. We are currently 12 months into a pandemic outbreak, where we have been ordered to mostly workout alone, and sometimes with one other friend. If they live close enough. Many of us exercise alone regardless of a pandemic. However, as group exercise is forbidden at this time and all gyms are shut, it's a situation that is certainly more significant now than ever before.
Like many other women, it has brought me to open conversations around exercising alone with my partner. He is male and we've been together for 10 years. We've lived together for almost that long too and we've been isolating together since the start of this pandemic. It's safe to say we know each other very well. However, today is the first time that I realised that he had no idea that I had safety concerns when I go out to exercise alone or that I routinely put things in place to ensure better security.
Men vs. Women
Like many other women, before I leave the house I either decide to run the same familiar route as I normally do, for familiarity, or I tell my partner of my new route. This way, as he knows my rough running pace, he can determine if I've been gone for too long and know exactly where I would have been. In case I get into trouble. Today is the first day I learnt that he didn't realise I was doing this for safety reasons, not for conversation.
We then went on to discuss other things I do for safety reasons that he might not be aware of. I had assumed for all this time that all men knew of all of these little things and steps women do to make things a little safer for them. After I spoke to him and a few of my other male friends who reached out today, it turns out that they do not.
My partner and my male friends I was speaking with, we all went to the same university at the same time. However, they never worried about walking home at night alone. Yet I carried a rape alarm, always walked home with a friend, never got a taxi alone and sometimes even brought my bike.
We then went on to discuss exercising through the winter in a pandemic. They would have no problem going running after work in the dark. Yet I would have to choose between exercising in the daytime by taking time out of my working hours, or not exercising that day.
When out running in the day, they would only worry about looking visible, but that's all. Whereas I run a lot of the same routes, make sure I'm around a lot of people, hope that people recognise me (and I in turn try to keep in mind who I've recognised along the way) and avoid running towards large groups of men, worry about getting cat-called, maybe make myself look less attractive. Even go back for my phone if I've forgotten it.
I had no idea that safety didn't even cross their mind in the slightest before they go out for a run. In fact, I realised that I worry more about my partner when he's out than he does.
How women feel when they exercise alone
I wanted to see what other womens' experiences were. So I posted a few polls and questions to my Instagram audience to learn more. Please note, this isn't an extensive testing pool, only a small section of my roughly 8,500 Instagram audience, and 97% of who are female. However, it is still astounding and eye-opening.
Question 1: Do you ever think about safety before you head out to exercise?
Yes - 94% | No - 6%
Question 2: Do you take steps to ensure further safety when you go to exercise alone?
Yes - 93% | No - 7%
Question 3: Has not having your safety protocols in place ever stopped you from exercising in the past?
Yes - 75% | No - 25%
Question 4: Have you ever felt unsafe, tense or uneasy when out exercising?
Yes - 90% | No - 10%
Question 5: Have you ever had a man make cat-calls at you, tried to get your attention when you exercise, get in your way, grab or follow you?
Yes - 77% | No - 23%
Question 6: If yes, have you ever reported it to the police?
Yes - 2% | No - 98%
Question 7: What do you do to make things safer for yourself?
Exercise in the daylight.
Run somewhere well-lit if dark.
Only wear one headphone.
Keep music volume low.
Mute music if I approach men.
Never wear headphones.
Run with a guy.
Run in groups.
Don't wear ponytail for 'grabbing'.
Put hair in hat to look like a guy.
Ensure nipples don't show.
Wear baggy clothes.
Wear something distinctive.
Look less attractive.
Wear bright colours.
Share photos of what I'm wearing.
Wear Park Run tag to be identified.
Always bring my phone.
Use live tracking.
Question 8: If you ask your closest male companion "have you ever thought of your safety before going out exercising", what is their response?
Yes - 7% | No - 93%
Sadly, for most women reading this, I anticipate that these results will come at no surprise to you and they are along the lines of what you were expecting. However, I had a few men come to me saying they were taken aback by the results and were not aware of what we go through each time we want to go out alone. As my conversation developed with them, I in return became surprised to learn that they had essentially none of these experiences. Not at all. And they had no idea that our experiences were as extensive and common as this.
Experiences shared by men
Not only were they appalled and angered at these results, but they were also sympathetic. Some have even gone away to ask more from their own female partners and try to be on the lookout for these experiences.
Interestingly, one male friend in particular went on to share some of his experiences with me. Where he, looking back, now believes he's experienced some women feeling uneasy when he has been running past them. He stepped onto a pavement in front of a young woman who appeared to be visibly scared by his sudden appearance. Another flinched and pulled back a fist before realising he was just a runner. He was astounded to think that he could be mistaken for an attacker or that we have to be on edge the whole time.
How do we change this situation?
Unfortunately, this is one of those big situation which isn't going to change overnight. But having these conversations in certainly a step in the right direction. However, if we could all collectively do one thing, what could that be?
Women's concerns when out running varies all the way from cat-calling to... the worse case scenario. We often encounter cat-calling when men are in big groups together or when in cars together. Egging each other on or showing off. Many men will dismiss this as thinking it's harmless, or even worse, a compliment. Additionally, they'll say that the 'worst-case-scenario' is just so rare that we shouldn't be this worried about it. However, it's the frequency of which we encounter even those smaller threats, like cat-calling, that remind us that we are always surrounded by threats and abusive situations. If we can start today with ending even the smallest of things, this will be an achievement.
Women have tried solving the problem themselves.
We've tried carrying accessories as weapons.
We've tried carrying our phones.
We've tried all the apps.
We've tried all the alarms.
We've tried changing the way that we look.
We've tried avoiding the night.
We've tried screaming.
We've tried crossing the road.
We've tried keeping our head down.
We've tried running in groups.
We've tried asking you to stop.
This blog post won't reach a lot of men, I'm sure. So it certainly won't reach the subset of men who are the problem. This post will likely reach mostly women, who are likely to be with men who don't do this and who aren't the problem. As a consequence of this, I think we can reach the 'good' men.
So, my one request that I am asking today is that we ask of our 'good' men...
Dear good men, please confront your cat-calling friends, family and colleagues. This will be a start.