On Street Harassment

This is an article I wrote for my hometown’s local paper in the summer of 2015. Because of the subject matter, I was encouraged to share it on the Sport in Society Intern blog as well. 

            I love to run. Running has built my confidence, leadership skills, and physical and mental strength. I graduated from MHS in 2014 and just completed my first year at Oberlin College, where I compete on the women’s track and field team. This summer, I returned to Melrose and resumed my usual routes throughout town, expecting to enjoy running past familiar landmarks and people of my hometown. After a year of sheltered running in my very isolated college town in Ohio, I was rudely reminded of one of the biggest struggles a female runner faces: street harassment.

            Street harassment became a regular occurrence in my running regimen back in high school. As a freshman, I recall running with my distance group and receiving all kinds of unwanted attention: blaring honks from cars full of people we didn’t know, shouts and catcalls from pedestrians and drivers, and even being chased by groups of boys, some as young as 6th or 7th grade. I would finish those runs feeling afraid, angry, and ashamed, wondering why this harassment would happen. As a captain my senior year, I remember that same feeling of helplessness. I was supposed to be a role model for the freshmen, some who were nervously starting a sport, but I didn’t know how to facilitate a discussion about the intimidating and humiliating disturbances on our runs. There is simply no good way to handle it – you have to keep running and hope that it stops. All the while, we were running through familiar neighborhoods in a small town we called home.

            This summer I am interning at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. In a recent project, we discussed the lagging participation and retention rates of middle and high school female athletes nationwide. Although our sports culture is slowly becoming a more inviting space for young women, there are still many barriers. Street harassment is just one of them – imagine being fourteen again, still adjusting to your body as it rapidly moves through puberty, trying to train it to compete and feel healthy. While this happens, you are focusing on the road, on your breathing, on your body, when someone suddenly violates your space and concentration by screaming a comment at you, or takes it a step further by invading your physical space and running alongside you.

Other factors include economic barriers –something as simple as not having an adequate sports bra or access to feminine hygiene products. Additionally, women’s sports and female athletes receive less coverage by the media and are paid significantly less, as exemplified in this year’s world cup where the winning women’s USA team was paid 2 million dollars compared to the losing men’s USA team paid 8 million. In considering the many barriers that female athletes face, it is also important to note that female coaches only make up 45% of all coaches for women’s collegiate teams, which can serve as an indicator to young women that athletics are not a viable career. Combine all of these factors with the harassment many young women receive when practicing their sport, and it’s no wonder that we have such low numbers of female athletes.

            Speaking as a former MHS athlete and current collegiate athlete: street harassment is NOT a compliment. It is about exerting power with the intent of making someone else feel out of place. It is claiming ownership, claiming a right to judge and appraise another person’s body. When someone deems it necessary to shout something vulgar out of their car at a female runner, or mockingly run or chase after her for a block, you are indirectly telling her that sports are not a place for her. Studies have shown that street harassment impacts decisions to travel and walk alone, work out in a gym instead of outside, and even whether or not to attend events and functions. This is not to portray women as scared and powerless – we aren’t. My point is that street harassment impairs the ability to feel safe.

            My goal in writing this is to raise awareness. Parents – no matter how charming and kind your adolescent son (or daughter) may be, I implore you to show them this article. Although I believe many acts of street harassment are microaggressions meant to make women feel out of place and powerless, I also believe that many young men don’t realize what they are doing when they catcall or harass women. They don’t realize that they may be destroying a favorite running route where that person now no longer feels safe. They don’t realize that when they harass a young girl, they may be ruining a peaceful and therapeutic time for her. They don’t realize that by disrupting that girl’s run, they might be intimidating her out of her sport.

            There may be some backlash for this article. Some adults will say that street harassment isn’t harassment; it’s a part of life. To them, I say this:

            Three weeks ago, after a frustrating day of work, I ran up to the Pine Banks track to complete a workout. Afterwards, my frustrations were completely gone. I felt rejuvenated and happy as I began the short eight-minute journey back to my house. As I ran down Waverly Place, three boys began yelling vulgar things at me, running alongside me, and eventually blocking my path on the sidewalk so I could not pass. I am strong, I am fast, but in that moment I felt completely powerless. I was outnumbered by boys who were younger than me, but bigger and taller, and we were alone on a quiet street. After one of them reached out and grabbed my arm, I was forced to physically push past them, as I then began a terrifying sprint for home. I no longer feel safe running alone down that street, and I likely never will again.

            I love to run. But I should never have to feel like I am running for my life, should never have to rely on my strength to get out of that kind of altercation. However, this isn’t only about me –as someone who has gained so much from running, I want other girls to be able to experience it as well. Above all else, people should be able to feel safe in their town or neighborhood.

            Please, show this to your friends and family. Express your disapproval when a friend catcalls someone in front of you – all you have to say is “that was not okay.” Teach your son that girls do not need his comments to validate their worth. Teach your daughter that street harassment of any kind is never okay and never her fault. And perhaps most importantly, remind her: She is a girl, and that means she is strong, she is powerful, and she is unstoppable.

The author would like to acknowledge that male runners/pedestrians may be subjected to street harassment as well as women. She would also like to highlight that street harassment disproportionately affects those who identify on the LGBTQ spectrum. This article is based upon the author’s experience as a female runner and countless stories shared by young girls and women across the U.S.