My high school cross country team consists of 30 girls who find joy and purpose in exploring new trails. 30 girls who find freedom and confidence in exercise. However, at a team meeting in the beginning of the season, we were faced with example scenarios regarding the sexual harassment of female runners in order to discuss proper safety precautions. Most of my teammates could relate with vivid personal experiences about being followed or catcalled, expressing their fears of exercising alone without extreme protective measures. We were advised by our female coaches on how to react if men commented on our bodies. However, the boys cross country team — both oppressors and bystanders in our example scenarios — did not have any similar conversations.
Exercise is a form of stress-relief and empowerment. After a long day of work or school, exercise is the perfect way to find some alone time, enjoy nature, listen to music, or daydream. Whether it is a casual walk, jaunty bike ride, or mindless solo run, the ability for women to make decisions for their own bodies when exercising gives them a sense of autonomy and security.
Experiencing a single instance of sexual harassment can completely change this perspective. Music is silenced, tight clothes that accentuate physical features are replaced with baggier clothing, and every second is spent on high alert, scanning the area for possible dangers. One of my teammates can’t even go out for a walk without a phone in one hand and a can of pepper spray in the other. Oftentimes, the trauma from an instance of sexual harassment can completely destroy a woman’s passion for exercise, resulting in depression and restlessness that can permeate work and family life. Unwanted focus on specific body parts alters a woman’s view on body image, which can eventually spiral into insecurities and disordered eating. Why is it that women must live in constant fear and alter their daily tendencies for something they can’t control? What may, to men, appear as a careless joke, or even worse, an intentional “compliment,” is detrimental to a woman’s physical and mental health. Trust me, us women aren’t laughing.
According to a survey conducted by Runner’s World, 60 percent of women have been harassed while running. 90 percent of the harassment stems from men and 74 percent of the harassment is in the form of unwanted sexual attention. Men shouldn’t be able to walk away, run away, bike away, or drive away without shame and punishment for their words and actions. Sexually objectifying women needs to stop. Hateful messages in the form of sarcasm and humor must be corrected.
Obviously, not all men actively harass women, but those who do are the source of the problem. To the men who find pleasure in expressing their sexual impulses to women, keep your thoughts to yourself. Women are not just moving archery targets unharmed by the arrows you shoot at them. Women are human. Rather than words of encouragement related to the body, general phrases like “You’re doing great!” or “Keep going!” build a supportive environment and instill confidence. Just one word can change a woman’s relationship with exercise, so staying quiet or smiling is just as effective. The goal is to make the local park, trails, gym, beaches, and other public spaces a place for everyone to freely explore their own passions.
To our male allies, it is in your hands to combat and prevent any form of sexual harassment, sexism, or objectification. Of course, you should always call out the harasser and assist women in need of a male figure, but you should also ensure women are comfortable exercising in your presence. When walking, running, biking, or driving behind a woman, do not move at the same speed as her, or else it may seem like you are following her. Keep random interactions to a minimum, even those with good intentions, and respect her space and privacy. Offer to exercise or travel with your friends who are afraid to do it alone. Inform women of dangerous routes or suspicious activity around the area. Be helpful, not hateful. And again, don’t comment on our bodies.
A high school girls cross country team should not have to face both the challenges of their sport and the poor words of men. It should not be my friend’s duty to send me worried texts every time I go on a walk or run alone. Pepper spray brands should not need to have products tailored for those who exercise in public spaces. You men need to step it up.
Editor’s Note: Patricia Tran ’24 is an Associate Sports Editor for The Phillipian.