The Problem With Saying Women Shouldn’t Run Alone

Long story short: Women running alone isn't the actual problem.

One day in high school, I showed up to school dressed in a sweater dress worn over a pair of opaque pinkish/taupe leggings. And you’re right: I probably never should’ve chosen to wear pinkish/taupe leggings … ever. But that doesn’t make what happened next, over a decade ago at this point, any less inexcusable to me.

Sometime that day, one of the teachers at my high school approached me and told me that I needed to change my clothes. My outfit wasn’t revealing, I countered. He agreed that yes, it wasn’t exactly revealing, but the fact that the leggings and the dress — I repeat: a long-sleeved sweater dress — hugged my body could be distracting to others. Distracting to the teenage boys who should’ve been paying attention to geometry or english lit or whatever else instead of staring at my sweater dress in the first place, he meant.

I argued. I lost. I was forced to change into a pair of boys’ size XXL basketball shorts and a baggy T-shirt borrowed from a friend — not the least bit distracting on a 110-pound girl, right? — for the rest of the day. And yes, there were tears involved.

When I think about it now, it still makes my blood boil. Here’s why: That was the first time in my life where I can remember feeling like my right to simply live my life as a female was blatantly thrown to the side in order to accommodate the seemingly assumed and accepted inability of males to act appropriately.

Here’s why I tell this story: In the past few days, I’ve stumbled across a number of stories and anecdotes online questioning whether, in general, women should run and bike in less-traveled areas, like say, farther up the Schuylkill River Trail, alone. This is not new. There are tons of discussions and articles around the internet debating whether a woman venturing alone onto trails, or even just city streets, is wise or not, along with plenty of articles with some version or another of the title “How Women Can Stay Safe on Runs.”

But the thing is, if writers — and society, at that — believe that women don’t already know, simply by nature of growing up female, that the world is a dangerous place filled with creeps, they are wrong. I don’t need a “10 Tips to Run Safely As a Woman” post to tell me that, if I dare go out for a run alone, some rude human may yell obscenities about my thighs in broad public. I’ve experienced that enough times to know that those people — and people capable of much worse — exist. And telling me to “Grab a buddy!” and “Don’t wear headphones!” isn’t going to stop any of that behavior from happening on the whole.

If anything, saying that women shouldn’t run alone — something no one would ever question my boyfriend for doing — only reinforces the idea that if I do go for a run alone, and someone attacks me, I probably should’ve known better than to be out on my own anyway. Asking this question of what is and isn’t okay for women should do alone implies that men, the poor things, just can’t help themselves when they see a woman alone in the wild.

Lastly, this habit of questioning what women should and shouldn’t do alone — whether that’s running, biking or skipping around a trail — simply provides a convenient excuse when men do act inappropriately. And they do. Often. A recent study by Runner’s World found that 50 percent of female runners report being harassed while running, from catcalls to experiences where they feared they would be sexually assaulted. And 94 percent of the time, according to that same study, the harassers were men.

And sometimes it doesn’t stop at harassment: I’m sure you probably know that three female runners, who were running alone, were murdered over the course of just nine days in the U.S. last year. Naturally, knowing all of the above, some women will feel better running in groups. And that’s fine — everyone should do what makes them feel happy and comfortable, and load up on some self-defense moves while you’re at it. After all, if there’s a chance of rain, it’s best to carry an umbrella.

But my point is this: Why, in response to statistics and tragedies like those above, is the answer so often, “Women shouldn’t run alone” instead of, “Why don’t men seem to know better? And how can we fix that?”

Nowadays, telling a girl to change her clothes because her existence may be “distracting” to teenage boys doesn’t fly. And telling a girl not to wear a short skirt because that might invite sexual harassment doesn’t either. So why is the question of whether or not it’s okay for a woman to live her life by running in a public space alone still making headlines? Wouldn’t that energy spent telling women what we already know (creeps abound! Simply being a woman makes you a target! Pepper spray!) be better spent making it clear to men that catcalling a woman — or worse, threatening a woman’s safety — isn’t okay? Because clearly, this point —that men are responsible for their behavior toward women, not women themselves — has not yet hit home. And considering it’s International Anti-Street Harassment Week, now seemed the perfect time to point that out.

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