As I ran this morning on the treadmill, I watched Fox News cover the story of the female runners who had been recently murdered while out on a run. I watched the story transition from one about potential connections between the murders to one where a trained individual showed two women how to protect themselves from a stranger attack while on a run. He mimicked running behind each runner and using their ponytails to yank them back and pull them off balance.
The image was almost panic-inducing. I imagined myself, out on a run, often the only person running on the trails around my local urban park. I found myself watching carefully to see what tips I could pick up to protect myself should I encounter a serial killer on my run.
But as I ran ostensibly safely on a treadmill inside a large, local big-box gym, I started to really think about the message this coverage was sending. Are we really in this much danger when we run and, if we are, what obligations do we have to protect ourselves?
Before we get into it, I want to establish that what happened to Vanessa Marcotte, Karina Vetrano, and Alexandra Brueger is incomprehensibly terrible. It is serious and I take finding whoever did this very seriously. What happened to them is not their faults. It didn’t happen to them because they were running. It didn’t happen to them because they were running alone. It didn’t happen to them because of where they were running, or what they were wearing, or because they were attractive and young. It didn’t happen to them because they weren’t appropriately trained in self-defense or running without mace or a gun.
I’ve been reflecting on this a lot, as it aligns with my professional research on how society places different expectations and requirements on women who do the same things that men do. The coverage of these murders that suggests that there is something that we need to do to protect ourselves shifts the onus of responsibility to prevent crimes onto the victims, in this case women runners, rather than on the perpetrators. It’s saying that we women runners are doing it wrong, rather than those who commit violence upon us.
It is, quite simply, not women runners’ responsibility to stop people from attacking us. It is a societal responsibility to teach men that exerting their physical power over women, especially in a violent way, is wrong. Unacceptable. I don’t need to wear a parka so men don’t sexually assault me. I don’t need to run anywhere other than where I want to to stay alive, and I don’t need to learn self-defense in case men decide to attack me.
Second, and equally concerning, is that learning self-defense can be a great thing if a woman chooses to do it and running on a treadmill at the gym is totally fine if that’s what a woman wants to do. However, focusing on self-defense or other choices a woman runner makes as the answer to the problem of safety paints a picture of an attacker as a sneaky pony-tail pulling stranger. The threat of the unknown serial killer that ambushes us in an unexpected attack perpetuates the myth that women are murdered and raped in isolated, stranger-danger events. But pony-tail-pulling strangers are not even close to who is most likely to attack, rape, or murder women.
Who is the most likely perpetrator of violence against women, runners or otherwise? People they know. Their ex-boyfriend, their neighbor, or spouse.
According to a U.S. Department of Justice report, in 2010 between 73% and 79% of homicides were perpetrated by offenders known to the victims. Similarly a little over 75% of rape or sexual assaults were conducted by someone known to the victim. Additionally, research shows that men are actually more likely to be attacked by strangers than women are, and the largest percentage of stranger crimes committed are robbery and simple assault. These numbers don’t diminish the importance of preventing the relatively more rare stranger attacks, and it is important to state quite clearly that the fact that any of these things happen to just one person, regardless if they knew them or not, is completely unacceptable. If that person is you, it is 100% important regardless of what the numbers say.
But what we must acknowledge, and news reports that focus the bulk of the story on how women must learn how to protect themselves if they dare to run, is that if we are talking about protecting ourselves from dangerous men, we are much more likely to be attacked in our homes or places of work by someone that we know and may even love. The persistence of violence against women is not an epidemic of serial killers, but continued evidence of a society where certain levels of violence, power, and aggression is expected from men, and often accepted or ignored when it is perpetuated against women. I am less safe running on my treadmill in my gym with people that I know as acquaintances than I am running outside through remote trails.
There. I said it.
And the reality of what I’m saying here is more panic-inducing than even the Fox News graphic self-defense demonstration. Unfortunately, that’s not the conversation we’re having. It’s easier to accept some stranger as a threat to us, than it is to accept that we are much more at risk in the company of people we know. Media outlets don’t want to talk about it. It’s not a conversation that we’ve had on a large scale at all. And that is a huge problem.
At the end of the day, I’m not suggesting that we, as female runners, shouldn’t learn to protect ourselves; this is, after all, the world that we live in. But who are we protecting ourselves against? Probably not the unknown male that hides behind a mask and that TV shows like “Criminal Minds” tells us is impossible to catch. Thinking of this type of person as the one to be most feared makes proactive prevention virtually impossible, because these madmen are presented as irrational, psychotic, and invisible. And when we think of this as the biggest threat we face, yes, then running alone with a ponytail begging to be pulled off into the bushes seems risky.
However, recognizing that violence is perpetrated by the men in our lives right now provides a more clear but equally difficult path to take to run safely. Most important, however, is changing the entire rhetoric about crime, power, and violence, changing how we talk about it and how we see it. It’s a difficult concept to grasp and it requires us to address the hard and scary truth that violence against women is not something that learning a little self-defense can fix.
How do you feel about how the media portray women’s running safety? What choices, if any, do you make to avoid violence on the run?