Who Should Women Runners Fear? It’s Not Who You Think

Slack for iOS Upload (21)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 MarcotteKarina 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. 

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Statistically, we are more at risk of violence in our own homes than out for a run alone.

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?

Ultrarunner, adventurer, academic, and feminist. Running Across the USA in 2021 to raise money for Girls on the Run. Next challenge: Collegiate Trail Loop FKT. I write about ultrarunning, adventuring, and the intersection of endurance athletics and life.

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32 comments

  1. Violence against women in general is committed by men they know, but I don’t think that’s what happened to these women. Mostly likely they didn’t know there attacker. Look a the homeless man that murdered Chandra Levy while she was out running in DC. The infamous Central Park Jogger Case of Trisha Meili grabbed headlines in the late 80’s. Her rape and attack by a stranger left her in a coma for 12 days. I couldn’t find a statistic but I don’t think most women who are attacked while out running know their attacker.

    I was the victim of a stalker last year. He was a mentally ill stranger and he terrorized me for months. It’s frightening to have a stranger do that to you. You’re fighting a battle with the unknown.

    I think these headlines terrify women the most because they are random murders. We like things wrapped in neat packages and the idea that a stranger could randomly end your life one day is unimaginable. But it could happen.

    In light of these murders everyone should take the time to evaluate their own running habits to look for ways they could be safer. We all could do things to improve them.

    The sad truth is that we live in a world where violence against women happens. Yes, it shouldn’t. And yes the real problem is the men that commit the violence not the women running alone. But it’s still up to us to keep ourselves as safe as possible. No one else will.

  2. C’mon Cilantro, we all know that short skirts, nice shoes, well matched accessories, a nice haircut and perhaps stylish eyeglasses are what *really* cause rape … And the obvious answer is guns. Lots of guns. I want to see the women running in my area with automatic weapons strapped to their backs, perhaps also a grenade launcher in case the attacker is in a car. Side benefit – great cross-training.

    Ugh.

    And also, with all of the blatant and casual sexism and objectification of the coverage of the Olympics constantly annoying me … It is a constant reminder that although we’ve made great strides in my life time, there is a LONG way to go.

    And the victim-blame mentality, even when it is less overt like the stuff you mention, is so pervasive that I really don’t think people ‘get’ that they are doing it – they think ‘helpful tips’ rather than ‘how do we deal with root cause’?

    But the gut-punching truth is right here:
    “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.”

    Now that my kids are college age, we engage in more ‘adult’ talk with them and their friends … And I hear from all of them that their female friends have all gotten cat-called, have had men as old as me proposition them (seriously?), that they’ve had men who feel ‘rejected’ turn nasty … And so on – all the stuff we are constantly reading about.

    So the truth is that it is more likely that someone sees you at a gym and decides that there is ‘something there’ and begins unwanted pursuit ending in attack, than it is for some random maniac to come up to you on the roads and attack.

    And it is THAT that is both scary – and hopeful. We have limited means to deal with random maniacs … But more predictable and known situations present the ability to shape the future through the education of men who are predisposed to attack. Though this year’s election has drawn back the curtain on an all-too-large culture of people who have no desire to change or accept people as equals.

  3. I really really really resent when running is presented as this dangerous activity for women. On one hand we’re supposed to exercise for health and (right, like anyone other than our loved ones care about our health, so really the only reason we’re supposed to exercise is) for “weight management”, yet when we do, we’re not doing it right and, oh yeah, gonna get killed! Unless we’re wearing the right amount of spandex, no more, no less, in the perfectly safe gym surrounded by muscle men who ogle us just enough, but not too much, then it’s great. But if we dare to enjoy it, do it alone, somewhere outside, we’re asking for our pony tails to be yanked and our bodies to be thrown in a ditch – which can happen outside doing ANYTHING. Seriously, it’s time to talk to our children and our men and culture that we keep our hands to ourselves and if we think we can’t, there’s help for that, and if we don’t, there are serious consequences. And in the meantime, I’ll see you on the trails.

  4. I don’t get it…you say that violence is being perpetrated by men in our lives right now, but you don’t go into what that even means? hmm I’m confused. I’ve definitely never felt unsafe on a treadmill. I have felt unsafe outside on a run before though.

    1. I think it’s kind of like how when we fly on a plane it feels scarier than driving in a car, but, statistically, we’re far more likely to be hurt or killed in a car crash than a plane crash. It’s the same. While we feel safer among the men we know, we’re statistically much more likely to be hurt by them than by strangers. Not that we will be or that the men in our lives are anything other than awesome people (which statistically the vast vast majority are), just like the majority of car rides result in safe travel.

      1. That is a perfect analogy Salty! Reality is, we feel safe with the things we know and are close to home. We feel safe with people around us, we don’t always question the things we know…just the unknown. Most accidents occur within a few miles from home because we KNOW the streets we know and we are comfortable and complacent which leads to distraction and even carelessness. Known doesn’t necessarily mean safe. Unknown doesn’t necessarily mean danger. There are no certainties either way, but I think this is a great post and reminder as many tend to forget that known side presents dangers too.

    2. “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.”

      The men in our lives being the ex-boyfriends, neighbors, or spouses, who commit violence against women.

      We’ve never felt unsafe on a treadmill because it’s not the treadmill or the run itself we need to fear. Cilantro isn’t saying that the gym is a more dangerous place, but rather the people in the gym. She is simply communicating that violence against women is committed by offenders *known* to the victims, and that its more likely that we would be attacked by someone who knows us, who knows our schedules.

      The gym seems like a safe place because you are literally sheltered, indoors, with a constant supply of lighting and witnesses. But it’s not about the gym. Again, it’s the people who are more likely to take advantage of knowing you and your schedule to assault you at their convenience. Cilantro isn’t saying that someone is gonna take her right off her treadmill and hold her for ransom, but rather, the relationships we make, be it at the gym or on the trail, are more likely to affect our well-being than any type of stranger danger.

      Trust me, I’ve had my own scary encounters with strangers while running outdoors, but I’m more creeped out by the people who could be monitoring my running out their window or via social media. It’s such an unfortunate, exhausting topic.

  5. Cilantro – very well put, thank you!
    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Some of those thoughts include how I might respond the next time a man tries to tell me how to protect myself – looking for a way to start turning the tide …

  6. Great post! Such a double edged, and somber sword. Like Salty said, we’re ‘supposed’ to run/workout/whatever for a variety of reasons and now that’s not safe (but what is?) – which is terrible because I, like so many of us run for the sanctity of time alone.

    Timely piece, I was running with a male friend this morning and we we’re discussing safety on runs as it’s starting to get a little darker in the mornings. We didn’t come up with an answer, just run faster 🙂

  7. A word about news media in response to this: “Media outlets don’t want to talk about it.”
    That’s not true. Perhaps you cannot look to all news media to cover this well, but many news media and reporters are doing good work. The Detroit Free Press recently publish a long piece about violence against women. http://www.freep.com/story/opinion/readers/2016/08/13/men-must-play-big-role-stopping-violence-women/88674468/
    This shocking piece was in the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2016/06/03/more-than-half-of-college-athletes-surveyed-at-one-university-admit-coercing-a-partner-into-sex/.
    Runner;s World recently had a great column on this: http://www.runnersworld.com/other-voices/the-problem-is-not-women-running-alone?utm_source=FBPAGE&utm_medium=Social&utm_term=542281993&utm_campaign=——Motivation—–
    So there IS good stuff out there from journalists who do care and want to see a change, and I think that’s important to keep in mind in this essential conversation.

    1. Those are all great articles Lindsay, and I definitely had not seen the Washington Post one (Thanks for sharing those!). I don’t think for a second that Cilantro was saying that NO media will talk about it, but in her words “what we must acknowledge, and news reports that focus THE BULK of the story on how women must learn how to protect themselves”. THE BULK is the piece of that, yes there are great reporters out there covering the other side, but the bulk does in fact take the “standard route”. As a reporter yourself, you surely understand that not ALL media has good informative coverage of topics and I think that was the point that she was trying to make. It’s not even just media though, having the conversation that it’s not just on us isn’t totally medias responsibility. As friends, parents, human beings- sometimes that means having a tough conversation with a loved one including ones like that.

  8. YES!!! Every time someone tells me that I should stop running outside alone, my hackles rise. I’m not doing anything wrong by running, and I refuse to alter my own habits and routines for the sake of people are ARE doing something wrong. Think women who run alone are being unsafe? Have a conversation with the people who are making women feel unsafe, then! We all need to start talking about the reasons behind this, rather than telling women to stop running alone.

  9. I agree with everything you said. I hate the victim blaming society we live in. Let’s teach people not to attack instead of how to not get attacked. Most of my runs are alone, and most are super early in the morning when it’s dark. What happened to those women, while horrific, is pretty rare. The one thing I prob should start doing is changing my route consistently, but other than that, I let my husband know where I’m running (I don’t run with my phone), I listen to music but just have one earbud in with the music very low, and I’m aware of my surroundings.

    1. So true, about stopping attacks instead of preventing/reacting to them.

      I tried to get better about altering my normal routes and Brian got all nervous because now he had to learn more routes. So when i say I’m doing X route, he has to think about it now. Made me laugh, I tried to be safer by changing routes but then have to go into more detail with him because he doesnt run the routes or know them.

        1. Right, I have decided last minute to change my route – either because of weather, or just deciding to do a different run than originally planned. And yeah, that would pose a problem….

  10. I haven’t read any of the other comments yet. But I’m so happy you wrote this.
    Recently an acquaintance was kidnapped and murder after parting ways with her boyfriend while they were out riding bikes.
    The Facebook comments on the news articles were awful and in some way said she was ill-equipped to defend herself going to the extent of saying if she was carrying a gun she would still be alive.
    Now I haven’t stayed up to date on the facts of the investigation, but the man arrested had a previous conviction for attempted kidnapping back in the early 90s. In this instance the woman did survive, but the attacker had hit her from behind with his truck and then while she was down hit her over the head.
    I don’t know about you but I run facing traffic. I try to stay aware of my surroundings while running, but if a car drives across the street to purposefully take me out from behind, it may very well injure me or knock me unconscious. I’m not sure how in the heck a weapon of any kind would save me. I’ve had multiple self-defense classes, and I try to be smart by when and where I choose to run. But at the end of the day, I can only control myself, I can not control any of the sick people out there who want to hurt or murder someone; I can only hope that I have made the right choices and have done enough to protect and defend myself.

    1. Even if she had a big dog, a gun, was a black belt in martial arts, and was wearing kevlar from head to toe, there’s nothing a woman runner could do to protect against that kind of insanity. How awful for your acquaintance. I hope she makes a full physical and emotional recovery!

      1. Her acquaintance died. Please re-read the second sentence. There is no physical or emotional recovery possible for this victim.

  11. This is all so infuriating. I will say that I am scared to run outside alone anymore – and only really feel safe on a group run or at a race. The areas around me where I feel safe are dwindling. I have friends who DO carry guns while they run (I’m not there yet, not sure if I’ll ever be). I’ve been panhandled in my gym parking lot at 4:30am before, and it never even occurred to me that I was also at risk IN the freaking gym.

    I just want to go home, get in bed, and pull the covers over my head right now.

    1. Oh dear! Don’t do that! I think the one thing I take away from all of this stuff is that in many ways safety (or danger, depending on how you want to look at it) is an illusion and so much of it is out of our hands, so why not make choices that make sense to us and do what makes us happy, be our best, and feel most satisfied.

  12. I think the world becomes a less scary place for a lot of people when they can find fault with the victim’s behavior/choices; “Well clearly, that happened to her because she did/did not ___, I am not that dumb/inattentive/___ so I know it can’t happen to me!” It makes people feel more in control of their world to put those blinders on. The problem with that type of belief system is that it makes getting to the real issue at hand, not even to mention actually solving the problem, incredibly hard because you’ll always have people saying the problem is a result of the victim’s personal choices and there aren’t larger/scarier/culture-wide things on going perpetuating the problem. The more of us that point this out and shout it loud, the closer we get to having people take off their blinders, or at least peek out from behind them. Thank you for this piece, Cilantro!

    1. Yes, I agree 100%, Pimento. That was perfectly said. When we find fault with the victim, we can “modify” our behavior for a false sense of safety.

  13. While I appreciate the intent of the piece and many of the comments, I disagree with some views on characterizing certain views as victim blaming. I believe we as women need to be realistic about where we are as a society and act accordingly — whether that means changing behavior or learning new skills. You can’t run alone in the dark on a deserted road and think you are “entitled” to be safe and get upset if something happens. It’s sad but that is the reality. Don’t put yourself needlessly in harms way. Be safe be smart.

    In my opinion, being safe and responsible means not getting so obliterated to be unable to leave a bad situation with a man at a party/bar/date or not running alone in a park before dawn or on remote roads or trails. I firmly agree that men (and some women too) need to learn to treat the opposite sex or their partners without violence or aggression, but we need to be aware that many of them don’t. Regardless of what we wish.

    I think many of the points made are very good but I believe we are responsible for our own safety and this may mean adjusting our actions to avoid risky situations. This doesn’t mean never run alone or on trails or on quiet streets. It means be prepared, be aware, check in and check back so if something happens — a fall, an attack, or a hit and run, someone will be there or at least start looking.

    I am shocked when I go out early with my BF some mornings and see lone women running on paths where there is no visibility to road. I don’t care that I’m half a mile from multi million dollar condos in Boston. I’m also in an urban setting where homelessness and mental disease and crime exists. I grew up in Detroit when the city was changing and learned as a child to be safe, be diligent, and don’t be a victim. That’s not victim blaming to say you shouldn’t do something if it puts you potentially in harms way. That’s common sense.

    1. So if you were hit by a drunk driver while running on the road, people who think running on the road is stupid and dangerous can throw up their hands and say you should have known better? I certainly don’t think that, personally, but that seems to be what you’re saying about victims of violent crimes who choose to do things that you do not choose to do.

    2. So, because it’s in my nature I am going to see both sides of this- and take a middle ground. For starters, I 100% agree that we need to be responsible for ourselves and try and avoid certain situations that could prove to be risky. I think that being safe and using certain measures while out running is very valid and important. I understand your point that we can’t expect the world to instantly stop being violent and dangerous. Wouldn’t it be nice if with the snap of a finger we could change how the world worked and we would all be safe from violence and attacks.

      Here’s where I’m going to take the other side though. Judge those women you see running solo in the morning all you want- but the point of this post was to say that you are not necessarily safer because you have your prince charming along for the miles. The point is that there are so many things in life that we do that we forget we are at risk- it’s not as simple as “don’t run alone!”. The point is that fearing the unknown does not make you any safer than you may be around the people in your life that you do know. The point is that we SHOULD be allowed to run the streets or go to a party without fear of some asshole hurting us. If you DARE to call a rape victim at fault- I’d urge you to go to a support group and just listen to the things that so many women have been through and what happened to them- they did not abuse and rape themselves. College/Party rapes get far more publicity because of the location- should we do some research on all of the times women were raped by someone they knew, or because they were attacked in a grocery store parking lot. But that female wasn’t obliterated at a party, she was grocery shopping….so she was still at fault for going to the store to buy food? I urge you to think about everything that YOU do that could put you in a position where a stranger or someone you know could heaven forbid do something to you. If you were in a situation and said NO and whoever you were with didn’t listen- I’d hope to god that no one would blame you like you are blaming others.

      I’m glad that you feel smart and take precautions to protect yourself. You are smart, you do seem like you make a point to keep yourself out of sticky situations and I commend you for that. But if you feel SO safe, you are SO vulnerable. Routines are vulnerable, someone could know your routine and therefore put you at risk. Daylight doesn’t make you safe, some of the recent tragedy happened in broad daylight. I will use the example I used above in another comment. Most accidents happen within 2-5 miles from home because you know the roads, you feel safe and you get complacent. The moment you think you are 100% safe because you do everything to protect yourself, you are in fact more vulnerable. Here’s a quote for you from the movie Pearl Harbor…think about it “The smart enemy attacks you exactly where you think you are safe”.

      A recent story for you: My mom went for a run with her boss and another coworker on Sunday evening as they are all training for a half. After a few miles- they left her and she got lost and they didn’t bother to turn around and check on her even though the plan was to run together. A stranger allowed her to use their phone at a gas station to call a cab to go back to her bosses house to get her car(but hey, that stranger knew she was alone and didn’t attack her!). When she returned to her bosses house, not only were they not out looking for her- they never thought twice about their actions leaving her in an area she didn’t know, as the night was getting darker. Her boss is the CEO of a MAJOR company, has known her for years, and he’s lucky I don’t know his number to personally call him and berate him. My mom and I had a long talk about what happened. I was proud of her for finding someone to run with, especially since she doesn’t know that area well. I did also give her a few ideas on things she could do to help protect herself a little more while running- because that is natural response, but important. I was also furious that someone she has known for years and should be able to trust, let her down. Had something happened to her, that would have been on him- and not her.

    3. I’ve been subjected to more harassment running in daylight on roads in my local “safe” neighborhoods than I ever have been on trails or in the early morning / late evening dark or on the roads of sketchy neighborhoods where I lived and ran when I was younger.

      I’ve had a truck full of landscape guys pull up behind me and follow me – with my daughter in the jog stroller – for the length of a full block. I’ve had both construction and landscape crews stop working to catcall me from their job site. I’ve had a carload of teenage boys loop the block so they could pass me and whistle – again. I’ve had random men shout things from their car windows while I wait for a crossing light. And these are things that have happened whether I’m running alone, with my kid, or with a female running mate.

      This is everyday garden-variety harassment, nothing serious, nothing threatening, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. At best, it’s annoying and disrespectful. And it isn’t my fault. I’m following all the “rules”. I do believe that I should be entitled to use the sidewalks in my town, alone or not, without being subjected to this kind of treatment. It isn’t my behavior that needs to change here, it’s theirs. Maybe instead of being “realistic about where we are as a society”, we as women need to speak up more. Society isn’t going to change if we meekly accept the limits it hands us.

  14. My biggest takeaway from this stuff when it happens is that if I make my choices out of fear I’ll probably just never do anything I want to do. Screw that! I’d rather be happy, live free, run hard, go nuts. I’ve run in some sketchy places and lots of not-so-sketchy places and I’ve run at all times of day and night. Some people would say I’m not always “safe,” but I’m not safe driving or sitting at home by myself or going to a bar or, well, doing anything. Pimento makes a great point–safety is an illusion. But rather than let that scare me, I’ll grab life by the horns, thank you very much.