Hey Baby! Handling Harassment on the Run

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Street harassment can take a peaceful, powerful run and turn it into a jarring experience.

Because I am a woman, if I am in public I will get harassed at some point. It has been happening since before puberty, as I’m sure every woman on the planet can relate. When I’m running it seems to happen more often than when I’m doing anything else, and I’m fed up.

My nonrunner friends don’t understand. They just can’t relate to the volume of cat calls I’ve had to put up with.  They aren’t outdoors in shorts for 20-30 miles every week in every climate.  They don’t spend hours upon hours of their lives without the shelter of a house, a car or even a group, so they don’t know what it’s like to be exposed out there, often alone…and to get yelled, hollered, or sneered at every day by every lowlife loser from his car, bike, or stoop.

This experience can be so jarring.  You’re having a great run and feeling strong, when suddenly some dude comes along and says something that rips those feelings right out of the air around you.  What do you do?  Do you just put your head down and ignore him?  As for me, I’m a pro at yelling back at harassers, and I say it’s better to let ’em have it if you can!  More after the jump:

If someone harasses me when I’m alone it’s obviously a safety gamble, but if I am feeling extra brave or if I can perceive that the asshole is harmless, I don’t shy away from a retort.  If I am with a friend it feels much easier, and it’s more entertaining yell back with a buddy there to cheer you on.  Much to my surprise, often what comes out of my mouth will be something clever.

But there’s more than one way to school a jackass.

1. The snappy comeback

These make the best stories, so I’ll give you a few examples:

When I was a brand-new 19-year old road runner training for my first half, a pack of high school-aged boys thought they could harass me in broad daylight with no consequences as I ran past them on an out-and-back. The first time I passed these jackasses-in-training, one of them said something like, “Hey. My friend likes your tits.” I paid them no mind and pushed on as they snickered.

The second time I passed them they made a comment that I couldn’t ignore. “Hey, my friend wants to f*** you.” I stopped dead in my tracks, whipped around and said, “Oh yeah? Call me when your balls drop!” I turned right around as their mouths dropped and finished out my run.

Another time, a friend and I were finishing up a workout late on a Friday evening (my favorite kind of workout). A van load of dudes pulled over to ask us, “Hey can you ladies give us some directions?” I casually replied, “Yeah, to hell?” Muahaha it makes me laugh to this day. Some of my skeptical friends asked, “What if they were really looking for directions?”

Okay. Logic time: A van-load of dudes. Pulled their car over.  To ask two young women for directions. At 11pm on a Friday night.

Finally, on the snappy comeback front, one summer evening my best friend and I were running together. Summer is when the real perverts come out to play. And by play, I mean harass. Some idiot drove by and shouted out the car window at us, “Will you sit on my face?” My best friend yelled back, “Only if I can fart!” Yep, I am still laughing at that one.

whatever_dude2. The bird is the only word necessary.

Sometimes the best reaction is just to flip someone the bird– the classic middle finger/poker face combo. This is especially reliable when your harasser is in a car and may not be able to hear your scathing witticisms.  It works especially great when you’re running on the sidewalk and some loser shouts at you from his car, and then you catch up with him at a red light.  Men harassing women is so common I can only imagine other drivers immediately understand why the girl on the street is waving her middle finger around at him in traffic.

3. Advanced warfare: An “intellectual” approach

Snappy one-liners and a good bird-flip are fairly safe ways to combat street harassment, but sometimes I get to practice an advanced level of warfare: stopping the harasser to argue with him.

One marathon weekend my cousin was in town, helping me carb up at a restaurant across the street from my apartment. In the 2 whole minutes it took for us to exit the restaurant and walk across the street, a passenger in a truck hollered at us. It was just a cat call, but in my marathon-focused mind, I was seriously not having it. I pulled the aforementioned middle finger/poker face combo, and he persisted.

They were stuck at a stop light, and being tenacious as runners are, I told him what I thought about it: he was being inappropriate, what was the need for that?  After a little back and forth I finally won the last word, and they drove away.

Which brings me to the truth: that harassment is exhausting and angering, and sometimes you just don’t know how to win.

And even though I love road running, harassment is enough to make me prefer the trails. Sure, there could be danger lurking in the forest, but at least there aren’t street harassers waving whiskey flasks in your face while commenting on your ass.  In some ways, that threat is much more real and much more present.

What do you do to combat harassment while running?  Share your war stories in the comments!

I'm a student of law and life. A Jill of all trades, master of none. But I'm hoping to master something, sometime. ;) Preferably a sub-23 5k and a sub-4 marathon!

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36 comments

  1. ugh i get that a lot. both with running, and at work. I work providing outreach and housing for the homeless population, and a lot of them will cat call and say inappropriate things to me… a lot. one endearing one, a guy asked if i had a boyfriend. i said yes. he said “…. does he treat you right?” I said yes, yes he does. He said well alright then. have a great day!

    i had one just yesterday, so annoying, i was in a conversation with some collaborators for our organization, and a man came up to me, said excuse me…. I assumed he needed help with something so I turned to face him, and he said “i’d like to marry you.” I rolled my eyes and went back to my conversation. The tricky ones are my least favorite!! When they act like they actually have something to say, and then end up being a douche canoe. Ugh. So annoying. I tend to swear at them and am rude, but only when running. when im working i have to be nicer. ugh.

    1. It’s possible to be nice and still correct someone who’s harassing you though, isn’t it? “Oh, haha, I know you were just trying to be nice, but actually women don’t like it when men say those things to them.”

      I mean…I hope that’s possible.

      But I don’t know. I’ve tried to say that to men on the street here in NYC (if you can’t tell from me being all over the comments here, this is a topic close to my heart, and something women here have to deal with to the power of 100000000, since most of us don’t travel in a car-coccoon like y’all in the ‘burbs), and I’ve been met with blinks of realization and I’ve been met with cursing. It’s tough. There’s a delicacy to handling these situations, and I’ve seen some people do it very gracefully. I envy that.

  2. When I was running the Boston Marathon (you might think you’re safe from cat-calls running in a race, right?), a guy along the course yelled “Show me your tits!” Now, he most likely wasn’t talking about me and my sternum, but I hollered back “Boobs are for Barbies!!” and got a roar of approval from the women running around me.

  3. I find it sad when some guy says some innocuous nice thing and my initial reaction is to question the intent. I was pushing my daughter in the stroller and some guy said, “keep up the good work!” And while he MIGHT have been saying “keep that fine ass tight, lady” he probably was actually just saying “go you strong mom getting in your workout with your daughter.”

    But otherwise, yes, I’ve had everything hurled at me over the years – marriage proposals, slurs, body part comments, commands to smile [so. annoying.], commands to put more clothes on, commands to take more clothes off, and on and on.

    Jackasses ruin it for everyone.

  4. While us women may get this thrown at us more often, it doesn’t mean men aren’t prone as well. I know a few men who when running in short shorts will get “f**got thrown at them. Also, just recently, my two friends were running together (male and female) and they were egged by teenage kids in a van! Let’s hope this isn’t a new trend.

    1. You are so right! Normally if I am running with men, I don’t get harassed, but it has definitely happened in the past. In fact, one dude harassed my good guy friend and I when we were out running, and both of use flipped him off and yelled haha.

  5. I agree with Mina….lol. I run at 4:30 am. The only living things that I am harassed by are deer. Even the paper boy is so used to seeing me he doesn’t flinch.

  6. It’s definitely a female runner problem and a runner problem. I’ve seen guys get harassed too. I’m not sure how to handle it. For safety reasons I usually don’t respond. The feisty part of me wants to respond, but I don’t want to stoop to their level. I’ve always wondered what these people do for a hobby. I’ve often wanted to find out what it is and heckle them while they do whatever it is they enjoy. Could you imagine if a group of runners showed up in some guys living room and heckled him while he played video games? Or maybe a group of runners shows up at the softball field or golf course and starts yelling rude things?

    1. i agree, douche canoes seem to have streams to row around everywhere. As a guy I am sorry this happens to women, it’s sad, but it also happens to guys, proving that idiots know no bounds. I always ignore, one of the times i flipped the bird the car followed me, then out jumped four larger young fellows. I could have easily outran them, but still, I’m out for a run not a confrontation or testosterone test.

      1. Yes! Good point. It’s like when people have a dog off a leash and are all “Oh, he won’t bite!” But I am actually just annoyed I have to deal with this shit at all. Most of these people aren’t threats, but it’s the interruption and the suggestion that I can’t just do my thing in peace.

  7. The worst part about it to me is that there’s no way to win, really. If you retort, you give them the attention they want. If you don’t, they think they can get away with it. It’s SO. INCREDIBLY. FRUSTRATING. I’m not a violent person, but when men harass me on the street I get so worked up I wish I could punch them right in their mouths!

    1. And actually…I don’t condone it or anything…but one time I was so fed up that I did punch a guy who was harassing me. In the chest, not the mouth. But still, I did it, right in the middle of a busy intersection in the NYC Financial District! I regret to report that it wasn’t as satisfying as I thought it would be. Mostly I was just worried that a police officer saw it and that I could get charged with assault.

      Fortunately my swell running club was really supportive, and nobody turned me in!

      1. Love it, Cinnamon! I don’t advocate violence either, but hopefully now he will think twice before harassing someone. If a man harassed a man, he would expect to get socked in the face. It should be no different with women being able to fight back. 🙂

  8. I agree with the frustration of this post. And I do yell back and flip the bird on a regular basis, but I’ve tried to tone it down recently for safety reasons, too. I had a scare awhile back where the speeding sports car stopped in the middle of the country road after I yelled at him for driving too close to me, which I had interpreted as harassment. It quickly occurred to me that I could easily end up in the trunk of the car and nobody would know what happened. I stopped and planned my getaway over the electrified fence and through the cow pasture. Fortunately, he ended up just driving away. It makes me so angry. I’m the type to stand up for myself, and I do not live or run in fear. I hate that it’s a no win situation. I don’t want to take anyone’s crap quietly, but I also don’t want to escalate the situation.

    1. I hear what you’re saying, Lisa, and I completely agree that it’s not good to put yourself in danger. But if we don’t stand up for ourselves, who will? Men? Hell no they won’t! They’ve proven that over and over.

  9. I think they are looking for a response or reaction. So I don’t respond or react. I am cold as ice and just ignore them entirely. When you react, you’re giving them your power. Just my two cents…

    1. I think the guys screaming at us about what their friend wants to do are just using us to embarrass their friend or to show off. So if we yell back I think it’s good to show we’re people and not objects for their amusement. Also, if someone is a real jerk and looking to scare us, showing we’re not scared and actually not going to take their shit is also probably a good idea. Other times, if someone is trying to get our attention then the ice queen approach is a good one – it’s my preferred response to this shit, actually 🙂

  10. A good chunk of the time a respond with the Bird and some F bombs under my breath. But I also agree with Amanda and Salty that sometimes the “ice queen” response is better. I use this one typically when stuck at a stoplight and someone is trying to get my attention- sometimes they come back with “stuck up bitch” because I’m ignoring them but I’d rather be that than get myself in sticky situation (some of the areas I run, not the best.)

    1. i sometimes do ice queen TOO hard! My friends will yell for me, or honk at me, and I just ignore it completely till they’re right in front of me yelling my name at me. I just ignore it all!

  11. This just made me remember another cat-call/response during a race. . . I passed a guy (in a skirt) and the guy made some comment about how hopefully his wife wouldn’t mind the sort-skirt he was chasing, yada yada. I just turned my head and said- “Sorry about that fart, I’m a bit gassy this morning.”

  12. I always used to yell/flip the bird when I was honked at or harassed but usually it just ended up the guys would laugh at me and it made me feel worse. Now I don’t react at all, I feel like they’re just looking for a reaction most of the time and I try my best not to give them that satisfaction.

  13. I started to take it personally as I was reading this that I don’t ever get street harassed! But then I remembered that I usually run in the dark at 5am. My bigger worry is getting chased by a deer or maybe murdered.
    When I *do* end up running in the light of day, the harassment I usually get is people telling me I can’t run on the shoulder of the road. “Get off the road!!!!!!! RUN ON THE SIDEWALK!!!” I either give the bird or ignore them.

  14. I absolutely hate when this happens, but it’s tricky for me – I don’t swear, flip people off and try not to say crude things, so this makes it difficult when someone does yell something. Any advice?
    Haha my husband had some kids yell, “Run, Forest, run!!” at him while doing some grass laps. I guess they didn’t know that he’s a top NCAA XC athlete who wasn’t winded at all, because he stopped right there and said, “Really, dude? Think of something original next time.”

    1. Kudos to you for keeping your reactions so classy! Hmmm, sarcasm is always a great alternative if you do want to confront the harasser. You could shout something like, “Thanks! I really appreciate that!” Or “Wow, you just made my day!” Because even though it might not register to them, you can pride yourself on being intelligent enough to use sarcasm in a situation like that. Plus that’s a very entertaining thought. I’m cracking up right now thinking of these very confused harassers. Anyway, stay true to what you are comfortable with. If all else fails, just ignore them! This weekend someone was driving around downtown Columbus (Ohio) harassing people out of their car window with a megaphone. It took all the self control I had not to react haha! But I didn’t!

  15. I like to use: “how would you feel if someone said/did that to your mum?” And then I just keep on going… Because most people have/had a mum and I hope it makes them think twice about how they treat women, maybe even how dissappointed their mum’s would be!!!

  16. Yep…I have never been harassed if men are running with me. The harassers are cowards who only go after women running alone. When I was harassed as a pedestrian and had time for a response, I would say something such as “Yes I am fully aware of the fact that I happened to have been born without a d*ck. But may I suggest you find a more civilized way of coping with that?” But usually I just give them the bird. In my mind, a man who would disrespect a woman in this way would physically attack a woman if he knew he could get away with it. However some warped men believe their unwanted remarks are compliments and that women should be flattered by them. But really it just makes us very uncomfortable, angry, and fearful for our safety.