Harassment whilst Running – is catcalling really that innocent?

Photo Credit: Women’s Health Magazine
In this article, we explore the prolific nature of harassment whilst running and we hear first hand from those who have experienced it.

It is interesting as I edit this article, following the recent release of a BBC article about the harassment of female athletes. I wrote this article a couple of weeks before that article came out, and at that time, I was shocked at how little coverage there was of the issue. Whilst it is great to see the BBC producing a mainstream piece on this issue, it very much focused on the elite athlete. From my findings below, it is clear that this is an issue that can affect every female or male runner.

One would assume that as we have progressed so much in the general acceptability of women partaking in sports, women dressing how they want and wider education on what constitutes sexual harassment, that instances of specifically harassment whilst running would be fewer and far between. However, from personal and anecdotal experience, it is clear that not only does the issue still exist, but in fact, it is getting worse during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Almost every article I write has the overall message of wanting to encourage young women and girls to be confident and using sport to do that. More people taking up running and exercise has been one of the only good things to come out of the pandemic. However how can we ignore the ‘pandemic of harassment’ in this narrative?

On a recent ‘Runner’s World Podcast’, guest Cat Roberts, spoke about the research she’s been doing into the issue. She speaks specifically about ‘cat calling’, which she defines as heckling, wolf whistling and generally lewd comments. She says that cat calling, specifically, has become a much bigger issue during lockdown. Ultimately, that sacred 1 hour a day of physical exercise that so many of us have treasured during this pandemic, is all too frequently being encroached on by the prolific issue of cat calling.

We’re taught as young people that it’s our responsibility to keep ourselves safe, by wearing suitable clothing, not running at night and not running alone. But how often do we get taught to not be the perpetrator of such things? Cat says she thinks this manifests itself particualry against runners, because often runners are seen to be literally putting their bodies out there, which perhaps some people deem an invitation to comment.

Photo Credit: The Guardian

During lockdown, Plan UK said that 1 in 5 women were experiencing harassment whilst running. When we use the term ‘cat calling’, it almost trivialises the issue. However, in reality, it is a form of verbal abuse. Cat asks, “when we normalise this verbal abuse, how much is that going to become a gateway into other abuses?”

Just as we require people to be ‘anti-racist’, in terms of this issue there’s a need for people to be ‘anti-harassment’. Just a friendly wave or eye contact can be enough as a bystander to let someone know that you’re aware of what is going on. But the issue is, how do we make people aware of what this harassment looks like, and how do we make people know that they should stick up for victims of this? The answer is to educate people on the fact that this is still going on. That’s what I’ve tried to do here, by collating a range of first-hand anecdotes and experiences.

It is not a gross generalisation to suggest that not all victims of this are female but almost all perpetrators are men. When friend of The Level Playing Field and elite long distance runner, Mhairi Maclennan, posted on her Instagram story asking if anyone, man or woman, wanted to share any experiences of cat calling whilst out running, 100% of her responses were from women. Now I accept fully that this doesn’t mean 100% of harassment incidents are directed at women, however it is apparent that this is a problem that is disproportionately affecting young women.

The key difference is when a man is experiencing harassment, it is rarely sexualised or based solely on their aesthetics, in the way that it is for women. As such, women seem to be fundamentally changing their behaviour whilst running. In the Summer, they avoid wearing shorts, for example. Or in the Winter, they avoid running in the dark.

Last year, Avon and Somerset Police launched their #JogOn campaign to recognise and deal with the issue of harassment whilst running. However, the campaign’s suggestion to run in groups to avoid this issue drew criticism. Detective superintendent Marie Wright said, “exercising in a group can be a great way to help you feel safe, keep you motivated and deter threatening behaviour, so why not join your local running club?” This victim focus removes responsibility from the perpetrators and almost unintentionally seeks to control women in another way.

It’s tempting to simply encourage women to ignore it and be ok with it, or give them ways to ‘overcome’ the issue. However, fundamentally, it’s vital to begin raising awareness of it happening in the first place, but also making (often) men, aware that their supposed ‘locker room’ comments can have such catastrophic implications. I don’t have an answer to this issue, but hopefully by openly discussing this issue, we can firstly start to recognise it happening in practice, and then secondly, end it altogether.

Obviously, this kind of harassment is so much broader than just running and these anecdotes and singular quotes below are merely a tiny indicator of how society generally views the female body. These are anonymous from people on their experiences with harassment whilst running. I was overwhelmed by the number of people that contacted Mhairi and myself. It truly does indicate the prolific nature of harassment whilst running.

Running in London brings different challenges compared to running in my rural hometown. I’ve been cat-called, harassed and jeered at whilst out running in the capital. It’s got to the point where I now try to avoid running in darkness and less well-lit areas. I’ve had my fair share of being cat-called on runs, but one experience especially stands out to me.

My previous flat in London was situated behind a large social housing estate. I had to go through this estate to reach the local park (where the majority of my runs took place). I set off after work (in winter) through the estate, but this time, there was a group of 3 young men sitting on a wall, playing loud music through a portable speaker. As I was about to jog past them, one man jumped off the wall, into my pathway. I quickly right-angled and crossed the road. At which point, the man and his friends started jeering at me, shouting uncivil things about my chest and behind. I was so shaken that on my way back, I took a 2km detour, to avoid having to run back through the estate.

In late Summer 2019, I was jogging down Kingsland Road in London. It was a late afternoon and really warm. I was wearing leggings and a tight running vest (not that this should matter). A van slowed down and was driving next to me in the bus lane. I had music playing but it didn’t stop me hearing the taunting and derogatory comments of the 3 males in the front of the van. The driver honked his horn numerous times at me, whilst the middle seat passenger shouted: “You’d be fit if your face didn’t ruin it,” and the window passenger laughed, replying, “paper bag her”. I stopped and took my earphones out but the van continued on its way. There were bystanders and shoppers who’d witnessed this and ignored it – I was so embarrassed. One lady waiting at a bus stop up ahead came and asked me if I was okay. That was the very last time that I went running in anything but an XL sized t-shirt, to hide my body as much as possible.

It’s a bit bleak but the whole principle of catcalling just feeds into rape culture and how females generally can’t be not objectified doing anything. I genuinely feel like although it’s not completely solved, I do get less attention when I’m in baggy clothes. Even if I was running in a crop top and shorts, I’m running, leave us alone! Actually, scrap that, even if I’m doing anything in any weather, wearing a crop top and shorts, leave us alone! It’s an entitlement thing. Because of what you wear and how you ‘present yourself’, it seems as though people think that they’re entitled to say what they want to you. As though because you’re wearing shorts, you actually want to be spoken to like that and you’re almost expecting it. No, I’m just wearing shorts because I want to and it’s hot?!

It does happen to men, but I think the difference is that when I get shouted at whilst I’m out running, it isn’t sexualised in the same way as the cases I hear about. I’ve definitely been shouted at quite a few times (“run forest run” is a classic one), but I wouldn’t jump to call it ‘cat calling’ – hence why I was wary to send this in. But I guess the sadly unsurprising lesson is that women have it worse in two ways; it happens more often than to men, and there’s an added layer of sexual violence to it that is missing when men are on the receiving end.

It’s always van men, driving at the speed of my running, honking and getting a good look. It makes you feel incredibly vulnerable.

Van men always toot their horns when I wear my short shorts in the Summer.

I got told by a group of boys, “You’ve got no tits.”

Someone once followed me in their van for legitimately half a mile.

Someone told me I had “a nice vagina” whilst their toddler was in the car with them.

I get cat-called usually once a month. It is almost always men, always in a group, and it’s when I’m alone.

I had a guy shout at me and then cycle alongside me. Only to then proceed to grab my bum.

I think it’s becoming more regular with lockdown. Perhaps it’s because I’m more likely to be on my own and training in public places rather than on the track. I guess there’s more people about outside now because there’s nowhere else to go.

When I told people about being cat-called, I was told to take it as a compliment and they’d love to have been cat-called whilst running. 

I have had a guy chase me and slap my arse whilst out running.

I’ve been cat called so many times. Especially in the summer when I’m wearing shorts.

Some man shouted “shake it baby shake it” when I was running along the canal.

If you would like to get in touch with regards to this issue, then please do. I realise I have only scratched the surface of this issue and have very much been presenting it in binary terms. This is based off that people that I have heard from, and I do not claim that it represents everyone’s experience. Below are some websites to check out for more information and support on the issue.



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