I am alone, on a gravel road deep in the Black Hills of South Dakota. As a college student home for the summer, I am relishing each opportunity I have to run in a place that I love so much. The air is fresh, the rustling pine trees sway in the wind, and there is a sense of quiet and peace. The sound of my shoes hitting the road provides a rhythm and a song, and as I run deeper into the forest, a mental and physical clarity comes over me. I’m completely in my element and feel completely at peace.
Disturbing the quiet of the Hills, I hear the rumblings of a car in front of me. As it comes into view, I move over to the side of the road as far as I can. I continue running, on the border of the gravel and the wild grass taking over the ditch, thinking little of the approaching vehicle. As it passes by me, it slows down to a crawl, and I feel the piercing eyes of the driver take over me. Immediately tensing up, I reach for my phone, secure in the tight pocket of my shorts. It has limited use here – the cell towers in the area are few and far between, and there’s little chance of my phone connecting with one. I feel my heart pounding in my chest, and the quick rhythm of my feet is now overtaken by the rapid beating of my pulse.
My heart quickens even more as the car screeches to a halt, and reverses in its tracks. Dust from the gravel clouds around me, and as it clears, the driver, with his window lowered, is staring at me deeply.
“Car trouble?” He asks, without breaking eye contact.
I blink back at him, unsure of what to say. It’s an odd question to ask of a young woman, dressed in a tank top, athletic shorts, and running shoes, with a water belt tied around her waist. Clearly, I was here for a purpose, and I wasn’t in distress or in need of help. “No, I’m just out for a run.” I answered, as his gaze continued to pierce me.
“You know, girls like you shouldn’t be out in the woods like this alone. I’d watch out if I were you.” Something about his tone of voice made me freeze. I fumbled for my phone with a sudden urgency, and mumbled a “thank you” to his unsolicited “advice”. With no other options, I began to run again. He slowly drove forward, yelling a degrading, taunting remark at me as he laughed to himself. Refusing to give him any satisfaction, I faced forward and focused on going as fast as I could. Eventually, he cursed me one last time and sped off into the distance.
When I finally reach my car, a few miles down the road, I instantly lock myself into enclosed safety. I was scared, nervous, and overwhelmed by what had just happened. He hadn’t hurt me or touched me, but his words and actions were relentless and humiliating. How was I to know that he wasn’t going to force me into his car, or attack me outside? With no one around and an almost useless phone, how would I call for help or fight him off? I was mad at myself for what had just happened. Should I, as a woman, have been so “brave” as to run alone in the middle of nowhere?
In my life, running is a fixture in my routine. It was only a few years ago that I began to run in a more serious manner. I would meet friends for a pre-work 6 mile run in the early hours of the morning, would accompany my mom on trail runs through the trees of the Black Hills, and would carefully plan my weekend long runs for double-digit miles through my city. I craved the “runner’s high” that I would experience after each run – a feeling of mental clarity would carry with me through the rest of my day. Running gave me confidence, happiness, and a mental boost. There’s something about completing a 15-mile run that brings a sense of accomplishment to other areas of life. Running wasn’t a chore anymore, but it was something that corresponded with my identity.
Although running is a part of who I am, however, it is also something that can bring stress, shame, and fear in certain situations. As an often solo woman, running means that I deal with catcalling, harassment, or unsolicited stares and comments. Approaching and passing a group of men can bring up feelings of anxiety, and if something feels “off” about a situation, I oftentimes find myself turning around and switching my route to a different direction. My experience with the man in the car was extreme, but smaller bouts of harassment while running are a constant occurrence for me.
It’s important to note that it isn’t just me that feels this way. Each and every one of my female friends who are runners speak of the same experiences. Relentless catcalling is “normal”, and even criminal acts are expected. On my own college campus, a man exposed himself to one of my closest friends while she was running – leading to shock, disgust, and nervousness from fellow runners around the school. How were we to know that this man wasn’t going to escalate the situation and attack the next runner he came across? How were we to know his motives or his end goal?
In recent news, the senseless killings of Mollie Tibbets and Wendy Martinez have evoked horror and shock as the nation reacted to the deaths of two innocent women. Abducted or killed while jogging, both women had been punished for doing an activity that they loved. Contributing to the horror of these situations is the reaction of so many to the news. On Twitter and Facebook, or on comments linked with editorials, the idea that it is the responsibility of the women to change their habits, goals, or activities is relentless. We could take all the necessary precautions – run where it’s busy, run in the light, run with pepper spray and a phone, go against traffic, ditch the headphones – and still be assaulted, bothered, and harassed.
This isn’t a fact of a life that can remain stagnant. This is something that needs to change and needs to change quickly. The issues of male dominance and of violence against women must be addressed. Even the “less-threatening” actions of catcalling or gesturing need to be combated. Although they may seem to be “innocent” actions or even compliments, the truth is that these comments can cause shame and intense fear for many women. Additionally, these forms of harassment are just another way for male control to take precedence over a woman’s own body. Men should not feel comfortable enough with their “power” to harass a woman in this way, and this perceived entitlement shows a severe lack of respect. Additionally, women should feel comfortable enough, safe enough, and liberated enough to do the things they enjoy, without fear. My vision for equality is a world where women can be empowered through the activities they love, without feeling unsafe or objectified.
Madelyn is a DevOps Intern at the National Organization for Women (NOW) Action Center in Washington, DC.