I saw a post on street harassment from a fellow Chicago runner, and it stirred up a whole lot of feelings. Mostly, compassion for the writer and so many other runners who have had the same experiences (check the comments — #yesallwomen, #yesallwomenrunners). But also, rage. Rage at my fellow men. Let me unpack that rage, and also that compassion. Let’s start with the compassion.
Katie Prout’s story is a wonderful, powerful piece. It needs to be widely read, shared, discussed. Especially among male runners! We need to step up and take responsibility for creating this culture and take ownership of creating the solution, as we ought to.
I’m a Chicago runner and a husband — and white and straight and cisgendered. So I know that when I run, I bring a lot of privilege with me, and I try to be sensitive to that fact. More importantly, as an ally, I try to make sure I communicate with other runners that a) I know my gender can present unwanted feelings of anxiety to people I am sharing my running space with, and b) I want to try and diffuse that anxiety, be an ally, and let all runners know they are welcome.
It’s really hard to do this in a couple of seconds when passing runners, and honestly, I struggle with what’s the best thing to do. I’ve come up with a couple different things, and I don’t know how effective or helpful they are (maybe some commenters can give feedback on what is and isn’t a good strategy for affirmatively communicating a welcoming, non-threatening attitude).
Usually, if I see a female runner coming toward me — especially when in a secluded area or at night — I’ll give the eye-contact-head-nod combo (which I think most runners know just generally means “we are both runners, I acknowledge and value your presence here.”). I often add a two-fingered peace sign, just to try to communicate that I support her being in that space and mean no harm by my presence. It may be sexist or heteronormative, but I often give male runners the thumbs-up; however, I don’t want female runners to think I’m giving a thumbs-up to their body as opposed to their running and their presence.
I also tend to run rather fast, so I often encounter the (even more difficult) issue of coming up on runners from behind. What then?
Often times, I’ll throw a peace sign and a “good job,” “keep it up” or “way to go” as I pass, just to give some acknowledgement and (hopefully) welcoming encouragement. But that means I’ve already come up behind the runner and passed them. By then, it may be too late; I may have already caused anxiety.
So I try to remember to monitor people’s body language as I approach. There are times when I sense someone tensing up as I am running up from behind, so I’ll turn around and go in the other direction to give them that space. Or, I’ll stop and retie my still-tied shoe, just to give some space. Nobody needs the anxiety of me running up behind them.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that the anxiety and fear people feel in these situations is real and needs to be respected, and that men need to take ownership of their role in creating that fear. More importantly, we need to take an active role in diffusing it. And teaching others to do so. And shaming men who cat-call, leer, or otherwise behave inappropriately.
Now, for a quick venting of the rage at my fellow men.
You think this is too much work? Too much mental effort? You’re a good guy, so you shouldn’t have to do this? #notallmen? F@#$ that. This is your problem.
The mental effort you have to expend in doing these little, simple things is so exponentially lower than the mental effort of that woman wondering, “is this guy going to kill me?” You don’t want to have to check in with your privilege while you run? Would you rather be out alone at night, see someone coming at you and feel your adrenaline spike because you think, “that man might rape me”?
Women didn’t create this problem for themselves. Men did. We have to stop asking women to fix the problem. Men have to take this on. Step up. Be an ally. Turn that privilege into a force for good. Swords into ploughshares. Make your space a safe space for all women, all runners. We need everyone to be safe to keep our sport strong. We need all the men to help all the women.
— Chris Willis is a husband, toddler-wrangler and dedicated runner who practices law in the remaining hours in the day. His best race distance is probably somewhere between the mile and the 5K, so naturally, he mostly runs marathons. He lives in Chicago.