Harassment on the Street and at the Gym

By Larissa Mercado-Lopez

Note: Not everyone can relate to experiencing harassment or violence. However, it is a well-known reality that, globally, 1 in 3 women will experience serious assault or rape during her lifetime. Please keep this in mind as you read the article, particularly if you don’t consider yourself to be part of the one-in-three and don’t personally feel vulnerable to violence.

Additionally, this article focuses on folks who identify as women and who are harassed by men, which reflects the majority of cases of harassment. This article discusses safety as it relates to queer, trans, and gender nonconforming identities.

As women, we can’t often talk about our bodies or our experiences moving around in this world without an analysis of personal safety.

Though men, too, are attacked, harassed, stalked, abused, and sexually assaulted, women are much more likely to experience this violence, and are much more likely to be targeted on the basis of their gender.

While women of all races, classes, sexualities, abilities, etc., are susceptible to violence, a variety of factors play into how, where, and how often we experience it. For example, our class status can determine whether or not we have access to the resources necessary to escape an abusive situation. Our environment can also exacerbate conditions that make us less safe, such as inadequate lighting, an absence of sidewalks, and even histories of discord between the community and law enforcement that might have a victim less likely to report abuse.

The various categories used to identifying violence (domestic, sexual, dating, financial, emotional, etc.) and harassment (street, sexual, cyber, etc.) speak to our ongoing attempts to understand how it manifests, what and who supports it, how we experience it, and what we can do to address it.

Some of us even began our fitness journeys because of an experience we had with violence or harassment. It makes sense that we might respond to an experience of vulnerability or powerlessness by attempting to become stronger in our bodies, minds, and spirits, as a way of reclaiming ourselves and our choices. Thus, the gym can be an important space (among many others) in our journey where we can confront our perceived weaknesses, grow in our physical and mental strength, build community, and, ultimately, heal.

However, the gym does not always provide the safety to do this work. I continue to hear stories from women who have been followed, leered at, aggressively asked for dates or phone numbers, and touched without their consent. Most of the time they experience this from other patrons, but sometimes they experience these unwelcome interactions from trainers or gym staff, as well.

Whether we are exercising outside or in a gym, there is always a chance that we could be on the receiving end of cat calls, offensive gestures, stalking, or molestation. Giving space to conversations about harassment in our larger conversations about fitness is absolutely essential to ensuring that fitness remains accessible, enjoyable, and safe for everybody.

Street Harassment

One of the top pieces of advice given for “exercising on a budget” is to exercise outside. In my article on intersectional approaches to fitness, I explained how this advice can be challenging for those who live in spaces where they are more vulnerable to danger, whether it’s because of environmental hazards such as absence of sidewalks or stray dogs, or histories of high crime in the area. The very nature of exercise — of moving our bodies in ways that challenge “appropriate” ways of occupying space — draws attention to our bodies, eliciting cat calls, unwanted jogging “partners,” and even unwanted touching.

“Street harassment” is a catch-all concept that we use to define, identify, and respond to a variety of violations that we experience in public spaces. The anti-violence nonprofit Stop Street Harassment describes street harassment as “gender-based” and explains that it consists of “unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent, and is directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation. Street harassment includes unwanted whistling, leering, sexist, homophobic or transphobic slurs, persistent requests for someone’s name, number or destination after they’ve said no, sexual names, comments and demands, following, flashing, public masturbation, groping, sexual assault, and rape.”

Some people attempt to frame street harassment as “a compliment” and a form of flattery, arguments that support rape culture by minimizing its harm to women, refusing to hold harassers accountable, and placing blame on women for their own experiences of victimization. For example, the fitness clothing we pick out because it keeps our bodies cool and enables movement can be read by others as invitations to comment on our body parts. The harassment we experience can then be blamed on us for “provoking” the attention. An article I came across on how to “date properly” at the gym advised complimenting women on their clothing, rather than their bodies. This can still be a problem, as it can be a covert way of commenting on the body part that it is covering (and paradoxically, exposing).

Street harassment has prompted women to take protective measures to keep themselves safe. Some have created walking groups or attend women-only gyms; others use apps that let them friends and family know where they are and if they need help, and some even carry weapons. The many variables in our environment play into the ways that we use our time and energy to ensure safety, so those measures can vary greatly from person to person.

What does your schedule look like?

In her book Full Frontal Feminism, feminist author Jessica Valenti discusses the concept of living by a rape schedule. Living by a rape schedule is comprised of the many conscious and unconscious daily decisions that women make to avoid becoming a victim of violence; decisions that limit our choices and movement and interfere with our personal freedom. Many of the decisions women make when living by a rape schedule might be considered to be “common sense” precautions that even men take, but women inarguably spend more time thinking about the consequences of where they walk and park and how they dress, even if rape is not always at the forefront of their minds.

To find out if you are living by such a schedule, consider the following.

Do you:

  • Avoid walking outside to your car at night?
  • Carry self-defense items such as pepper spray, or hold your keys a certain way to use as a weapon?
  • Choose clothes that are “modest” enough not to attract negative attention?
  • Choose parking spots based on their proximity to light poles?
  • Avoid visiting the gym at certain times to avoid running into certain men?
  • Lock your doors as soon as you close your car door?
  • Create strategies for alerting friends or family if you are in danger?
  • Worry about how your friendliness might be perceived by others?
  • Ask friends to accompany you when jogging at night or in areas where there are few or no other people?
  • Simply think about being raped?

The concept of the rape schedule is not meant to shame women about the time and energy they spend ensuring their safety — indeed, these strategies have kept many women alive. It is meant to make us more conscious of the lengths that women go through on a daily basis to protect themselves, whether or not rape or violence is at the forefront of their minds.

From stares to conversations that interfere with our workouts, to unwanted touching and inappropriate comments, these small, everyday interferences and violations can have lifelong effects on women’s bodies and spirits.

But what happens if, despite all our efforts, we are still harassed? How do we deal with harassers in ways that are effective and keep ourselves safe? Before I share my tips, I want to lastly address harassment in the gym. According to a 2008 survey conducted by Stop Street Harassment, 23 percent of women paid to exercise in a gym rather than outside because of their fear of street harassment. If women are retreating to the gym for safety, we also need to consider what harassment looks like in these spaces.

I'm Here to Pick Up Weights, Not Dates

It cannot be denied that, indeed, the gym can double as a pick-up space for single (or married — yikes!) patrons, and articles abound on “right” and “wrong” ways to date at the gym. A common frustration I hear from women gym-goers is that their workouts are interrupted by men who want to engage in conversation, give unsolicited advice, or ask them out. Some women wear headphones, avoid working out during certain times of the day, or completely modify their routines to avoid being approached. Even fitness apparel companies have responded to this by creating shirts with no-fuss messages, such as “Here to Pick Up Weights, Not Dates,” “I’m Here to Lift, Not Talk,” and “Respect the Earbuds — I’m Not Here to Talk.” These messages sound assertive and maybe even on the verge of “rude.” But sometimes being “polite” just doesn’t work.

Not feeling safe isn’t always the result of something intentional or overt. In a blog post I wrote a few years ago, I reflected on an experience I had while lifting next to a man wearing a bright yellow shirt that screamed “Boobies Make Me Smile.” As I lifted next to him wearing my favorite workout top with a built-in, molded-cup sports bra, I avoided his gaze and even contemplated leaving. Had he smiled at me, no matter his intent, I would have felt deeply uncomfortable as I tried to discern whether he was simply acknowledging me or reacting to my breasts.

A woman does not have to be attacked or be aggressively harassed to be harmed; consistent violation of space and safety through images and words is enough to inflict lasting wounds.

The gym has the potential to be that critical space of healing, reclamation, and empowerment, but what happens when it’s not?

Now, the chances of being sexually assaulted at the gym, particularly by a stranger, are low. The reality about sexual assault is that it is almost always committed by someone the victim knows. The idea that rape mostly happens in a dark alley is a myth that is supported by rape culture, but it’s one that we have internalized and that plays into the decisions we make to bolster our sense of safety both inside and outside the gym. The gym, of all places, should not be a space where we have to think about our safety beyond protecting our joints and muscles while performing our lifts.

How can we address harassment?

The next question is, what can we do to combat harassment? How do we respond to others who are violating our space, creating discomfort, or aggressively threatening our safety? Often we are told to be firm and say no, but that advice can be hard to put into practice. We often hear stories of women being violently attacked or even murdered after refusing to give their phone numbers or declining dates. Women are called “cold, “rude,” or “bitch,” and are criticized for “friend-zoning” men with whom they have no interest in moving beyond friendship. This makes it even more evident that the problem lies not with individuals, but with a patriarchal culture that tells us that women are objects and not entitled to their own space, choices, and bodies. This is a culture that teaches women how to “avoid” harassment and rape (as if that is always possible) without equally investing in education to combat rape culture. For that reason, I will focus not on how women can avoid harassment, but rather on how to respond to it.

Exercise and Street Harassment (Also inclusive of parks and other public spaces):

  1. Name the behavior and tell the harasser what they need to do. For example, if someone jogs or exercises alongside of you, clearly state that they are too close to you and that you are uncomfortable.
  2. Use direct statements such as “I need 20 feet of space” to make it clear where the boundaries of violation are. If they continue, tell them that they are making you uncomfortable and that it is a form of harassment.
  3. If you are in an area with other people, speak loudly enough that others around you can hear you resisting the harasser.
  4. State your intent to report the harassment. Look at the harasser’s shoes and others markers of identification to collect evidence.
  5. If you are in an area with few people, jog or move towards a more populated area.
  6. Make your phone visible so that the harasser knows that you are able to call in a report or call for help.
  7. I will never advise women to not express anger. However, to avoid a potentially dangerous response, respond in a firm and neutral manner first. If the harasser continues, adjust your tone to make it clear that you will not tolerate the harassment.
  8. Once you are safe, share your experience with someone. Feelings of humiliation, fear, and anger, are normal reactions that can result in loss of confidence and security. Talking it over with someone can help you move toward personal healing and renewed empowerment.

For fitness professionals, instead of starting with what women can do, let’s begin with what gyms and fitness trainers can do to create a harassment-free, violence-free environment.

Trainers and Gym Owners (Men and Women):

  1. Consider anti-harassment signage and make it clear when welcoming new members or clients that harassment is not tolerated.
  2. Back up your intolerance of harassment with actual policies for dismissal and a reporting system. Provide both personal and anonymous options for reporting.
  3. Make an attempt to set up a table or booth at local anti-violence events, such as at your local Take Back the Night, or events organized by domestic violence shelters. Even consider co-sponsoring events that support women and that are committed to combating violence.
  4. As a trainer, if you need to use your hands to guide a client’s movements during a lift, ask if it’s OK first and explain why you are doing it.
  5. Lead by example. Avoid talking about other clients’, gym members’, or trainers’ bodies in objectifying ways, don’t make sexual jokes or comments and don’t participate when others do it. In fact, whenever possible shut it down.
  6. If someone reports harassment, take the claim seriously, and fully investigate it. Ensure that your policies protect the identity of the victim and that your focus is on the actions of the perpetrator and not on the clothing, body, or actions of the victim. Confer with a professional victim specialist or advocate, such as at a rape crisis center, for guidance.

Women at the Gym:

  1. While we may have doubts about its efficacy, it is always advised to respond with a firm no and continue with your routine.
  2. Be assertive about what you are doing. “I’m busy training,” and “I need to concentrate on these lifts,” send the message that when you’re at the gym you’re fully invested in your training.
  3. If someone asks you for advice as a way to begin a conversation and you do not want to engage, direct them to a trainer.
  4. If you ask for help with a lift and don’t want to be touched, let your trainer know that you would like to try the movements first and will ask if you want more guidance.
  5. If your requests to be left alone are not being respected, get out of that space and let someone know.

If you are a witness to harassment, bystander support may also be necessary. This can be as subtle as moving closer toward the person being compromised and looking attentive to the situation. If you witness an exchange and an accusation is made by the victim, backing up the victim’s statement will make it harder for the perpetrator to refute the claim. I also like to use the language of “us,” as in, “You’re making us uncomfortable.” Providing bystander support can also involve walking away from the situation to find an authority, or remaining with the victim and asking a nearby person to find help.

You may have noticed that in my list of things women can do to respond to harassment, there was no mention of common advice we’ve heard a million times, such as wearing earbuds, working out with a buddy, modifying your routine to avoid certain people, or going to the gym when it’s less busy. Why?

Because it’s crucial to think about how we can work to change the environment itself to be safe and welcoming for all of us, rather than focus on how we can modify ourselves and our lives to accommodate a culture of harassment.

Further, nearly all of us are already doing things to “avoid” harassers. There is certainly nothing wrong with wearing earbuds or changing your gym schedule, but it’d be truly remarkable to see professionals in the fitness community take radical ownership of their environments and improve safety for all, and see women feeling knowledgeable about and empowered to respond to street harassment on their own.

Without safety, fitness can never be truly inclusive.

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About the author:  Larissa Mercado-Lopez

Dr. Larissa Mercado-López is an assistant professor of Women’s Studies at California State University, Fresno, where she teaches courses on feminist theory, women of color, and Latina health. Her blog Fitness Cultures appeared on the San Antonio Express News website and she led a fitness collective in San Antonio, Texas. Larissa has been invited to present on women of color, fitness, self-care, and body size, at universities in California and Texas, and for Huffington Post Live, and has presented her work at national conferences. Larissa is a proud mother of four children, and her first children’s book will be released in 2017. You can follow Larissa on Twitter @LMercadoLopez.

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