With sexual harassment and assault all over the headlines in Hollywood, sports, politics, and fitness, I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic and having lots of conversations about it lately.
In a recent Instagram story, I asked women in my community what things they do daily in an attempt to stay safe, and avoid sexual harassment and assault.
Within 24 hours, I had 259 answers from women. Let that sink in for a second: hundreds of women reached out to me with all the ways they alter their lives trying to avoid experiencing harassment and assault. I’ll share some of the most common answers below.
This is not surprising considering that 81 percent of women in the U.S. experience sexual harassment,1 and at least 33 percent of women globally will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.2
Note: While our article focuses on the experiences of women and uses the language of men as aggressors and women as victims, other marginalized populations at high risk for sexual violence share these experiences and alter their lives accordingly well. Please remember that sexual violence affects people of all genders, and that trans folks are at a higher risk than cisgender people.3,4
What Is a Rape Schedule?
The concept of “rape schedule” is used to describe the conscious and subconscious ways women place restrictions on themselves and alter their daily behavior as a result of their constant fear of sexual assault.
Organizing one’s life according to this “rape schedule” takes a lot of energy, and tends to start early on: from a young age, women are taught all the thing that they should do to avoid assault. Be it in school, in families or in media, the focus is still on women’s behavior — on what women and girls can and should do to avoid being harmed — instead of educating men and boys on how not to harass and assault women.
So what are some of the things women do daily to avoid harassment and assault? Here are some examples.
Women Change Where They Go and What They Do
Women reported removing themselves from situations where they simply don’t feel safe, such as:
- Avoiding certain areas, including certain subway stations or streets, where they’re more likely to be catcalled.
- Changing gyms because their walk there passed by a construction site where they were constantly harassed.
- Switching gyms after being on the receiving end of countless comments about their body from the manager (those are often framed as “compliments” and women don’t feel anyone will believe them if they speak up because it’s coming from someone in power).
- Not going to the workouts where men are coaching, only going to the women-led classes.
Women Alter Their Schedule
In order to avoid harassment and assault, they:
- Avoid working certain shifts so they don’t have to be out in the early hours of the morning.
- Try to go to the gym when it’s not busy so the guys don’t leer at them in the weight room.
- Change their gym schedule to avoid another creepy gym member.
- Not schedule night classes in college so they don’t have to walk alone at night.
- Make sure they’re not working late at the office when they know a particular male coworker who makes them uncomfortable is also working late so they don’t have to be alone with him.
- Never go for a run when it’s dark out, and having to find times that are less convenient but feel “safer.”
Women Change What They Wear
When it comes to their clothing, the women in our community have reported:
- Refrain from wearing tight or revealing clothes to the gym to avoid attracting attention.
- Wearing track pants over their gym shorts when they walk to the gym to decrease harassment.
- Choosing their clothing carefully when they know they have to walk on the street more than a few blocks.
- Wearing bulky clothes and put their hair up to make it less obvious that they’re a woman.
Women Are in a Constant State of Vigilance
Among other things, the women in our community told us that they will:
- Only wear headphones in one ear to maintain awareness when in public.
- Look men they’re passing on the street directly in the eye with a very stern expression.
- Avoid making eye contact with men on the street.
- Repeat to themselves three times what any man passing them on the street is wearing, so they can remember identifying characteristics.
- Call their partner/mom/friend anytime they’re walking at night and let them know their location so they can call for help if needed.
- Check other stalls in washrooms to make sure no one is hiding there.
- Check the back seat of the car before getting in every single time.
- Lock their car doors as soon as they sit in the car.
- Park in well-lit areas and refuse to park and walk in dark areas.
- Never drink alcohol unless they’re in the presence of trusted friends.
- Never get on an elevator alone with a man.
- Ask a male manager to walk them to their car at night when they leave work.
- Constantly have their keys between their fingers or their pepper spray ready when walking alone at night.
- Systematically make exit plans wherever they are in case they need to get away from a man.
Women Inconvenience Themselves
There are many instances where women find themselves quite inconvenienced in order to avoid feeling unsafe, for example:
- Altering their workouts to avoid at all costs having to deadlift or hip thrust when the gym is busy.
- Avoiding rest stops and gas stations at all costs when traveling alone, and often holding their pee for hours until they get to a place they feel safe to use the restroom.
- Quitting the gym altogether because they had bad experiences at three gyms in a row, choosing to work out at home instead even though they can’t train in the way they’d like.
- Wearing their headphones on their walk to the gym so they don’t hear catcalls.
- Smiling or laughing off unwanted advances in order to de-escalate any potential threat.
- Changing routes if a car behind them makes the same turns as they do.
- Spending money on taxis or ubers instead of walking even though they would have preferred to walk.
- Never telling taxi drivers their actual address.
- Staying quiet about sexism, racism or ableism when they’d rather not, to remain safe.
- Refusing connecting rooms when traveling alone
- Lying and saying they have a friend who will join them at their hotel later so the staff doesn’t think they are staying alone.
Why This Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story
Women are spending tons of their valuable time and energy changing where they go and what they do, altering their schedules, carefully choosing what they wear and inconveniencing themselves — often at great cost — and the worst part is that it’s not even necessarily protecting them from the people who harass and assault them.
Even worse, the misconception that harassment mainly happens on the street, and that assault happens in a back alley at the hands of a stranger is actually preventing women from understanding that what has been done to them is harassment or assault.
Why? Most often, harassment and assault happen at the hands of someone we know.
Yes, the guys we know, those who we think of as “one of the good guys,” those we can’t imagine could hurt us, even maybe guys we have a crush on, or are in a relationship with (in the U.S. marital rape wasn’t illegal until 1986 on a federal level, and many states didn’t repeal marital rape exemptions until 1996 or later).5
And much of the negative experiences women will go through won’t happen in a back alley, but in much more familiar environments: at work, out with friends, at the gym, or even in their own homes. According to RAINN, 7 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known from the victim.6
What You Can Do
You may read all this and feel dismayed. Maybe you had no idea. Or maybe it feels all too familiar. Regardless, you actually have a chance to be part of the solution — even if you don’t know where to start.
Much of the work needs to be about really grasping the reality of sexual harassment and assault, even if it means radically changing your understanding of these issues. To guide you in this, we’ve put together a FREE 5-day course about what you can do about sexual harassment and assault in the health and fitness industry.
When you sign up, we’ll teach you:
- What to do if you witness or suspect sexual harassment.
- What to do if a woman confides in you that she was harassed.
- What to do if you personally experience harassment.
- How to identify behaviour that seems OK (but really isn’t).
- How to avoid common mistakes men make (even when they believe they “get it”).
- How to create a safe environment for women.
- How you can help women and be part of the solution.
Now’s the time to make the commitment to create change.
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- Stop Street Harassment, 2018 Study on Harassment and Assault, http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/resources/2018-national-sexual-abuse-report/
- World Health Organization, Violence Against Women: Key Facts, http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/violence-against-women
- The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, An Overview of 2010 Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation, https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/cdc_nisvs_victimization_final-a.pdf
- James SE, Herman JL, Rankin S, Keisling M, Mottet L, Anafi M, The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality, 2016, https://www.transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/USTS-Full-Report-FINAL.PDF
- Bennice JA, Resik PA, Marital Rape: History, Research, and Practice, Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, July 2003, https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=201457
- RAINN, Perpetrators of Sexual Violence: The Statistics, https://www.rainn.org/statistics/perpetrators-sexual-violence