I discovered running about five years ago, during a stressful and sad period of my life. Years of anxiety had left me unable to do much on my own, but running broke that pattern.
I started small, only venturing on to local roads, but soon I was able to run far from my designated safety zones. Running gave me back my independence and allowed me to recognise my own strength. I recently wrote a book, Jog On: How Running Saved My Life, about my experience, and have been overwhelmed by responses from people who feel the same. Mostly they are women, who value the freedom and space that running gives them.
Because I know how many people benefit from running, I was interested to see that Avon and Somerset police launched a campaign last week to highlight the harassment that many women runners encounter. Every woman who has ever been for a jog will probably have faced a catcall at some point, a driver honking or, worse, someone following or accosting them. It is one of the most common reasons people give me for not going out jogging. While it is great that this campaign is acknowledging this widespread problem, the advice was disappointing.
The campaign, #JogOn, with its slogan of “Join together – remain observant – give us a call”, is sensible on paper but the main advice is that women should run together to deter would-be harassers. But this is putting the onus on the victim.
Women have worked hard to push back against narratives that suggest they should not wear short skirts to avoid unwanted attention, so why are we asking them now to modify their behaviour when out for a run?
The language of the campaign tries to stay upbeat – suggesting that exercise is more fun in a group, and advising runners to “be alert but not worried” – but the overall message is negative, and I worry it will discourage women from running.
The truth is that women think about their safety roughly every five minutes. We grow up knowing that some men will harass us, pay us unwanted attention, even hurt us. We don’t need a campaign to tell us to prioritise our safety – it is etched into our bones.
What a lot of women need is to get away from these everyday stresses, to put on their trainers and escape the world for a bit. To run – feet pounding, heart racing – and to be alone with their thoughts. It is incredibly freeing, a feeling that many women around the world are not accustomed to. To do that, we need men to stay out of our way and the police to take any incidents seriously.
I was stalked a few years ago, and at times I felt as though the authorities did not take my terror as seriously as I needed them to. I worry that, despite the campaign insisting women out jogging should report any incidents, many won’t be prioritised by the police. I’ve been catcalled, followed, and accosted by a drunk man while running, and I never thought to report it.
Maybe I’m being cynical but, with police forces warning of a “tipping point” because of budget cuts, what would have been done? It doesn’t help that the campaign tells women: “Reports may not always result in arrest but your information ensures police are aware of local issues and can develop a strategy to tackle them. You may be able to prevent this happening to someone else.” This just puts the onus on women if someone else gets harassed.
What women runners need is good street lighting, regular police patrols and maybe, in our dreams, a police campaign aimed at the men who think it is acceptable to scare us when we are just trying to get some exercise and headspace. Many people like to run in groups, and that’s fantastic, but only if it is for the right reasons. So many women need time alone, and telling us that we must be alert to danger is naive.
When it comes to running, our personal responsibility involves wearing bright clothing and stretching afterwards. The onus is not on women to curtail their passion because some men want to make us scared. We are sadly all too used to that already.