I don’t know if you’d heard this, but exercise is good for you, according to a new study. Unfortunately, lots of women are giving up on it because of fears for their safety. I’m one of them. And I really miss it.
Research by This Girl Can, a campaign run by Sport England, has identified what it calls an exercise “enjoyment gap” between men and women. It found that three in 10 women have experienced harassment while exercising, mostly in parks or on the street, and that fear and rage is driving them back to their sofas. I used to go running in parks and streets, and for many years it made me so happy. I was slow and stupid-looking and never went far, but the day I clocked up 1,000 miles on my running app; the first time I ran six miles in a row, on my birthday; seeing herons and deer – they were moments of joy. Sometimes, when nobody was looking, I would run down a hill with my arms in the air and pretend that I was flying.
Things started to change in the aftermath of lockdown. As domestic violence soared, along with abuse of shop staff and nurses, my friends and I noticed that street harassment seemed to be getting scarier. There were fewer people out on the streets, but the men we did encounter were weirdly angry. Comments on our bodies that catcallers used to pass off as “compliments” turned nasty. Men would cross the road to brush past me on narrow pavements. A drunk in a park chased me for a few metres, but even I could outrun him. These things never happened to my husband, who is 6ft 2 in (188cm), and they didn’t happen to me when I was with him.
It got to a point where most runs ended with me getting home frightened, upset or viscerally angry. My heart was racing with adrenalin, not endorphins, and it didn’t feel very good for my health.
The incident that ruined running for me for good happened on a busy road in daylight in June 2020. As I pottered along, a lorry came from behind, drove onto the pavement and blocked my path. I walked into the traffic to go around it, and as I did I saw that the driver was laughing at me. I swore – and then he lost his temper. He drove towards me, along the pavement, shouting that he hoped I would be run over and die. I took out my phone and took photos as I slowly backed away. I realised he was backing me into a corner. My hands were shaking. Pedestrians were staring. I walked back into the busy traffic, crossed the road and ran as fast I could (not very) around the corner.
I reported it to the police, and was assigned an officer who said it was my word against the driver’s and it would never get to court. I told him about the photos and he said there was no need for me to share them with him. I sent them anyway. He said they showed that the lorry was stationary. (He was the only person who thought so, out of many who saw them.) He closed the case and suggested I buy a GoPro to wear while running, though when I pressed him he said he wouldn’t necessary accept GoPro footage as evidence, either.
A few months later, when Sarah Everard was murdered, I contacted my MP. We all know, I said, that behaviour like this escalates. Could there not be some middle ground between pressing charges with a certainty of conviction and the absolutely nothing this police officer said he could do? My MP contacted the chief superintendent of the police force I’d spoken to, and we had a long, off the record, sympathetic conversation. My case was reopened and I was assigned a new officer.
The new officer tracked down the firm that owned the lorry, whose boss was also keen to find him – he had absconded with the key to one of their vehicles and they didn’t have his address. (He must be a wrong ’un, my copper concluded: a man said he’d nicked a key.) The officer phoned the driver and invited him to come in for a voluntary interview. The driver said no thanks. Any witnesses or CCTV had long since melted away, so the case was closed, again.
This Girl Can has released a toolkit of campaign films and resources to try to get people talking more positively about exercise – but it doesn’t contain tools that can repel lorries. So often, the onus is placed on women to overcome barriers, report harassment, be brave in the face of it. After Everard’s murder, police advised us “not to go out alone”. A new law announced by the home secretary, Suella Braverman, in December will make street harassment a crime in its own right, despite most of the behaviour already being illegal under current legislation. (Though when my case was reopened, it was to investigate a charge of dangerous driving and not a harder-to-prove public order offence.) Part of its aim? To encourage women to report the crimes to the police. Forgive me, Suella, if I don’t agree that women’s failure to report harassment is where the problem lies.
And so I don’t go running any more. I’ve gained weight, I’m less healthy and I’m more stressed. I do go for walks, because somehow I seem to enrage men less when I’m moving (even more) slowly, but I no longer feel a runner’s endorphins and I don’t remember when I last saw a deer. That man got away with the key to someone else’s vehicle, and the joy that running once gave me.
Katy Guest is a writer, reviewer and editor
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