Do Women Need To ‘Stay Safe’ While Running?

The news of a sexual assault on a runner in New Zealand last week brought about many comments on our Facebook page following the posting (by myself) of some hints and tips for women to follow when out running.

Wanting to help and provide advice is human nature and something of a default position for many of us. It’s done purely with the best of intentions at heart, but one woman, Tay Alirezaee, a Melbourne ultrarunner challenged this view.

I have to admit, I was slightly put out by the challenge at first. Afterall, I was trying to help. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help, but as Tay explained her view, I admitted to myself that while I had the best of intentions, my approach was wrong.

Afterwards, I asked Tay if she would pen some thoughts for me. She’s studied this area extensively and I thought it only right to give it a voice – It’s an important issue that has far wider social connotations.

Initially, the thoughts below may conflict with what you’ve always known and thought. It did with me at first. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do anything – we need to change our thinking. As Tay explains, our approach towards how we treat victims (particularly women), especially in this case and in respect of this article, is wrong. We should tackle the issue from an entirely different view-point.

Women learn from a very early age that they are vulnerable. That their bodies can be assaulted and there tends be a lot of shame and guilt around the issue. It’s a defensive attitude and we take the line that women should take precautions and be prepared.

Every time there is news of a woman experiencing sexual assault during exercise, social media becomes full of tip and hints as to how women should be exercising the reduce these incidents. Some go as far to compare sexual violence with house/car theft and the tips provided are akin to locking your car or adding an alarm system in your house!

Ultimately, will that actually stop a sexual assault? Highly unlikely as the statistics show. Most sexual assaults are carried out by people the victim knows – just 10% are random attacks in dark alleyways as the media would like to portray. But is it right that we should place the responsibility on the potential victim for preventing sexual violence? Isn’t it the perpetrator that has the power to stop this?

Tay has experienced unwanted attention herself while out running and the reaction has again been one of asking why the victim hasn’t done more to stop the unwanted advances. A couple of times she has shared her experience, comments are along the lines of, ‘why I should run with a friend, I should get a dog, or I shouldn’t run that early’. Rarely are their supportive comments that say “hang in there” or “keep it up”!

So why do we follow this logic, when in almost every other potentially dangerous scenario we might find ourselves in, we follow a different set of rules?

A quote from Joe Biden beautifully demonstrates our double standards.


The same line of thinking above goes for the recent terrorism attacks in Paris. No-one blames the victims for being out on a Friday night doing what they normally do, eating, drinking and laughing with friends. No-one questions why they were out enjoying themselves or why there weren’t taking more precautions in the fight against terrorism that night.

So why do we apply a different set of thinking to women if they are out alone at night running? Or in a more everyday scenario, if they’re out in a pub enjoying a Friday night, only to find themselves victim of a sexual assault?

When we look at our attitudes to the above, efforts to modify the behaviour of the victim categorically fails to address the root causes of the assault, i.e. gender inequality and male entitlement. Adopting the attitude above takes away the responsibility of the perpetrator. The focus on any assault shouldn’t be on what the victim could have done to stop it.

The Internet is full of rape prevention tips and articles, and those who need to be supporting victims of assault tend to blame them. As you can read here and here.

Let’s flip the boot into the other foot. If a male ultrarunner was to run at night, how would they feel if they were told not to walk alone or go to parks? What if they were told to carry an alarm should they be attacked? Our entire social world and way of doing things takes a dramatic uturn, living in fear of what could be.

Again, let’s go back to our terrorism example. If we were to stop going out entirely and constantly on our guard, how does this then affect the way we live our lives and go about our everyday business. We already see this happening in other avenues. What happens when a mass shooting occurs in the US? Gun sales increase. Fear strikes through people, so they take precautions and buy more guns – thus the cycle continues. But surely the way to stop mass shootings is to take the guns out of people’s hands in the first place? Forgive me for being logical here.

Back to the topic at hand and to keep balance here, men are also sexually assaulted. But rarely anyone asks what they were wearing? What were they drinking at the time? Why they were walking alone? Was it dark? Were they listening to music, or were they carrying a whistle/alarm at the time?

The attitudes rampant in our discussions about women are about their social presence and prevention, yet barely do we see these discussions when it’s a man at the centre of an attack.

Many of us run to have alone time, to relieve stress (how can we exercise full of fear?) or enjoy remote wilderness. Every time we tell women to be more careful, to be more prepared, to be more scared, we are damaging the spirit of women to enjoy the great outdoors.

As a working mum, like many, Tay’s training is done in the dark and in unusual hours. If she and many others like her were to take all these tips seriously, she might as well stop running ultras altogether.

Both women and men are responsible for their physical and emotional health. For those of us with families, we are the models that our children observe and view as their future. We should all experience the great outdoors. We should all enjoy traveling alone and to experience the world without thinking male or female protection is constantly needed. In ultras (particularly women), we shouldn’t feel the need to be accompanied by a pacer at night.

It is not for women to change, it is for perpetrators to stop and that requires an entire shift of cultural mindset.

So what can we do to help support gender equality in our sport:

  1. Provide a safe space for women to share their stories and experiences without fear of being judged or shamed.
  2. If you are exercising, respect the space for women, not all are interested to be talked to or be approached. Same as men, there are times I do not want to talk and people respect that. Do the same for women.
  3. Listen.
  4. Be supportive without being dominant. Support your partners without making decisions for them.
  5. Stop using derogatory sexist language when talking to friends. If you believe in equality you don’t think being a woman means less, or weak – The phrase ‘being chicked’ comes to mind here!
  6. Empower your children by treating women in your lives with respect.

I appreciate this is a really tough one. Is it a pipe dream? Could we really stop attacks from happening? No-one wants to tell women not to be careful, after all we don’t want to see another attack. But at the same time, if we’re to stop attacks, then surely the focus needs to be on those carrying them out, not making the victim retreat into an unnatural world where they are blamed for not being careful.

I found this hard to reconcile at first. I have two young daughters and I do fear for them in the world they grow up in. I want no harm to come to them. But at the same time, do I want them to live in fear, to be defensive and miss out on life’s opportunities because of what could happen?

No way – I want them to be free to do what they want to do. The only way to do that is to change cultural mindsets and place the onus on stopping this in the first place.

Thanks to Tay for her big contributions here and also for challenging our views in the first place.

Feature image credit: Nike She Runs The Night

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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

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