La Flâneuse, Life Lessons

Women Who Run With Themselves

I run. I may not be fast, and I will never be first, but I run. I prefer to run solo, reveling in those moments where I can clear my head and have inane conversations with myself about whatever random thoughts enter my mind. There are few things in my life that fill me with the kind of confidence and freedom that running does.

A few months ago, I was out for my usual Sunday morning run. I was running in my neighborhood, a couple of miles into an 8-miler, just a few blocks from my apartment in Oakland. As I turned down a side street, I passed a group of men — perhaps 5-6 of them — who were sitting in a front yard across the street from me. As I ran by them, in my peripheral vision I caught sight of one of them running towards me, as if in slow motion. My immediate thought was, “Oh shit-fuck-hell; I’m about to get attacked,” but then the man turned in the street to run parallel with me, silently staring the whole time. Seconds flashed. I was uncertain what he was doing, or why he was there, but over our shoulders I could hear the rest of the men laughing and jeering.

I was terrified. This man said nothing; he just kept running and staring at me as his friends hollered behind us. I eyed the houses we passed. Nobody else was out on the street and most of the houses seemed asleep, but I wondered if I should run up to someone’s front door and bang on it. I wondered if I should say something to the man, tell him to stop; or would saying something, would defending myself make things worse?

After a few more seconds, I decided the man wasn’t going to harm me; he was simply making fun of me. So I sped up and left him behind, the men’s laughter and ridicule trailing me.

I must admit: I cried the next mile. But I kept running.

Last year, Runner’s World posted an article entitled, “Running While Female.” The article details the varied experiences with harassment that women of all ages have while running. Nothing in the article was particularly revolutionary to me; like the testimonies of the women in the article, and the numerous comments following the article, I regularly get cat-called while running. For the most part, the harassment isn’t explicitly physically threatening; but it still makes women feel vulnerable, verbally attacked, and afraid. It can take away the very freedom that running gives us in the first place, causing us to change where we run, when we run, and how we run.

The results of the Runner’s World survey make it clear that harassment isn’t an issue that male runners, in general, face. But this is something that most female runners experience and are regularly aware of.

in her book, FlâneuseLauren Elkin talks about the history of women in public spaces. She talks about the notion of seeing the world versus being seen. One of the things that the flâneur revels in is his ability to move invisibly through his environment. Elkin quotes Luc Sante who claims, “It is crucial for the flâneur to be functionally invisible.” However, this invisibility isn’t something that women have. Women cannot roam without constantly being seen; ultimately, in public, filtered through the male gaze, women are often a source of mockery. Yet women’s visibility is not their own doing. Elkin writes that, “We’re not the ones who make ourselves visible.” It seems obvious to me that the female runner, like la flâneuse, is not asking for harassment; she just wants to run and run freely. 

I don’t know the intentions of the men in my neighborhood. I doubt they were consciously trying to threaten or scare me. The fact is, it is so second nature for some men to tease or mock women in public that I would imagine many of them do it without even realizing its potential to cause harm. But the intentions of these men are irrelevant. It is never acceptable to proposition a woman from the driver’s seat of your car; it is never acceptable to catcall her as you pass her on the street; and it is never acceptable to chase a woman in jest down a public street while your friends hoot and holler in the background.

I was not placed on this planet for your amusement.

Many friends have asked me why I don’t run with mace. And while I would never question a woman’s decision to do so, or to do anything else to make her feel safe when running, I choose not to. For me, that would eliminate my freedom before I’ve set one foot out the door.

Nevertheless, they control me. Since that Sunday morning, I haven’t run down that street. And I doubt I ever will again.

But still, I run. I run the marina in Emeryville. I run the streets of Oakland. I run Monterey. I run Albuquerque, and I run Oregon. I run Hawaii. I run Nevada, and I run Alberta. I run New York. Michigan. Nevada. Washington. I run Puerto Vallarta. I run Switzerland. I run Ireland. I run Paris. I run still. I run.

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14 thoughts on “Women Who Run With Themselves

  1. Powerfully put. (And I’m so sorry you had to go through that. AND I am getting ready to start Flâneuse any day now!)

    1. You will LOVE it. I’m reading it again in preparation for my trip — hopefully you’ll have read it before I come to NYC 🙂

  2. I identify. To that dumb college kid who threw his cup full of pop at me 25 years ago from his car as it sped by, it hurt, you motherfucking coward. It hurt.

  3. A well written post! I’ll have to check out the Runner’s World piece. I honestly thought a runners were the target of mocking and cat calls. I’ve been the recipient of them my entire life. And god knows the San Marcos sorority girls were the worst, except for the guy in the hill country that threw a beer bottle at me as he drove past. It’s the same on the bike, except that if anything the drivers are far more aggressive and dangerous than anyone I have ever encountered running – even the beer bottle guy. I never thought of this acting out in gender terms, more in terms of singling out individuals – likely at an unconscious level – for subverting the way things are “supposed” to be.

    Look forward to more of your blog!

    1. Thanks for the perspective, Chuck. I think there is a sort of harassment that all runners (and cyclists) face, though the article really delves into the gendered differences — based on the survey they did. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it (the comments following are also very interesting).

  4. I think many people, and yes, ESPECIALLY women, are screwed with while running or biking. I’ve read many stories lately of cyclists in Houston who have been harassed by people in vehicles doing things that could have killed them. Some people seem to view cycling and running as snooty maybe? Elitist? I don’t know. I don’t know what motivated that man to run alongside you, but he certainly knew he intimidated you. He would not have run alongside a man, and probably wouldn’t have done it without an audience. He’s a fucking bully, and American society seems to be giving more and more tacit allowance for this behavior, not less. I would say something like “He’ll get his” or “Karma’s a bitch.” But I really don’t believe that. In this chaotic, unjust society, all you can do it control your own reaction to it. Yes, cry, but keep running, girl!

    1. I think the thing that made it especially awful was feeling like there was no response I could have made to defend myself. I know some might say, “Oh, they were just joking; don’t take it so seriously,” but for me that just mirrors the whole “boys will be boys” mentality (“locker room talk”). Like you said, my first thought was, “They wouldn’t have done this were I a man.” There’s a sense that women just need to put up with this sort of behavior, even laugh along with them, and if we don’t we’re uptight shrews.

      Fine. I’m an uptight shrew.

  5. This is wonderful, TJ. I can’t believe I’m just reading it now. (My Facebook newsfeed, like my phone, doesn’t seem to like you.)

    I hadn’t thought about it until I read the other comments, but on a number of occasions, I’ve had abuse—and bottles and Big Gulps—hurled at me while I was bicycling in Oakland and San Francisco. I’ve always assumed that these people just resented bicyclists. It’s only now that I’m connecting these incidents to others in which men harassed and bullied me in public. When I was younger and lived in North Carolina, I was frequently ridiculed by strangers (usually, but not always, men) who just had to let me know that they thought I was a fag or that I was insufficiently masculine. This has happened to me far less often since I moved to the West Coast, and age seems to be rendering me invisible to the (mostly) young men who are so desperate to prove their masculinity that they pick on strangers in public. Well, that’s always been my theory anyway: that the men who do this are insecure and feel the need to prove their dominance over women and “lesser” men. (Drivers who throw bottles at bicyclists are displaying a certain cowardice that is typical of these men.) I don’t doubt that women experience more harassment when they are walking, bicycling, existing in public, but I believe that the impulse to harass and brutalize gay or effeminate men stems from a contempt for the feminine.

    All of these bullying behaviors seem to be a feature of patriarchy. One thing I’ve learned from the research that my students and I have done into matriarchy/matrinliny/matrilocality is that in more matriarchal cultures, it’s frowned upon for men to try to assert their superiority over others. In The Zuni Man-Woman, Will Roscoe says that in matrilineal Zuni culture, a man “who thirsts for power . . ., who wishes to be, as they scornfully phrase it, ‘a leader of his people,’ receives nothing but censure. . . . Even in contests of skill like their foot-races, if a man wins habitually, he is debarred from running.” Roscoe says that the ideal man in Zuni culture is one “who deeply desires a harmonious existence with his fellows, who is hard working, self-effacing, and moderate in all things.” I suspect that we wouldn’t see so much bullying in our society if we had a similar masculine ideal. Unfortunately, as the presidential election demonstrated, a substantial portion of the American populace finds bullies admirable.

    1. I’m glad you’re reading this, Michael! (Though it’s upsetting that your FB feed hates me as much as your phone. Silly technology.)

      It’s like we’re always talking about: homophobia and misogyny are two sides of the same coin. They are both ultimately about fear and hatred of the feminine, and in a patriarchal system, that fear/hatred is expressed through control of the feminine. When this first happened, I was thinking a lot about how similar this sort of street harassment is to the 13 white men who drafted a “health bill” with no input from women or people of color. Not surprising that the agenda of these men guts women’s health care — services that help those who need it the most.

      In my eyes, both actions are about control. In controlling women’s bodies — whether through legislation or through intimidating women on the streets — one limits what they can do or what they feel safe doing. And that control is ultimately an attempt to maintain one’s own power.

      I need to read that book. You’ve talked about it often.

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