“An Open Letter to Men from Female Runners” has been making the rounds on my own and many other folks’ social media feeds. Runner’s World re-published it, which drew even further attention to the article. Make no mistake…this is an important message, and one that more men need to hear, and more women need to feel empowered to make on a regular basis. Women should feel empowered to share this message without fear of reprisal, without fear of being told they are over-reacting, or being told to calm down. This fear is real, and we created this fear. This feeling begins when we wrap girls in pink blankets and boys in blue blankets, continues when we reinforce stereotypical gender roles and communicate to girls and women that their worth rests in their bodies. Not their bodies as active instruments of achievement, but passive instruments of visual and physical pleasure for men. This fear is reinforced when we teach girls to carry their keys between their fingers, use the buddy system, cover their drinks, and cross to the other side of the street when a man they don’t know approaches. I am certainly in favor of safety, but putting this responsibility in the hands of women alone ignores the problem. We shy away from teaching boys and men to respect men and women equally, and to be quite blunt, not to rape!
This is such an important message. Sadly, this is the reason that I intentionally avoid solitary women when I am out running. I take as large of an arc around them, cross to the other side of the street, and at the very least yell “on your left” as far back as my voice will carry me, and speed up when I’m passing a woman to make it clear that I’m not stopping or slowing down. I always smile and say hi, but avert my own eyes. I hate that I have to do that. I hate that I need to assume any woman is going to be fearful of me, without even knowing who I am. It doesn’t matter that I just launched a campus-wide sexual assault and misconduct awareness campaign, that I proudly identify as a feminist, or that I teach Women’s Studies courses, give workshops on diversity and inclusion, and research sexuality and gender. It doesn’t matter that I firmly believe I have a responsibility to act proactively to end sexual misconduct, or that I reach out to get more men involved as active bystanders. It doesn’t matter that I grew up in the Midwest and everything about me is “Minnesota nice”. On that dark street or trail, I’m a nameless man and my identity gives a woman running the other way reason to fear for her safety.
I’ve been attached on the street before, been harassed by passers-by in cars and had homophobic slurs hurled at me, but I still don’t know what it’s like to constantly be on guard. However naive I may be, I still feel comfortable heading onto the trails before the sun rises, by myself, with only my headlamp to light my way. My mind might conjure up images of animals jumping out to attack me, but ultimately I still feel confident enough to not wait for the sun to come up or to join the rest of the group. Many women wouldn’t make that choice, and I hate that. It infuriates me that I live in a society where common sense human decency has not yet been normalized. It infuriates me that the female runners I know and those that I don’t can’t have the same meditative running experience that I have so often. There is no feeling quite like it, and I’d give anything to be able to extend that opportunity to every woman who has ever feared for her safety while out running. However, I know I can’t, so my work continues. In the meantime, I’ll always be “on your left” from a quarter mile away, chasing42.