Unwanted cheerleaders

A weird thing has started happening to me in the last few months, something that I hadn’t actually told anyone about until this last week. Something that means I no longer feel quite so calm before going out for a run and that has tarnished the excitement of training. And no, I’m not talking about the predictability of my own awesomeness. No, unfortunately this isn’t particularly funny or fun.

Since January I have had quite a few incidences of being shouted at while out running and, while I would like to shrug it off and carry on jogging I’m afraid that just hasn’t been possible. Instead it just keeps happening to me and as a result I’m feeling increasingly cautious when out alone and/or surrounded by strangers. And I’m really not cool with that.

It all started in January, when the snow first came to London and I defiantly still went out on my long run. I left my neighbourhood by running up Green Lanes, a busy road through Harringay, North London, and as I ran up the road a white van (yeah, you know the ones) beeped its horn at me.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. The prick driving the van chose to beep the horn at me. He (and I’m afraid that it was a ‘he’) consciously decided that a.) he wanted to get my attention, and that b.) beeping the horn would be a good way to get it. He was right – it got my attention. I turned around and, oh my, it was worth it… His wolf whistle was exactly the kind of important news that needed to be communicated across three lanes of traffic while I ran up an icy hill.

wolf-whistle

Now you might think that a wolf whistle while out running isn’t exactly a blog-worthy event. And you’re right – it’s not – because unfortunately events like that are commonplace for a lot of women and we are led to believe that wolf whistles and cat calls are an irritating, but inevitable and harmless part of life as a woman. My reaction to the wolf whistle is evidence enough of that – startled, shocked, and feeling a little bit disgusted, I chose to carry on running and not look back.

On the way home from my run I went back down Green Lanes and past a pub with a busy smoking garden out the front. A half-pissed imbicile threw a snowball at me. Wanker, I muttered, and pushed it to the back of my mind.

But over the following weeks white vans driving up and down Green Lanes seemed to take a liking to me. At least once a week I would get beeped at, whistled at, or sometimes even shouted at. When I was a teenager the girls I knew took such intrusions as a compliment and seemed to enjoy strangers shouting suggestions of bedroom activities at them. I secretly wondered why I never got any of that attention, but over time I realised it is because I walk with a confidence that warns such idiots away. And I like that. When I go out running I am not doing so in order to get attention or to look attractive, and so I really do not need anyone to reassure me that they can see me and that they like my lycra tights. Yet passersby seem to now insist on doing so.

Again, just like in the first instance, I chose to ignore the calls and keep on running. After all, walking into the traffic and confronting those idiots wasn’t really an option (and I’m sure the perpetrators realise this when they choose their target).

But two weeks ago things changed. As I ran through Chingford, 10 miles into a long run, I heard some shouting behind me. I had headphones in (I always listen to music on my long run), but with the music down low for safety. I could tell that there was more than one person shouting and that it was coming from the traffic queue, but I ignored it, kept my head up and jogged on. Eventually the traffic queue I was running alongside began to move and I sighed relief that the silly buggers would drive off in a moment or two. But they didn’t. And their shouting got louder.

The white Ford Escort pulled up alongside me and started trailing me along the road until I took out my headphones, gave them the finger and told them to go, ahem… do one, if you get my drift. They laughed and pointed and eventually drove off, but I was left shaking – actually, physically shaking. The whole time they drove alongside me the lad in the passenger seat was staring straight at my arse – blatantly and apologetically at my backside. I felt disgusted and disgusting, and was genuinely shocked by how invaded I could feel without someone even having tried to touch me.

I was going to write a blog post about it and discuss safety when out on your long runs, but to be honest, once again, I dismissed it because I was worried I was overreacting. But it’s happened again!

Last night when cycling home from work at 10.30pm I stopped at a junction’s red light. There was a van behind me – I could tell it was a transit-type by the sound of it’s engine and the size of the shadow it cast over me. I could also hear two men’s voices shouting from inside the van, and I could tell by their tone that they were shouting at me, not each other. I ignored them, stayed facing forward, stayed poised and ready for the lights to change. I indicated so they knew which way I was turning and as I did so I heard them laugh. As soon as the lights changed I threw out my indicating arm again and pressed forward towards the turn. The van stayed with me, turning down the road alongside me, but then instead of driving on ahead the driver chose to stay next to me, driving slowly alongside me as he and his passenger shouted at me through their open window. Once again I found myself giving strangers the finger and I cycled 200m down Mile End road with my middle finger in the air, facing forward while being shouted at until I lost them at my next turning. And once again I was left shaking and scared and wondering what I did to encourage these arseholes to shout at me.

Again, I ummed and aahed about whether or not to write this post. My hesitation isn’t only because it requires me to make some horribly sweeping generalisations about men and women, nor is it simply because I worry that I’m making a big deal out of a few incidental moments from the last few months. No, my biggest hesitation was that it  it requires me to expose my vulnerability, a vulnerability that inevitably stems from being female. Because no matter how much I may believe myself to be a strong and independent woman, that isn’t always how I am perceived. To people who see me for just those few moments during which they choose to cat call, wolf whistle, honk their horns, shout obscenities, or trail me in their cars I am just a woman – a target, the subject of a good joke in the van, a passing amusement. The men (and I’m afraid it is invariably men) don’t care that I have just run 12 miles, they don’t care that I throw a pretty good punch, they don’t care that I have political opinions, and they don’t care that I have feelings. For those few, passing, incidental moments I am reduced from ‘person on a run’ to ‘woman’, and I mean ‘woman’ in the most derogatory manner possible, with all of its insinuations of weakness, naivity and vulnerability. And the problem with this is that I cannot control those strangers’ perceptions of me and so I cannot control their actions. If they perceive me to be weak and vulnerable they will treat me as such.

And they do.

They cat call, they wolf whistle, they honk their horns and they trail me in their cars. Who’s to say that the next person to see me out running and perceives me to be weak and vulnerable won’t get out of their car and approach me? Where each person draws their lines between appropriate behaviour/just good fun/and being bang out of order differs so greatly between individuals that I feel I am quite justified in feeling as scared and worried as I do.

Perhaps I have been careless in the past, but I can’t recall ever having felt so vulnerable when out running and cycling, and it’s bizarre that I only feel like that when engaged in those activities and that I only seem to get harassed when running and cycling too.

I’m afraid that I have no life-changing conclusion for this post and no witty remarks that might at least close it on a fun and friendly note. No, I’m afraid that I finish by telling you all that I’m just a bit upset. For the first time in my life I’m feeling really bloody nervous about cycling home from work and about going for a run on my own in the morning, and that just doesn’t seem fair.

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3 thoughts on “Unwanted cheerleaders

  1. Someone I met recently (another woman) actually made the conscious decision to move from Wood Green to West London to escape the daily incidents of cat-calling and obscene remarks directed her way. This is obviously an extreme solution and doesnt help any of us still living in North/East London but what can we do?

    We could perhaps do a counter street action of foghorning and whistling men randomly in the street and in vans and see how they like it…

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  2. I totally know what this feels like, and it’s horrible. I think it’s something about some men thinking they have “the right” to do stuff like this, “it’s just harmless fun”. But it’s not. Usually it’s terrifying. The worst part is if you push back, throw a finger, yell back or even just ignore them, they turn and shout abuse (“prude” “slut” “stupid bitch” “I’m just being nice you cow” “I just want a smile” etc etc etc.)… In my book, this behaviour is in the same category as Revenge Porn and having creepy assholes taking your photo when you’re not paying attention.

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  3. SpiegelBeagle; you’re mistaken if you think that ‘foghorning and whistling men randomly'(sic) is the solution (two wrongs, and all that). The men who think it’s OK to heckle and harass women runners and cyclists don’t do it because they’re men (if that were true, you see a damn site more of it), but because they’re inconsiderate, ignorant creeps.

    If you then go on to retaliate by indiscriminately randomly targeting men, you’re no better than they are, and you definitely won’t encourage the creeps to stop their attacks.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know what the answer is… chemical castration of any offenders…

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