Op-ed: Exercise for women shouldn’t come with threats

Two summers ago a man in a car followed me while I jogged in my neighborhood. After two instances where he insisted I stop running and speak to him, I fled to my former high school’s  swimming pool, which was thankfully nearby and hosting a swim meet. When I turned away from his car, the man yelled obscenities at me and sped off.

I consider the timing and location of this encounter a godsend. Under different circumstances—if I went running in a rural area or not near a crowd of people—I may not have been so lucky. I may have ended up like so many female runners before me: dead.

Time and time again, life as a runner and a woman proves a deadly combination. Following the death of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts this past summer, Senior Editor at the New York Times Talya Minsberg wrote “Running While Female,” detailing the constant paranoia and anxiety that women face on every single run. In 2010, a man brutally raped and murdered high school senior Chelsea King while she ran on a hiking trail one afternoon in my hometown of San Diego. Since childhood, I’ve feared going anywhere alone because of the threats of harassment, abduction, assault, and murder.

Before every run, I ask myself, “What are you going to do if you get attacked?” Even during evening runs on the Common, I find myself locating stores, lit areas, and clusters of people to run to if I’m ever in danger. I believe that Emerson College and the Emerson College Police Department try to make the campus and its surrounding areas safe—however, the problem resides much deeper than keeping popular areas supposedly free of danger. The fact that so many men share the mindset that a woman running or jogging alone welcomes harassment or assault poses a larger problem. I’ve experienced male harassment while running since age 15. From teenagers to seniors, men believe they deserve my attention at their command.

When I simply walk alone in broad daylight, the anxiety of becoming a target still exists. Last fall, during one of my first weeks at Emerson, a middle-aged man approached me on the corner of Boylston and Tremont streets to tell me I was very beautiful. He then asked about my ethnicity, and, reluctant to respond, I jaywalked across the street with a crowd of pedestrians. Heading for the textbook annex, I noticed the man following me and watching me from the other side of the street. Halfway down the Boylston Place alley, I heard a voice call out from behind me. It was him. I quickly rushed into the store and waited 15 minutes inside to assure my safety.

I’m not asking that the college implement a new policy, or that police officers constantly survey Tremont Street, Boylston Street, Boston Common, and other surrounding areas. I ask for women to freely run, walk, or simply exist without the threat of harassment, assault, or murder.

With Brett Kavanaugh’s recent confirmation to the Supreme Court, I fear that, despite the rise of the #MeToo movement, women still live in a world where justice for sexual assault only exists as an illusion. I fear that although some women courageously speak out about their sexual assaults, their assaulters still face few consequences.

While enacting legislation to create stricter sentences for sexual predators is a valuable step, violence against women will not stop until we begin to raise our sons with a different mindset—one that teaches them that women will not bend to their wills. Until then, women must rely on movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up to create a world where we deal with sexual assault seriously, and ideally eradicate it. While women lead these movements, significant change can only come about with male allies willing to call out and correct the misogynistic behavior of every man they come across.

When I confided in my mother about the man who followed me in his car two summers ago, she told me a story from her early twenties. A man in a pickup truck pulled over to the side of the road and smacked her butt before speeding off. Nearly every woman who runs, walks, or does anything alone has a story like this. So, to create a future in which all of our daughters can run freely and confidently, our mindsets and world must change.

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