Harassment, cat-calls and murder: What women face when they go for a jog

The man accused of murdering 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts, Cristhian Bahena-Rivera, has been arrested. Tibbetts, a student from Iowa, had gone for a run when Bahena-Rivera allegedly approached her and followed her. When she threatened to call the police, he grabbed her phone and then he abducted her. Five weeks later, police found her body. Bahena-Rivera has now pled not guilty in court and will go to trial for the murder in April.

Despite the fact that some American politicians (including Trump) have tried to make this story about the threat of immigrants, which Bahena-Rivera is (despite the fact that Tibbetts’ family have publicly asked them not to), the real threat, in this case, has nothing to do with illegal aliens and everything to do with the underlying threat that female runners can face every time they go out for a jog. You only have to look on Twitter and the stories that have come out after Mollie Tibbetts’ death to know that the case isn’t that unusual (or at least, not the harassment part of it). 

Take the summer of 2016, when three women in America were killed in nine days. Women from different states, killed by different men. Ally Brueger, Karina Vetrano and Vanessa Marcotte were murdered in Michigan, New York and Massachusetts respectively. Vetrano and Marcotte were also sexually assaulted. The thing they had in common was that in each case, it happened whilst they were out on a run.

And then there’s Wendy Karina Martinez, who was stabbed while out running in Washington DC in September this year. Martinez was waiting to cross the road at a junction when she was attacked. She managed to make it into a Chinese restaurant looking for help but died from her injuries.

43% of women had been harassed while running, the number shooting up to 58% for the under-30s.

Plenty of women who run will report some form of abuse, which ranges from the base levels of sexual harassment to physical attacks. Last year, the magazine Runner’s World conducted a survey of female runners in America. It found that 43% of women had been harassed while running, the number shooting up to 58% for the under-30s. 5% of women had been flashed. Compare that to the male runners and the 4% that reported anything.

Women are taught to follow certain rules to stay safe: don’t run at night; don’t run alone; don’t run with headphones in. Huffington Post reporter and runner Alanna Vagianos‏, on Twitter, added another one: never run the same route twice. This advice given by police after two men, in two different cities on two separate occasions tried to break into her flat after she did just that. Her post went viral. Gyms have even created self-defence programmes specifically for runners, which if you needed it, is a helpful sign of how bad things can be for women that run.

It’s not limited to America. Closer to home in Nottingham, a 48-year-old woman was grabbed by a man while she was running. The police treated it as a misogynistic hate crime. Though it was the first time she had been assaulted, she said she had been stared at and shouted at before.

In attacks that happened across 2017 and 2018 in London, women running alone became the victims of a serial sex attacker. They reported being followed and groped.

Of the 2000 women polled, one in three said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment while out jogging

And a woman in Birmingham this year was left bleeding and injured after an encounter she had with a group of men while she was jogging. The men had been filming her and her friend. When she asked them to stop, the gang surrounded them and she was pushed to the ground. This despite the fact they were in broad daylight in a busy area.

In 2017, England Athletics conducted their own survey. Of the 2000 women polled, one in three said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment while out jogging and two-thirds said they felt anxious running alone. 36% had been shouted at, the same number beeped at by people in cars.

In other words, going out for a run can mean facing down anything from catcalls and wolf whistling to being followed by men—on foot, on bikes or in cars—or even being groped.

It sounds bad— and it is. But it’s important to remember that the chances of meeting a fate like Mollie Tibbetts’ are low. Still, the fear of facing harassment or previous experience of just that has been enough to put joggers off their trainers, as the England Athletics study also revealed. So if you’re wondering why anyone would risk it for the sake of a run, the answer is that some don’t anymore.

64% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in public places. 

There’s also the fact that this kind of experience isn’t exclusive to runners. Being a woman in public is enough, as YouGov’s national poll on street harassment in 2016 showed. According to the survey, 64% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in public places and it’s worse for those aged 18-24. For that demographic, it went up to 85%. A 2012 poll that focused purely on London found it was four in 10 women.

The problem isn’t that women are running; it’s that this level of misogynistic behaviour is aimed at them regardless of what they’re doing. They need only appear in public to run the risk of experiencing it. Until that problem is addressed, female runners aren’t going to be exempt.

So yes, Mollie Tibbetts’ death has highlighted an important issue. But it’s not the one that Trump is making out.