What Most Men Don’t Understand About Living in Fear

I shouldn’t have to worry about my safety every time I go for a run

Photo: Ashley Corbin-Teich/Getty Images

I crave the ability to feel at ease in public spaces.

As a runner, there are countless times I find myself alone. I actually prefer it that way; running with a partner or group doesn’t grant me the quiet time to be with my thoughts and get what I need from my workout. But running alone as a woman is a constant trade-off. How much do I value my safety? And how much do I want to avoid being harassed, or worse?

There is no shortage of instances in which women have been harassed, followed, assaulted, or murdered while simply living their lives. I don’t need to paint the picture with statistics — there are sadly far too many cases that showcase the spectrum of what might happen every day when I walk out the door.

There is one case in particular that had a particularly deep effect on me: Mollie Tibbetts, the University of Iowa student who went missing last summer after going out for an evening run. Her body was found after a five-week search. I’ve taken a summer evening run oh, I don’t know… about a million times.

Maybe it was the fact that I was in Iowa while the search for Molly was being conducted, or that I saw something of myself in her, but it spooked me nonetheless. Not long after, a woman was fatally stabbed in Washington, D.C. while running near Logan Circle. It unsettled me even more.

The most fearful I’ve ever been while running was during a long run the first winter after I moved back to Kansas City. I was running on a paved bike trail alone and without headphones, as usual. The trail was peaceful and serene, cleared of snow and ice, and I was enjoying it. I felt good.

I felt good, that is, until a man on a bicycle approached from behind and started trailing me. He attempted to start a conversation with me multiple times, and despite my silence or curt, one-word responses, he persisted. He wanted to know where I was going, where I had come from, where I lived, whether I had a boyfriend, and what I was doing later that day. It was creepy AF — and even if I wasn’t being followed while running alone, his persistent questioning would have creeped me out.

I became increasingly nervous with every new question. My anxiety level skyrocketed, along with my heart rate. I mentally played out worst case scenarios and kicked myself for ending up in this situation. I scanned in all directions, looking for a way to duck off the trail to distance myself from him. Could I defend myself if I needed to? I honestly wasn’t sure, and I hoped I wouldn’t have to find out.

I was finally able to shake him after a group of runners appeared on the path ahead of me, running in the opposite direction. As they passed me, I quickly pivoted to join their group. “I just need to stick with you for a little while,” I told them. “This guy on the bike has been following me and won’t leave me alone.” They made room for me in the group, the man kept riding away from us, we kept running, and I made it safely back to my car.

I didn’t tell my partner about any of this when I got home. I didn’t share the incident with friends or fellow runners, either, because it didn’t seem remarkable enough to be worth sharing. Nothing happened. And truth be told, I also didn’t feel like hearing the inevitable onslaught of questions and comments that would come: “You know you shouldn’t run alone, right?” “You really should carry something for self-defense.” “What time was this? You shouldn’t cut it so close to sundown.” “You should tell someone where you’re going next time.”

The lectures and questioning still make my eyes want to roll right out of my head. Do you think I’m an idiot? I want to respond. Don’t you think I know that?

We women are not idiots. We do “know better.” It’s just that we also know that we have to live with it. And these incidents aren’t just isolated to running. Other things that routinely happen to myself and other female-identifying people at the hands of men include:

  • Being catcalled, honked at, yelled at, or solicited from the window of a car.
  • Uber drivers who ask us very inappropriate questions about our relationship status or share very inappropriate details about theirs.
  • Being followed or having our personal space invaded in a group of people or in a small space.
  • Overhearing direct or indirect comments about our bodies or appearance (both of which are unwelcome).
  • Being groped, brushed against, or otherwise touched without invitation or consent.
  • Having our expressed boundaries ignored or undermined.

Even something as seemingly non-threatening as being interrupted or talked over in a conversation is a type of silencing microaggression, and men do it to us all the time.

It’s easy for men to trivialize these things. Many of them have never, and will never, experience them firsthand on such a relentless basis. Even my ex-husband questioned it when I mentioned how it was a relief when he and I ran together because it meant not experiencing that type of street harassment.

“What do you mean, it doesn’t happen when I’m with you?” he asked.

“I mean, the simple fact that I’m with you means that other men won’t do that,” I explained.

This was hard for him to wrap his head around. He couldn’t understand something that he had never experienced. I could almost see the gears turning in his mind as he tried to imagine what it was like for me and why men might be more respectful towards a woman if she happened to be with another man.

“Well, most women don’t look attractive when they’re working out…”

No shit!!! That’s not the point, I wanted to scream.

I tried to explain to him that it’s really about power; if you can snap someone’s focus, interrupt their routine, and make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe, even in the absence of intent to inflict harm, you have a subtle, temporary power over them.

Is this intentional? Most men, particularly those who buy into the “nice guy” trope, might not realize what they’re doing. Some even insist their catcalling is a compliment and I should be flattered to receive it. They may have only catcalled on occasion and never assaulted a single woman — but most women have been on the receiving end countless times, and may have even been assaulted at some point.

I suspect it’s subconscious to them, what they’re really doing when they harass us. But it’s impossible to ignore when it’s happening to you. Street harassment is not experienced in isolation; each instance builds on the one before and the one before, dozens of tiny reminders that your body is not your own. It chips at your perception of your self worth. You ask yourself, Am I only valuable if I’m deemed attractive to the male gaze? At best, these interactions are an annoying disturbance to your routine but at worst, they’re threats that makes your whole world feel less safe.

When I’m running and a man starts following me, it’s impossible to know whether he’s trying to “compliment” me or if he means to harm me — so I have no choice but to assume the worst. This is a terrifying way to live. Though I don’t wish that upon anyone, I do wish men could understand what that feels like.

I’ve since attempted to explain this to multiple other men and have been met with similar confusion to my ex’s. Either they disregard it (“Oh, I’m sure they just thought they were complimenting you…”) or they try to one-up it (“Yeah, that’s never happened to me, but this one time…”) or they try to minimize it by making a joke or awkwardly chuckling.

What I want to say to men is: This isn’t fucking funny.

I want to tell them that the way they respond to a woman’s story of being harassed says a lot more about who they are as a person. As Maggie Lupin wrote, “to downplay any abuse is to say that some abuse is acceptable.”

To a certain extent, I understand men’s lack of understanding, though I don’t entirely empathize with it. Men, especially white, straight men, grow up in a world that accepts and embraces them, grants them unearned privilege, and does not question or challenge their existence. They don’t need to grow a thick skin to defend themselves against daily microaggressions. They move through a world where doors are open to them and spaces feel safe, even though they face challenges and adversity along the way. They’re playing the game of life on an easier setting than the rest of us.

This is beyond frustrating to explain to white men who just don’t understand the benefits white male privilege grants them; having that privilege doesn’t mean they haven’t struggled nor does it negate or invalidate their individual experiences. But it does mean that their struggles were not made harder because of their gender, skin color, or sexual orientation. And it means they don’t have to live with daily thoughts about whether or not they can relax and feel at ease in public spaces.

I don’t always have the voice or courage to articulate what I want to say when I try to explain this to white men. I don’t always feel like wasting my breath or working hard to make my point understood, only to have my lived experiences invalidated and diminished in response.

What I want to tell white men isn’t just that their world is safer than mine. I want to tell them that they play a part in making it that way when they disregard stories like mine.

Lover of carbs and puns, call me Cara Carbstreet | Anxious Millennial | Coffee Enthusiast | Non-diet Dietitian

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