“Are your boobs real?” a middle-aged man dressed in scrubs yelled at me as I ran past Hannehman University Hospital on Monday night. My cheeks were already pink from 25 minutes of jogging, but other familiar signs of mortification crept up. I sucked in both my lips, felt my eyes dart around rapidly, my shoulders stiffened. I sped up to get away from this jerk.
It was the first time anyone has ever yelled that particular insult at me, but it’s certainly not the first time I’ve been verbally assaulted on the streets of Philadelphia. As a young teenager, I sprouted breasts seemingly overnight—and people noticed. I worked part-time at a pizza shop in Northeast Philly throughout high school. Walking to and from work in my uniform—a heather gray t-shirt and black shorts or a skirt—men of all ages and races would honk and occasionally make sexual noises or gestures at me. Grunting, tongue wagging, mimicked groping and offers to drive me home were just as common as run-of-the-mill “hey baby”s and other cat calls. Taking the K and 18 buses—the SEPTA routes I rode to get to and from my high school—while in my Catholic school uniform added a whole new fetish the the taunts.
I learned early on not to be flattered by this attention and for many years, I ignored it to the point where I barely even noticed when something offensive happened.
But recently, I’ve found myself with a renewed sense of insecurity and anxiety. A few months ago, I started jogging around my home in Fairmount. The first time I went out, a group of teenage boys chased me around the block, mocking my running and holding their hands up in front their chests, mimicking my bouncing breasts. (This was particularly frightening since my friends were flashmobbed a block away.) Later, I ran past the Electricians’ Union building on Spring Garden Street, where several dozen men were hanging out after work hours. As I wove my way through the crowd, I felt all eyes on me, groping me with their stares. I was thankful I had my headphones cranked up so I couldn’t hear what they were saying—because I could see the elbow nudging, the head nodding and the laughing clearly enough to know that everyone was talking about me and my body.
And then there was the guy in front of Hannehman. And the man who asked me if I ever worried about getting black eyes “from those things.” (Since he asked: No. I spend $65 on each sports bra for a reason.)
I’m both comforted and horrified to know that I’m not alone in my worry and frustration about men heckling women on the street, particularly while running. Another female runner told me she been grabbed and threatened while jogging in Philly and now only runs on treadmills and in New Jersey. Sara Ann Kelly, a PR professional who responded to a call on Twitter said, harassment while running is “becoming an increasingly unsettling problem for me. I never run without my knife now.” A good friend confided, “Part of the reason I like 12th Street Gym is because I know it’s full of gay men who won’t stare creepily at me while I run.”
As anyone who has ever sprinted more than a few blocks can attest, a long run can make you extremely vulnerable both physically and mentally. For some men to use that opportunity to objectify women—not to mention sexually harass and assault them—is reprehensible and an all too common occurrence.
I don’t believe that this problem is unique to Philadelphia, but the anti-woman running culture of this city cuts deep. Whenever a woman is attacked while jogging in Fairmount Park or near the Ben Franklin Bridge, commenters are quick to point out that women shouldn’t run alone. While there’s plenty of good reasons for running with a partner, it’s not always an option. And I don’t for a minute believe that an attacked male runner would garner the same public victim blaming.
Ignoring this problem makes sense for female runners in the moment. Responding to sexual harassment with a profanity-laced retort or a middle finger in the air is risky. But ignoring it as a cultural issue is unacceptable. In 2012, women shouldn’t have to worry about being harangued in broad daylight by low-level perverts masquerading as normal guys. It has to stop.