An apparently evergreen debate raised its head again this week: are we safe when running alone? In Leipzig, Germany, a woman reported a brutal rape in her local park, to which the town’s police spokesperson responded by telling a local newspaper that “it would be better if women jogged in pairs, or at the least that they make sure that there is always someone else around.” Cue furious women in Lycra, being told once again that their freedom must be curtailed to accommodate a world where sexual assault is a possibility.
I don’t doubt that that the Leipzig police had anything other than their townswomen’s best interests at heart. But as mayor Burkhard Jung correctly pointed out, the responsibility for preventing further crime does not lie with the women. “The state’s answer to this terrible incident and to previous such incidents must be to put more police on the streets and in the parks,” he retorted.
Mr Jung has a valid point and was valiant in trying to shift the blame, but the debate around women’s running safety is showing no signs of abating. Earlier this year England Athletics released research showing that 32 per cent of women have been subject to harassment while out running, and 60 per cent have felt anxious while running alone. This research was related to mark RunTogether, an initiative to – you guessed it – encourage runners to head out in pairs or groups. And if it isn’t run buddies we’re being encouraged to find, it is appropriate levels of darkness, headphone volume or even fitness wear.
Truly, the implication that women must change and restrict their habits because sexual violence is an inevitability is infuriating
As with the periodical “gentlemanly suggestions” that women travel in gender segregated train coaches, it’s perilously easy to feel the slow release of steam from ones ears. Truly, the implication that women must change and restrict their habits because sexual violence is an inevitability is infuriating: of all running’s myriad joys perhaps greatest is that it provides the chance to spend a little time alone and untethered, not dependent on either class times or the schedules of others.
What is particularly frustrating is that this advice is not truly representative of the situation – and each time the dangers are overstated, a crop of would-be runners decide it’s simply not worth the risk. The reality is that deaths from inactivity are on the rise, so staying on the sofa is perhaps the riskiest thing of all that we could do. Of course, incidents like that in Leipzig, for which no one has yet been arrested, are horrific. And while it is as frightening as it is depressing that street harassment levels are high, the image of the rapist lurking in the bushes is an unhelpful one: according to Rape Crisis UK 90 per cent of perpetrators are known to those who are raped beforehand, and of course there is the fact that a small but significant number of all sexual assaults are perpetrated on men themselves.
We deserve better than to be perpetually furious about well-meant but powerfully unhelpful advice. We deserve to exercise with freedom but reasonable caution. We deserve statistics that represent the reality of the danger we face on a simple run. Instead of carrying that cold, hard pebble of rage in our chest when we hear these comments we’d do well to remember a different clutch of information: we should take care after dark because the most dangerous moment of any run around the park is crossing the road to get to it. We should keep our music at a reasonable volume not in order to hear an attacker approach but because sometimes the steady rustle of autumn leaves and our own breath is as relaxing as any playlist. If we head out with a friend it should be not motivated by fear but because all research shows that long-term, it isn’t the physical results but the social aspects of exercise that keep us motivated. Well-intended thoughtlessness will never go away, but nor will women who just need to go for a bloody run to clear their head.