ohn September 3, 2022, a 34-year-old mother of two named Eliza Fletcher was kidnapped and murdered while jogging near her home in Tennessee. For women, the story, while tragic, is one they have heard all too often. And it has forced some of them to take extreme measures.
The majority of US women have experienced harassment in public spaces during their lifetime. According to a 2019 national study on sexual assault by Stop Street Harassment and the University of California San Diego Center on Gender Equity and Health (GEH), 81% of US women have experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault.
For some women, threats while running are so significant that they have turned to carrying a concealed firearm.
Although the vulnerability of women when running or walking is clear, no one seems to agree on the solution. People argue that the danger is low – murders of women on the run are rare, although they often attract a lot of media attention. According to a 2017 Runner’s World study, for women aged 16 to 44, there is only a one in 35,336 chance of being the victim of a homicide at any time – and most women are killed by someone they know them, rather than a random person. a stranger. However, incidents of sexual harassment often do not result in kidnapping, serious injury or death, and can have a negative impact on women. According to the GEH, sexual harassment while running or walking causes women to feel “anxiety or depression and prompts them to change their route or routine”. Holly Kearl, Founder of Stop Street Harassment and author of the book 50 Stories About Stopping Street Harassers, says, “Street harassment is not a joke or a compliment. [It] preventing women from having equal access to public spaces is a violation of human rights.”
Women who experience sexual harassment and assault while running agree that the effects are long lasting and significant. But not all women who are threatened while running are the same, nor are the stories of gun runners.
Jamie, a 40-year-old runner who prefers to withhold her last name for privacy, says, “Women who run are not monolithic, but we are often characterized in the media. We are characterized as right wing, aggressive, backward thinking and ignorant of the risks of gun ownership. I am none of these. I’m educated, fairly political and sensible.”
Jamie describes her own experiences. “A man who exposed himself followed me around a popular lake trail … about half a mile later, I heard footsteps behind me and that was it.” It was getting dark, and Jamie realized she was alone with the man, who she assumed was strong enough to defeat her. He came closer and closer, ignoring his entreaties to leave her alone, and support her in some trees. Finally, “I put my hand on mine [up until then concealed] pistol as I was about to draw and I told him to get off me.” Suddenly, Jamie’s attacker completely changed his demeanor, telling her to “keep safe”, and ran away.
Amy Robbins, a runner from Dallas, Texas, started carrying weapons on runs after being followed and verbally harassed by a van full of men in 2015. “I came home and told myself I would never be in this situation again,” says Robbins. She also understands the difficulty of carrying weapons with sportswear and founded Alexo Athletica, a company that designs shorts and tights for concealed carry.
Not everyone is an advocate of carrying guns. David Hemenway, PhD, professor of Health Policy at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, does not recommend guns as a self-defense tool for runners. Hemenway says “when looking at data on defensive gun use in the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), there was no evidence that gun use reduced the likelihood of injury during assaults on women.” Hemenway says the percentage of American women who carry a gun is small: in a 2016 Runner’s World survey of 4,670 runners, only 1% of women said they run with a gun.
Hemenway also says that some of the Concealed Carry Weapon (CCW) courses are flawed in his opinion. “Being able to stand still, aim and shoot isn’t going to help you if you’re attacked. Your heart is beating, your fight or flight starts, adrenaline is flowing, it’s a very different situation when you’re standing in a gun range,” he says.
As an alternative to carrying a gun, Hemenway advises women who feel threatened to choose another route or run during the day, in groups. If a woman feels she needs protection, “bear spray (also known as mace or pepper spray) is much safer to use and just as effective as a gun,” he says.
However, advice like Hemenway’s – run in daylight, or in a group, is not realistic for all women. Work, personal and family schedules mean women need to fit in when they can, just like their male counterparts. Some experts support shifting the responsibility for ensuring women’s safety to men. Eliza Fletcher was attacked while out jogging before dawn, wearing running shorts and a sports bra, and some online commentators have suggested that the attack was partly her fault. But Kearl says “if [women] don’t follow all guidelines, they could be blamed and that’s not ok… men who assault women should be blamed only lay with those men.”
Like Hemenway, Kearl agrees that guns are not a safe option for self-defense. But she says, “our society needs to do more to stop men from committing violence against us. Women and girls should not have to feel like prey and men and boys should not be socialized to be predators.”
Some runners agree that carrying a gun is not the best way to stay safe while running. Kayla Kowalsko, a 30-year-old runner, took multiple CCW courses and ran with firearms until, “she attended a self-defense class that provided a ton of information that I didn’t get when I took my CCW course … if the person is within 20 feet of you, your reaction time is too slow to draw a weapon and fire.” Kowalsko adds: “That person could take your weapon and use it against you or against other people. I’d rather put my safety in my own hands, literally, than give someone else a hand.”
Gender-based violence self-defense experts like Lauren R Taylor also advocate for women using their own bodies over weapons. Taylor is the founder of Protect Yourself, an organization that describes its mission as “helping people claim their power, assert their boundaries and protect themselves,” and author of the book Get Empowered: A Practical Guide to Thrive, Heal, and Accept Your Confidence in a Sexual World, which will be released next year.
Taylor advises people to do whatever works for them, but, “in general I’m in favor of using the things you have on you all the time, like your voice, your brain, your elbows, your feet and your hands Weapons like weapons can be picked up and used against us, but your hands, your feet and your voice can’t… I also know people who depended on weapons and couldn’t achieve that right now.”
Referring to NCVS data evidence that guns used in self-defense do not reduce the likelihood of victim injury, Taylor says, “Data, such as it is, on the successful use of guns in self-defense rather than accidental injuries or death is good. leading one to anti-gun status. You are much more likely to hurt yourself or someone you care about than to hurt someone trying to harm you.”
Some women choose to carry a gun because of the particular environment in which they run. Julie, a 40-year-old from Tacoma, Washington, who also prefers to withhold her last name, has taken seven CCW classes, as well as serving in the US Army. For her, living in an extremely dangerous area contributed to her decision to run with an army: “I run in Defiance Point Park, which is large and wooded. Even if I heard and screamed I might not be heard… [and] Tacoma has its highest homicide rate this year. It just keeps getting worse.”
Opinions may differ on carrying guns, but runners and experts can agree on one thing: more needs to be done to protect women. Women get all kinds of advice: change your route and don’t run at night; or running with a weapon; or demand more change from men and society to stop ordinary street harassment. But after hearing the jokes from female runners about the assault and harassment they suffer on a regular basis, it’s hard to judge anyone for the choice they make. Taylor explains, “This is about choices. No one can tell you what to do, our job is to add tools to your toolbox. When you’re in a threatening situation, only you can decide what’s best.”
At the end of the day, women want to go out for a run worrying about whether they’ve tied their shoes twice, or eaten the right pre-run meal, not whether they’ll be attacked or harassed on them. Jamie says that when she goes out with her concealed firearm, “I feel like I can move around the world and do normal things without fear. I wonder if that’s what a man feels, when he’s getting divorced?”