September 8, 2022
We Need to Stop Giving Women Tips for Being “Safe”
by Kelly O’Mara
Earlier this week, Memphis teacher Eliza Fletcher’s body was found miles away from where she had started her morning jog last Friday. She appears to have been abducted and murdered by a stranger while out on a run before work. It is a horrific crime and I am sick to my stomach at what she must have gone through and gutted for her friends and family. And now I’m queasily disappointed at the predictable national conversation they’ve had to endure about what women should do when running alone—something other, presumably, than being a woman—as if there’s a piece of clothing Fletcher could have worn or route she could have picked that would have made it her fault. I thought maybe this time we’d skip that step in this cycle.
There is a tendency after these kinds of crimes to search for some lesson, to trot out safety tips, to write articles—I’ve even had to write these articles—with headlines like ‘How women can stay safe while working out alone.’ We give each other advice (good and bad): Don’t run with headphones. Don’t run alone. Don’t run on empty streets or dark streets or streets that are busy with the wrong kinds of people. Don’t wear too many clothes or too few clothes. Tell people where you’re going, but not too many people. Carry mace and know self-defense and be prepared.
As someone who works out while female, I understand this urge. I know why we want to have a list of things that we can do, things we can pinpoint and say “this is where she went wrong,” so we can feel like if, instead, we just smile the correct amount we’ll be OK. It’s the same reason we put the napkin over our drink when we went to the bathroom back in college and why we pretended to be on the phone when we had to walk home in the dark. Because we want to build an armor of those little napkins, a wall full of fake phone calls. If we can just share the right safety tip from our aunt on Facebook, then maybe we’ll have finally cracked the code.
I understand why we do this, but we have to stop. It shifts the responsibility onto the wrong person and sells women a version of the world where their objectively safe everyday activities are viewed as the dangerous problem.
Since running (or biking or hiking or walking) is for so many of us the rare time we’re alone and moving our bodies by ourselves through the world, it’s often the time we have most to think about how those bodies exist in that world too. This makes it easy to believe it’s the running (or biking or hiking or walking) that’s the problem. A Runner’s World survey famously found that 60% of women had been harassed while running. And you could take from that that running is some kind of bat signal for assault, but the hard reality in study after study is the harassment rains down whatever we’re doing.
Not to pull an Olivia Benson, but: it was never about us.
Here is a list of some things women have been doing when they were murdered: walking through a park, going to a party, going to a bar, turning down a man, not dancing with a man, dancing with a man, calling off an engagement, getting in their car, sitting at home.
It’s not running that needs to be fixed.
Running is safe. Let’s just say that clearly. On the aggregate, statistically, running is a very safe activity and no woman should be scared by fear-mongering or too many true crime podcasts into not going for a run.
Of course, something terrible could happen; something terrible could always happen. Of course, you should take the precautions you feel best about and run in the areas and with the people that you deem safest. You should do what you need to do. Of course.
But ask those experts who are selling you safety how many of their clients have ever actually used their keys held between their knuckles to stab someone? How often is that Instagram ad capitalizing on this moment to push some kind of lighted safety whistle on me really needed?
The fact is stranger abductions and murders are rare and, unless you’re a minor celebrity, have nothing to do with your Strava privacy settings. Women are still most likely to be killed by someone they know, by a husband, boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend. Women are, in sum, far more likely to die in a car crash than a homicide. Logically, we know that the dangers of not going for a run outpace the dangers of running. We know that running is not the problem.
Yet, here we are. We’ve been scared. We don’t know how to exist in a world where the problem is existing. And so I’ve watched a very specific demographic of female runners wrestle this week with the safety of their solo runs, their in-the-dark runs, reliving on social media all of their close calls—because we’ve all had them. For them, Fletcher’s story hits too close to home; someone who looks like them was murdered doing something they usually do. (A fact women of color have long been unable to avoid.) And so they click on those safety articles because they want there to be a lesson, a tip, a cause, a thing they can do.
But what if there isn’t? What if there’s nothing you can do that will change who you are? What if Fletcher already knew everything we could tell her?
She was 34 years old. Do you really think there’s a 34-year-old woman in the U.S. who hasn’t already learned to keep her head always on a swivel? Who hasn’t already been schooled in the lessons of being a woman? Fletcher didn’t need us to tell her how to be safe. She didn’t need safety tips. She needed us to make the world a safer place for her.
We have to stop telling women they must worry about safety as if it’s only their problem as if they’re the ones who are doing the dangerous things. I want, instead, for someone to write an article headlined ‘How to not attack a woman working out by herself.’ And the whole piece would simply read: “Just don’t.”
Kelly O’Mara recently left her role as editor-in-chief at Triathlete Magazine. You can follow her on twitter @kellydomara