My gym shorts are not an invitation

Just as I thought - the words "RAPE ME" are nowhere to be found!

When I look for workout clothes, I have a few criteria I keep in mind.  I like to wear technical shirts, preferably with panels that let my sweaty body air out a bit.  I like pretty colors, pinks and purples and blues.  I like my tops to be sleeveless so I can see my arm muscles flex while I lift.

I like my running shorts to be short, for maximum leg movement.  I have gotten used to running around in my sports bra, which, along with my short shorts, is how I feel most comfortable when I run on a hot day.

I like the idea of my workout clothing as a “superhero costume,” to crib an idea from Lauren Fleshman.  I like my clothes to make me feel tough and strong and fast and sleek, and so I dress accordingly.

But evidently members of the New York Police Department think I need to keep something else in mind – specifically, whether my gym clothes make me a target for rapists:

Lauren, a South Slope resident, was walking home three blocks from the gym on Monday when she was stopped.

The 25-year-old, who did not want her last name to be used, was wearing shorts and a T-shirt when she claims a police officer asked if she would stop and talk to him. He also stopped two other women wearing dresses.

According to Lauren, the officer asked if they knew what was going on in the neighborhood. When they answered in the affirmative, he asked if they knew what the guy was looking for.

“He pointed at my outfit and said, ‘Don’t you think your shorts are a little short?’” she recalled. “He pointed at their dresses and said they were showing a lot of skin.”

He said that such clothing could make the suspect think he had “easy access,” said Lauren.

She said the officer explained that “you’re exactly the kind of girl this guy is targeting.”

Can I just point out that this article was written in September, and that it’s the tail end of a summer that has been hot as all hell, and that skirts are a delightful and economical way to deal with the heat?  And that maybe the fact that the assaulter is “targeting” women in skirts is maybe less a decision of convenience and more due to the fact that more women are wearing skirts during the warmer months?

Nah, it’s got to be the skirts, right, anonymous NYPD officer?

I find it remarkable that we are in the 21st century and yet the belief that a woman is somehow making herself vulnerable to rape by wearing skimpy clothes persists.  It’s a debate I’ve heard for about as long as I’ve been paying attention to feminist politics.

I still remember the first time I heard this argument, with regards to a woman who was gang-raped at a bar.  She was wearing a lace miniskirt with no underwear, and people said that was proof that obviously she was out to get laid.  Never mind that there is a world of difference between “wanting to get laid” and “being gang-raped.”

Fast-forward nearly twenty years, and now we have police officers warning gym-going women to cover up lest they prove too tempting for the serial rapist to resist.

Of course, it seems like the short shorts of the lady athlete aren’t irresistable only to would-be serial rapists.  Most lady runners and bicyclists have their stories about being harassed on the street while taking part in their chosen sport.  I myself still remember a summer day when I was riding my bike down in Pass-A-Grille with my ex-husband.  I was wearing a tank top and board shorts, because it was sticky and hot outside, and we stopped so the ex could get a bottle of water for us to sip.

At some point, I bent over to check my tire pressure – just in time for an SUV full of teenage boys to roll up at the nearby stop sign.  They all leaned out of their windows and started yelling at me, saying some pretty obscene things about my ass and what they’d like to do to it.

In response, I rolled my eyes, flipped them off and told them to eat a bowl of dicks.  (My ex-husband did not have my back on this.  When I told him what happened, he yelled at me for not being “ladylike.”  Ugh.)

I’m lucky that this is the last incident I remember.  If I’ve gotten harassed in recent years, I haven’t heard it, as I’ve been too busy rocking out with my headphones on to pay much attention to the pitiful mewlings of cowardly man-children.

I’m sure that most female runners and cyclists – and a lot of male ones, too; don’t underestimate the power of the split short to inspire an avalanche of homophobic comments – have similar stories.

I did some poking around, and I found this op-ed written last year by Holly Kearl.   In it, she writes:

This is not the first time a man has scared me while running, and it’s not unique to Oregon. When I was 14 and living in southern California, and then when I was 22 and living in Virginia, men followed me. When I was 19 and 20, groups of young men on the street in northern California and Lancaster, United Kingdom, made extremely vulgar comments to me. And for the last 13 years, men have regularly honked or whistled at me from their passing cars.

Kearl makes the point that, contrary to common belief, these comments aren’t unsettling because we don’t like compliments or attention from men. They freak us out because we never know what the intentions of the harasser truly are:

Encounters such as these are unsettling because I know there are men who attack women runners. In early April, a teenage girl was able to escape two men who pulled her into their car and attempted to rape her when she was jogging in Chattanooga, Tenn. In March, a 13-year-old girl was raped, strangled and her body burned by a registered sex offender who saw her running near her home in Cincinnati. In February, a 17-year-old girl was found raped and murdered in a San Diego park where she was running. How horrible. Could these crimes have been prevented?

So what’s the answer?  Fuck if I know.  Nothing really seems satisfactory, does it?  Ignoring them doesn’t do it, telling them to get bent doesn’t either.  Hollaback is a good idea, and self-defense classes at least make you feel better.  Sometimes I think a girl gang of Hothead Paisan clones that roams the street in search of sexist pigs to crush might be the answer, but that’s hardly realistic now, is it?

But one thing I do know is that I won’t stop wearing short running shorts, and I won’t stop running in public.  Because that’s ultimately the point of all of this – to make us shrink away, out of public view.  To make us invisible.  To make us feel weak and powerless.  I may not be able to do much to stop harassment before it starts, but I can refuse to give them the satisfaction of feeling like they’ve accomplished something.

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10 responses to “My gym shorts are not an invitation

  1. :( Nope, the way you dress has nothing to do with harassment. My theory is that woman joggers are more often kidnapped/attacked/harassed because 1) they are usually out in the early morning hours when there are not many other people around, 2) they don’t tend to have much on them, such as cell phones, mace, or anything else that could be used for communication or as a weapon, 3) they are alone, 4) they are covering a lot of ground and thus highly visible to potential stalkers. That cop is such an idiot.

    I guess wearing a rape whistle is not a bad idea. Self defense classes are always fun, too. Wish it wasn’t necessary, though.

    • I took a self-defense class and really enjoyed it, but I feel like I’d need to take a lot of them for them to actually be effective.

      A rape whistle is not a bad idea, though. I saw a discussion on the Runner’s World board where some women talked about carrying guns when they went for runs, but I don’t know, a gun seems awfully heavy. I do know that there are manufacturers that make mace for runners, so there’s that.

      • I was trying to find a whistle/GPS/911-alert-system necklace or bracelet thingy that I figured somebody *had* to have invented, but could find nothing except this, which is large and heavy and ugly, plus I think they only sell to organizations: http://www.globalsecuritytracking.com/bracelet.php

        It seems like this could be a golden marketing opportunity for REI or some outdoor recreation outfit. C’mon guys! The runner’s pepper spray still seems just a bit unwieldy in a moment of panic.

      • Jeez, that’s even bigger than my Garmin, and my Garmin is pretty chunky. It might be tough to have two GPS devices on a person at one time. I wonder how that would work?

        You are so right about this huge niche just waiting to be filled. I can’t say I’ve done a ton of research, but what little I’ve done has turned up very few safety products intended for outdoor athletes. And seriously, I am NOT carrying a gun.

  2. Interesting — I saw a demo of some basic self-defense techniques at my running club last night. I’m so non-violent that I freaked out just watching. I’m not sure I could ever learn to be capable of defending myself. I could probably do the rape whistle though. I used to carry one and actually did use it once on an obscene phone caller.
    Having to worry about this should NOT be necessary, but I do worry — while running, hiking, putting gas in my car, walking through parking lots — pretty much every time I put myself “out there” I’m aware that I’m potentially vulnerable just because I’m female, and I have to choose to be brave and just do it. I’ve tried to explain this feeling to several male friends and they don’t get it.

    • Hey Lori, I love the image of you blowing a rape whistle on an obscene caller! I hope you blew his eardrum out. :)

      I agree that it’s a shame that women (including me) worry like this, and I hate it. I do find it interesting, though, that men DON’T worry. Men are vulnerable to violence, too. In fact, two men were recently attacked and mugged while riding bicycles on a local trail. Yet the culture is such that men aren’t constantly being told not to ride their bikes in certain places and at certain times, and they aren’t told not to wear specific things, etc. etc., and so it doesn’t occur to them to be afraid, even though you could say they very well should be.

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