OOn September 3, 2022, a 34-year-old mother of two named Eliza Fletcher was brutally kidnapped and murdered while running near her Tennessee home. For women, the story, while tragic, is one they’ve heard too many times. And it forces some of them to extreme measures.
The majority of American women worry about 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 American women have experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault.
For some women, threats while running are so great that they have carried a concealed firearm with them.
While women’s vulnerability while running or walking is obvious, no one seems to agree on the solution. Some argue that the danger is small – murders of running women are rare, although they often get a lot of media attention. According to a 2017 Runner’s World study, for women between the ages of 16 and 44, there is only one chance in 35,336 of ever being the victim of murder — and most women are killed by someone they know, rather than some random one. stranger. However, incidents of sexual harassment that do not end in kidnapping, serious injury or death are common and can have serious negative consequences for women. According to the GEH, sexual harassment while running or walking causes women to “feel anxiety or depression and prompt them to change their route or normal 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] is a violation of human rights because it prevents women from having equal access to public spaces.”
Women who experience sexual harassment and assault while running agree that the effects are long-lasting and significant. But every woman who has been threatened while running is not identical, and neither are the stories of those who run with a gun.
Jamie, a 40-year-old runner who prefers to withhold her last name for privacy, says: “Women who wear while running are not monolithic, but we are often characterized as such in the media. We are characterized as right-wing, aggressive, retarded and ignorant about the risks of gun ownership. I am none of these. I am educated, politically moderate and healthy.”
Jamie goes on to describe her own experiences. “I was followed around a popular lake trail by a man who exposed himself to me…about half a mile later I heard steps behind me and it was him.” It was getting dark and Jamie realized she was alone with the man she assumed was strong enough to overpower her. He came closer and closer, ignoring her pleas to leave her alone, and pushed her against some trees. Finally: “I put my hand on my [up until then concealed] gun like I was about to pull and I told him to get away from me.” Suddenly, Jamie’s aggressor completely changed his attitude and told her, “Stay safe”, and ran away.
Amy Robbins, a runner from Dallas, Texas, began carrying guns on runs after being tracked 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,” Robbins says. She also understands how difficult it is to carry guns with sportswear and founded Alexo Athletica, a company that designs shorts and tights for concealed wear.
Not everyone is in favor of carrying guns. David Hemenway, PhD, a 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 adds that 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 in his opinion some Carrying a Concealed Weapon (CCW) courses are defective. “Being able to stand still, aim carefully and shoot a target will not help you if you are attacked. Your heart is pounding, your fight or flight starts, adrenaline flows, it’s a very different situation than when you’re in a shooting range,” he says.
As an alternative to carrying a gun, Hemenway suggests that women who feel threatened 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 — running in daylight or in a group — isn’t realistic for all women. Work, personal and family schedules mean that women, like their male counterparts, should fit in their runs when they can. Some experts advocate shifting the responsibility for ensuring safety from women to men. Eliza Fletcher was attacked while running before dawn wearing running shorts and a sports bra, and some online commentators have suggested she may be partially responsible for her attack. But Kearl says that “if [women] don’t follow every guideline, they can be blamed and that’s not OK…blame for men who attack women should nothing but lie with those men.”
Like Hemenway, Kearl agrees that guns are not a safe option for self-defense. But she adds: “Our society needs to do more to prevent men from committing violence against us. Women and girls should not feel like prey and men and boys should not be socialized to be predators.”
Some runners agree that carrying a gun isn’t the best way to run safely. Kayla Kowalsko, a 30-year-old runner, took multiple CCW courses and ran with a firearm until she, “attended a self-defense class that provided a lot of information that I didn’t get when I was doing my CCW course…if another person within 20 feet of you, your reaction time is too slow to draw and fire a weapon.” Kowalsko added: “That person could take your weapon and use it against you or others. I’d rather take my safety into my own hands literally than give someone a huge upper hand.”
Gender-based self-defense experts like Lauren R Taylor also advocate for women using their own bodies over a weapon. Taylor is the founder of Defend Yourself, an organization that describes its mission as “helping people claim their power, set their limits, and protect themselves,” and the author of the book Get Empowered: A Practical Guide to Thrive, Heal , and Embrace Your Confidence in a Sexist World, due out next year.
Taylor advocates that people do what works for them, but “In general, I’m in favor of always using things you have with you, such as your voice, brain, elbows, feet, and hands. Weapons as weapons can be picked up and used against us, while your hands, feet and voice cannot…I also know people who relied on a weapon and could not get to that weapon at the time.”
Referring to NCVS data evidence that guns used for self-defense do not reduce a victim’s chance of injury, Taylor says: Leading one to anti-gun status. You are much more likely to hurt yourself or someone you care about than someone trying to harm you.”
Some women choose to carry a gun because of the particular environment they run in. Julie, a 40-year-old from Tacoma, Washington who also prefers not to say her last name, took seven CCW classes in addition to serving in the United States Army. For her, living in a particularly dangerous area contributed to her decision to run with a gun: “I run in Point Defiance Park, which is large and wooded. Even if I screamed and screamed, maybe I wouldn’t be heard… [and] Tacoma is on track to have its highest-ever murder rate this year. It’s only getting worse.”
Opinions may differ on gun-holding, but runners and experts 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 run with a weapon; or demand more change from men and society to stop the normalization of street harassment. But after hearing the harrowing stories of female runners about the abuse and harassment they routinely endure, it’s hard to judge anyone for the choice they make. Taylor explains: “This is about options. No one can tell you what to do, our job is to add tools to your toolbox. If you’re in a situation that feels threatening, only you can decide what’s best.”
At the end of the day, women want to go for a run and worry about whether they have doubled their shoelaces, or whether they have eaten the right meal, not whether they will be attacked or harassed. Jamie says that when she goes out with her concealed firearm, “I feel like I can move around in the world and do normal things without fear. I wonder if that’s what a man feels when he’s strapped in for a run?”