Women deserve to run without fear

A call to action for male students on campus

We must work to keep each other safe.
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If there’s one thing to know about me, it’s that I’m an avid distance runner—a slow but steady tortoise on the move. My evening runs are the few moments of peace and silence squeezed in between busy days of virtual meetings.

The other day, I was a woman on a mission running just outside of campus. I had hit my runner’s high when a male student burst past me unannounced. My mind went into an immediate panic as I watched him run past me, keeping pace.

I can imagine it from his perspective: it was a simple interaction, one runner passing another. From mine, it was a jump from a peaceful run to a state of paralysis. I was unprepared. 

Since I was 13 years old, I’ve been taught by adults and institutions to protect myself from perpetrators while running.

I’ve been conditioned to tuck my hair into a hat because ponytails are easy to grab. I’ve been told not to play music so I can hear footsteps behind me. Keep my location on my phone and let loved ones know before I head out. Look over my shoulder. Memorize the faces of the men who pass me to get a good description of the perpetrator. Remember license plates of the cars parked along the road in case I need to file a police report.

Since I was 13 years old, I’ve been conditioned to be fearful of every man who passes me on the street.

This fear is justified.

Sexual violence is the only violent crime in Canada that is not declining, and women ages 18 to 24 experience the highest rates of sexual violence in the country. A study conducted by Runner’s World in 2019 showed that 84 per cent of surveyed women had been harassed while running. These numbers only multiply when taking a closer look at how sexual violence disproportionately affects women of colour, women with disabilities, and LGBTQIA2S+ women.

Reflecting on the kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard, she followed the rules every woman is taught to protect themselves to a tee. She wore bright clothing, walked along the lit side of the street at a reasonable hour, and called her partner to let him know to expect her. She did everything right and never made it home.

When the runner brushed past me, I experienced a common phenomenon known as the Amygdala Hijack, or a fight-flight-freeze response. When you feel that your safety or well-being is in danger, it triggers the release of stress hormones that kickstart a reaction in your body beyond your control. 

My immediate thought was that my personal safety was in jeopardy. I froze. Hair in a hat. No music in earbuds. Memorized license plates. I thought I had done everything right.

From a man’s perspective, seeing a stranger running past as a death sentence may seem like an extreme reaction. Of course, not all men are threats. But as a woman running down the street, I had no way of knowing this stranger’s intentions or who he was. I had to make an assumption for my own safety.

So, what can we do to help women feel safer on campus? Is it sexual violence training? Increased male allyship? Getting justice for victims?

In reality, it’s a product of all three. Our communities have an obligation to foster focus on the prevention of sexual violence and create a system that holds perpetrators accountable. This means implementing intersectional education on sexual violence, empowering men to engage in allyship practices, and creating safe spaces for women to share their stories at Queen’s.

To rectify these injustices within our communities, the men in our lives must take the initiative to hold themselves and their peers accountable for protecting their female friends.

Ignorance mixed with deeply rooted gender power imbalances fuel the fire for sexual harassment and places the onus on women to protect themselves rather than demand men be better. Even the term “violence against women” is problematic; it puts the focus on a woman’s role in sexual violence rather than the perpetrators who commit it.

It’s not enough to acknowledge within yourself that you are not a threat. Simple actions, such as crossing to the other side of the street, keeping your distance as we walk home, or giving a verbal cue that you’ll be running past us, counteracts the burden of hypervigilance we must carry.  

It's not enough to protect our daughters. Let’s educate our sons, and more importantly, work to keep each other safe.

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