Sexual Harassment is a Problem in The Fitness World, Too

This week, #Metoo flooded my social media feeds, along with personal stories of sexual harassment.

Actress Alyssa Milano created the hashtag to give victims of sexual violence a stand with fellow survivors by posting “me too” on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Its explosive popularity has demonstrated the unfortunate prevalence sexual assault and harassment in all walks of life.

Thanks to the campaign, women across the world have shared experiences of sexual harassment or assault to offer support and to spread awareness. Conversations have included victims from hospitals, offices and colleges.

The fitness world is no exception.

Admittedly, a gym can be a pick-up space for singles. But women too often find their workouts interrupted by unwanted conversation, unsolicited advice (AKA mansplaining) or unwelcome comments about appearance and clothing choice. Fitness apparel companies have responded to this by creating tees with no-fuss messages, such as “Here to Pick Up Weights, Not Dates,” “I’m Here to Lift, Not Talk” and “Respect the Earbuds—I’m not Here to Talk.” But why should we have to wear t-shirts to dodge harassment?

These incidents are rarely reported in the fitness world even though accepting them perpetuates sexual harassment. Gym regulars will condemn sexual violence, but brush off catcalls and violations of personal space, no matter how uncomfortable or scary.

What can we do to combat harassment in the gym? How do we respond to people who infringe on our space, creating discomfort or even threaten our safety? Often, we’re told to be firm and simply say no, but that advice can be hard to put into practice and isn’t always effective.

Instead of learning and adjusting to avoid harassment and assault, we need to steer away from a culture where harassment is acceptable and educate against it. So the real question is not how to escape harassment, but rather on how to respond to it. Here are some tips:

1. Call out the behavior and the harasser. For example, if someone tries to assist with a workout and invades your space, clearly state that they are too close to you and that you are uncomfortable.

2. If you are in an area with other people, speak loudly enough that others around you can hear you resisting contact.

3. Report the harasser and let him or her know you are going to do so.

4. If you are in an area with few people, jog or move towards a more populated area.

5. Once you are safe or comfortable, share your experience. Without conversation, accounts of sexual harassment can be overlooked. Only through awareness, education, and a recognition of these occurrences can we address these uncomfortable circumstances within the gym.

It’s crucial to think about how we can work to change the environment itself to be safe and welcoming for all of us, rather than focus on how we can modify ourselves and our lives to accommodate a culture of harassment.