Sexually Harassing Runners Is Perfectly Legal

If you run often enough, it will happen to you.  A stranger in a pickup truck will honk at you and leer at you as you run by.  A guy on the street will whistle, smack his lips and say “damn, girl.”  A man in the park will make sexually explicit comments about how your ass looks in running shorts.  And it’s all legal.

A few days ago, someone posted on a Facebook running page that a flyer was posted in the park warning people of someone “stalking women.”  The man described sounded like someone I’d seen regularly while on runs and never felt threatened by.  The flyer said to call 911 immediately if you saw him. I didn’t read all the comments following, but the woman who posted the picture of the flyer wrote she felt “freaked out” many times by this man.

I promptly forgot all of this and headed to the park for my mid-day run yesterday.  It was a warm and pretty day and the park was full of bikers, dog walkers, and other runners.  About halfway through, I saw the man described in the flyer asleep on a bench with his hat covering his face.  I kept going until my turn around and saw the flyer taped to the bulletin board.  A biker had stopped at the same time as I did and I asked him if he thought the sleeping guy on the bench was the same guy mentioned in the flyer.  A woman standing nearby over heard our conversation and joined us.  The biker said he was new here and didn’t know.  The woman said she saw the flyer, saw the sleeping man, and decided to move a 100 yards away to picnic with her kids.  She was weirded out enough to move a little ways away, but not enough to call the police.

Last summer, I was verbally harassed on the exact same stretch in the park.  A tall, visibly drunk man looked me straight in the face after I made the turn around and shouted a string of sexually explicit comments about my body.  I had my earphones in and pretended I hadn’t heard a word and kept running.  When I got home, I warned the other runners on the Facebook page about him and comment after comment told me I should have called the police.  Hours later, I did call the police to let them know, but that’s the last I heard of it.

So this time, I decided to do something.  Since the guy on the flyer was asleep, I snapped a few pictures of him, ran down the path and called the cops.

When I told the running page about it, the response was the opposite of anything I could have imagined.  I said I had called the cops because of the flyer and the person who shared the flyer to the page, but said I had never felt threatened by the sleeping guy in all my encounters with him.

“Witch hunt.”

“Delete the post.”

“Move on.”

“Scare mongering.”

“Poor fellow.”

Huh?  According to several people, there were no reports to the police about this man harassing anyone.  Someone anonymously posted this flyer and the police are not actively investigating.  What?!

On one hand, my instincts have always told me that this man is not a threat, so if this some bizarre hoax, at least my instincts are right.  If he is innocent, a chat with the police is an inconvenience for him, but probably not a big deal. On the other hand, if the person behind the flyer has truly been threatened, calling the police on a sleeping man was the right thing to do.   If he is guilty, then the park is safer without him.

Beyond the obvious strangeness of this particular situation, what got to me was the backlash. While I don’t think people were directly faulting me for calling, they were upset with the vigilante who posted the flyer.  Many felt that the sleeping guy was being unfairly harassed. The local news channel had run a story on this flyer without any corroboration with the police.  My calling the cops was the latest in a string of incidents that had gone too far.

If there is no basis of truth behind the flyer, what happens to the next person who reports harassment to the police or to the online running group?  Will that person be less likely to be believed?

What I suspect happened is that someone felt threatened and called the police.  Perhaps the caller only “felt” a threat, but no crime was committed. The police did nothing because no law had been broken and the caller felt the police should have done something anyway.  So that person decided to speak up, post flyers, and get the media involved.

When I called the police, both when I was actually harassed and when I reported the sleeping man, the people answering the phone did not take my name or number or did anything to make me believe that something would be done about my concerns.

Were any crimes committed?  Here’s what I found out about North Carolina Law from this paper about verbal street harassment:

Disorderly Conduct N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-288.4 North Carolina’s disorderly conduct law states that it is illegal to make or use any utterance, gesture, display or abusive language that is intended to and likely to provoke violent retaliation. This is what is known as a “fighting words” law. Since street harassment rarely results in the harassed person fighting back, these laws usually have not been used to address street harassment. If a harasser says something particularly offensive or provoking, you can still try using this law, and if enough people make a case for why it should be used, then it might be applied more often.

Intoxicated and Disruptive in Public N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-444 Being drunk and disruptive in public in North Carolina by blocking people’s way on sidewalks or into a building, cursing or rudely insulting others, or grabbing or shoving people is illegal. If a street harasser is clearly drunk and doing any of these things to you or someone else, you can report him/her. 

Using Profane or Indecent Language on Public Highways N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-197 It is illegal in North Carolina for anyone, in the hearing of at least two people, to use indecent or profane language while on any public road or highway. (This law does not state it explicitly, but we assume it includes sidewalks). If a harasser is loudly using sexual language or profanity (such as, “You f—ing bitch” and “Go to hell, fags”) and at least one other person besides you hears the harasser, you can report him or her under this law. 

According to that, the incident last summer was a crime because he was drunk.  Someone making you feel “freaked out” is not a crime, and nor should it be.  The First Amendment protects the vast majority of what we say, even if someone doesn’t like it.  So if you want to shout profanities at women it is perfectly legal as long as you are not obviously drunk and she’s the only one who hears you.

While events like these can range from irritating to downright frightening, running alone is something that I will not stop doing.  It is far more dangerous to drive a car every day or sit on your couch your whole life than to go on a run.  Even so, as a woman, I am forced to think about my safety every time I head out the door.

And despite the negative reaction to the alleged harassment/threats over the last few days, I will still continue to speak up when this happens to me or others I know. Our culture and our laws will never change unless we decide to change the way we react.

What do you think?  Do you run alone? Do you get harassed while running?  Have you ever called the police?


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2 Responses

  1. It's a tricky, tricky issue. I haven't ever been harassed running here in Switzerland but we live in the country and I'm usually way out in the woods and don't see anyone - my biggest concerns are not being shot by hunters or chased by dogs! In the week since I began my new life as a road cyclist I've been hassled, honked at and had sexually explicit comments yelled at me on several different occasions. I agree that we need to call out acts of everyday sexism if we want anything to change. I just don't know that taking these incidents to the police is the right way to go. It's unfortunate that aside from fairly limited educational initiatives in schools or workplaces, the only other channel to take on the harassment culture is via social media.
  2. I agree, Jo. The police shouldn't get involved unless a crime has been committed, which as I've learned, is not that often. But I think the more we talk about our experiences, the more people will realize that catcalling is not acceptable social behavior. I hope.

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