Augustine: Women deserve a harassment-free workout space


Source: Northwestern Recreation

Henry Crown Sports Pavilion.

Kathryn Augustine, Columnist

A few weeks ago, I was on a stationary bike in the cardio room of Henry Crown Sports Pavilion, known colloquially as SPAC, when an older man approached me and decided to recommend that I opt for the StairMaster instead, telling me that it was a better workout. I tried to politely end the conversation, but he persisted.

He went on to complain about how people do not approach each other at SPAC and talk and asked for my name. My discomfort was steadily growing and reached a height when he finally asked, “Why don’t you like me?”

Luckily, another woman noticed that the situation seemed abnormal and approached a staff member. He retreated to the door but proceeded to wait there, presumably for me to exit. I stalled by the cardio machines until he finally relented and left.

While the staff was informed of the incident, no action was taken to attempt to communicate with the man or remove him from the premises. I was genuinely concerned as to whether this man was going to continue trying to speak to me and then follow me back to my dorm upon leaving. My immediate reaction was to feel afraid of coming back to SPAC again in case he would be there. I am confident this is not a concern that men are preoccupied with when simply minding their own business on a cardio machine.

SPAC is a popular workout destination for many members of the Northwestern community, but I should in no way feel unsafe or uncomfortable by choosing to work out there. The incident led me to begin thinking about my experiences of feeling targeted by men in gyms and workout environments, and the frequency of similar experiences for other women as well.

While students attending universities in warmer climates can opt for an outdoor workout, that is not plausible for Northwestern students in the midst of an Evanston winter. Therefore, Northwestern’s female students who are paralyzed by the potential of judgment by male gym goers can be deterred from working out for a significant portion of the academic year.

In fact, 65 percent of women avoid the gym over fear of judgment, in contrast to a mere 36 percent of men, according to Fitness Magazine. Even when women choose to go to the gym, they often make the subconscious choice to encounter the potential unsolicited advice and attempts at conversation they may receive from men.

For instance, I was preparing a squat rack and adjusting the height of the barbell and the weights on each side. I was then approached by a man who asked if I needed any assistance and said that I seemed a bit confused. While I don’t think that he had any ulterior motives or the intention to offend me, the advice came across as demeaning. I never requested help, and that should have been enough of an indication that I was able to work out on my own.

There is no doubt in my mind that if I were a man, my ability would not have been questioned. I wouldn’t have been given a second glance. It is precisely these types of experiences that make women wary of working out alongside men in a gym and cement their fear that they appear inadequate.

Because of that singular experience, I find that I often question whether male gym goers are silently judging my form while I squat or the amount of weight that I am lifting. And sometimes, that insecurity escalates to the point where I avoid doing certain exercises in the fear of vocalization of that judgment.

Given the vast size of SPAC, I want the University to consider dedicating at the very least a room for women only. Men can argue an all-female space is unfair. Men can argue that implementing this idea is “reverse sexism.” But those dissenting men have not experienced that same sense of judgment upon walking into a space dominated by the opposite gender. They haven’t had someone comment on their bodies or appearance while working out. They have never been approached by someone with the audacity to give unsolicited advice.

According to NBC News, 18.5 percent of women have had a negative experience at the gym and most have subsequently resorted to changing their behavior in response. Women should not have to accommodate their behavior and their dress for men when they are at fault. The reality is that we cannot automatically and easily change the behavior of all male gym goers. As a result, we need our own space where the threat of mansplaining and harassment is not imminent. It’s not sexist to create a female only space — it’s sexist to not guarantee women the same workout experience as their male counterparts.

Kathryn Augustine is a Medill first-year. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.