Sexual harassment at the gym is still a problem. Just ask every woman you know

Campaigners have sought to change the perception of gyms as male-dominated spaces—but that hasn’t stopped men from making women feel unwelcome

March 08, 2022
Changing the script? Sport England’s “This Girl Can” campaign. Image: YouTube
Changing the script? Sport England’s “This Girl Can” campaign. Image: YouTube

Launched in 2015, Sport England’s “This Girl Can” campaign was lauded for encouraging some 1.6m women to start exercising. Its National Lottery-funded TV ad, which shows the unfiltered reality of “real” women participating in sports like boxing and football, was motivated by research findings that showed a fear of judgment by others was holding women back from going to the gym. “No one gets to choose how you exercise other than you,” the campaign’s online slogan went. “Your body, your call. And whatever that looks like, we think it’s worth celebrating.”

“This Girl Can” is part of much wider efforts to close the gender gap in exercise, particularly when it comes to lifting weights. Strength training initiatives like Stylist’s Strong Women Training Club and British Weightlifting’s Strong Is Not A Size programmes have extolled the mental and physical benefits of swapping cardio for strength training. Since then, a flurry of bestselling books has followed, including Poorna Bell’s powerlifting grief memoir Stronger and Krissy Cela’s Do This For You: How to Be A Strong Woman from the Inside Out.

The weights room is seemingly now a safe space for women, but my own experience at a local leisure centre has not always been comfortable. On my first two visits, I was approached by men who aggressively ordered me to get off the exercise machines I was using because it was now “their turn,” making it clear I wasn’t welcome. One man told me to finish up my exercises before I’d even started, stressing “one set, no more,” before hovering over me threateningly until I retreated to the neutral safety of the treadmills.

Statistics show I’m not alone. In July 2021, a study conducted by Run Repeat found that 56 per cent of women have faced harassment at the gym. Aside from intimidation tactics, harassment comes in a variety of forms: persistent attention, invasion of personal space, catcalling, sexual comments and unwarranted physical contact. “I get unwanted advice on how best to lift weights all the time,” one 33-year-old female gym-goer told me. “A man once tapped me on the shoulder and told me to take off my headphones just so he could tell me that I was doing an exercise incorrectly, and then showed me how I should be doing it differently.”

Another woman I spoke to felt too unsafe to go back to her gym after a man followed her home. “He kept trying to talk to me while I was at the gym, and when I politely carried on with my workout, he followed me outside and pestered me for my number until I said I had a boyfriend.” A third revealed how a personal trainer creepily compared her gripping a weight to holding a penis in her hand. Anecdotally, the extent of the issue is clear; it’s hard to talk about going to the gym with female friends or colleagues without harassment being part of the conversation.

Thankfully, in the workplace, social attitudes to harassment have begun to change—largely due to the 2010 Equality Act, which legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society. But why does misogyny continue to be normalised at the gym? There’s a disparity between the advertising of gyms as a place of empowerment for women and how they actually make women feel when they’re in them. On TikTok, many young women have resorted to recording their workouts so they can have filmed evidence if they are harassed. Statistically, more women may be lifting weights than ever—but they’re doing so while keeping an eye over their shoulder.

The House of Lords voting in favour of a bill that would class misogyny as a hate crime in law is helpful, but more needs to be done to stop harassment from going unchecked to begin with. During my induction at the gym, a personal trainer went so far as to warn me that men were widely known to hurry women off the equipment; the gym was clearly aware of the problem. Yet the gym management’s response to my complaint (a major UK chain) was pitiful, going from gaslighting me—“you’re the first woman to have reported this issue”—to then ghosting me—“leave your email at the reception and the manager will get back to you.” I wonder how many other women are patiently waiting on an unanswered email, with gyms flummoxed on how best to respond without clear company guidelines or staff training in place.

The majority of gyms say they have strict rules prohibiting any kind of harassment but, from my conversations with other women, it’s clear that there are few consequences for men who violate them. Without a shift in attitude or any clear no-tolerance policies, we can never hope to consider gyms as gender-neutral spaces. We also can’t leave it to the victims to enact change. Fitness might just be due its #MeToo moment.