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Like Sarah MacDonald I was slow to report being sexually assaulted, but you shouldn’t be

Rebecca Cox
·5-min read
<p>Rebecca Cox was sexually assaulted on her daily run</p> (Rebecca Cox)

Rebecca Cox was sexually assaulted on her daily run

(Rebecca Cox)

Sexual assault is a criminal offence.’ This sentence is pretty self-explanatory. ‘Grabbing a stranger’s bum is a criminal offence?’ The question mark feels necessary. It should not.

When I read the stories of British athlete Sarah McDonald being sexually assaulted while out running in Birmingham, like so many other women, I could relate. Something very similar happened to me while out running this winter. And now, two months after the assault, rather than just feeling solidarity with Sarah, I feel angry at how low the bar is for women in our expectation of how we should be treated. That bar was so low for me that when I was sexually assaulted, I wondered whether police would even care.

McDonald tweeted: ‘Unfortunately today I experienced something that wasn’t acceptable,” she said. “While warming up for my session on the canal towpath two men passed me on a moped, slowing down so the man on the back could grab my bum.

“As a runner, I’ve been heckled and had things shouted but this was completely different. Thankfully I wasn’t alone at the time as this situation could have been worse, but until today I’d have felt comfortable being on my own and this has been a wake up call - be vigilant and look after each other.”

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How disappointing that in 2021 we are still, as women, having to advise each other to ‘stick together’ and ‘be vigilant’ while doing something as simple as running. Sarah told the BBC that she would be reporting the matter to police, but her delay in doing so is perhaps indicative of how normalised this sort of treatment of women is. How used we are to being treated as sexual objects.

I was running on a busy stretch of the Thames path in the middle of the day when I was assaulted. The man came up behind me and grabbed my bum and leaned onto me, saying something I couldn’t hear through my headphones and pulling me toward him. I pulled away and swung at him, before jumping backwards and running a few steps. If it had been late or dark, or on a quiet stretch of path I would kept running but because it was so busy (or maybe because of the feminism podcast I had playing at the time), I decided to try and take a picture and report the incident. I failed, and instead he ran at me with a glass bottle.

That bar we talked about earlier though, the expectations of how we as women expect to be treated? Mine is set so low that I questioned whether police would care. I called 101, instead of 999. I listened to three or four minutes of explanations about how to report your neighbours for breaking lockdown before I got through to speak to someone. I spent that three or four minutes wondering whether I should just hang up and whether the police would berate me for wasting their time in the middle of a pandemic.

In this instance though, I was wrong to feel disempowered. The police officer I spoke to immediately took a brief report and dispatched a local patrol. They informed me they had had another almost identical report. This person had assaulted another female runner, on the same day. They managed to catch the man and less than an hour later, with him in custody, they had visited me to take a full statement. As they got up to leave my house, the officers said, “please, if you tell anyone about this, tell them to call 999. What happened to you constitutes an emergency response.”

This type of sexual assault and the one Sarah describes, is characterised under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 under section 3, category 3, with a sentencing guideline ranging from a community order to 26 weeks’ custody for a guilty verdict.

Initially I didn’t want to talk about it. I told hardly anyone. I did not want to appear weak, to feel vulnerable, to let what happened affect me. But it has, of course. I forced myself to get back out on the roads running within a week, because as a single mum juggling home schooling and working from home with very little time off, running is one of the few things that has kept me sane throughout this pandemic.

Rebecca Cox: ‘why should women have to learn how to exercise safely?’Rebecca Cox
Rebecca Cox: ‘why should women have to learn how to exercise safely?’Rebecca Cox

But do I avoid certain paths I used to run down without thinking? Yes. Do I treat every man I pass as a potential attacker? Sadly, yes. I now understand why Paula Radcliffe once told me that she doesn’t listen to music while she runs. She told me it was to keep an eye (/ear) out for dogs and bikes, but for me, it is now to keep an eye out for potential attackers.

Seeing people like Sarah McDonald speaking out reinforces why these are important discussions to have. Yes, to find solidarity in a shared experience, but also to slowly but surely correct society’s view of what is and isn’t an acceptable level of expectation when it comes to the treatment of women.

Catcalling/street harassment is not illegal in the UK, but it makes women feel unsafe, because the escalation of this, as Sarah alludes to in her tweet, is sexual assault. Only by having these conversations with the men and women in our lives can we make society safer for all.

We need to teach our sons and daughters that they alone own their bodies, and that women exist as more than sexual objects for the enjoyment of men. Sarah’s attackers should know that they are not riding around on a moped with a mate ‘groping bums’, they are committing sexual assault.

At the start of lockdown, I read a guide for women and minority groups on ‘how to exercise safely’ outdoors. I am yet to come across any guides on ‘how not to sexually harass and assault women’.

If you see someone being victimised, speak up. And if you yourself are ever sexually assaulted, please know, as I now do, that you have the right to call 999 and be taken seriously.