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Tight, often revealing workout clothes. Undulating, sweaty bodies. People of the opposite sex who share a passion for muscles and physical fitness. Let’s face it: the gym is a natural place to be attracted to and hook up with like-minded fitness buffs, as we’ve detailed in a woman-approved past article.
But that same, ahem, fertile environment for finding love—or lust—can also be the perfect breeding ground for sexual harassment. In some cases, that harassment can be blatant, as noted by Larissa Mercado-López, Ph.D., professor of Women’s Studies at California State University, Fresno.
“I have been approached, followed, and touched inappropriately several times,” she says. “A man who had been walking back and forth in my workout area squeezed between two benches to ‘accidentally’ brush up against me.”
In many cases, though, that harassment can take much more subtle forms. The two most common types of sexual harassment in the gym are “being unnecessarily stared at” and “unnecessary comments about appearance,” according to a survey of 1,000 people across the U.S. by Fitrated, a platform for gym equipment reviews. In the study, more than 5% of women (and 1% of men) reported being sexually harassed at the gym. Numerous participants also note instances of being touched or groped or being photographed.
The result of these sorts of behaviors is that some women who experience this harassment are leaving their co-ed gyms to join all-female fitness facilities, according to Leann Shear, who founded Uplift Studio and Female Society in New York. “I’m seeing a lot of women coming to Uplift very consciously because we’re women-only and because they’ve had bad experiences,” Shear said.
So, gentlemen: Unless you want to turn your gym into a sausage-fest, here are a few tips from women on how to not be “that guy” at the gym.
For most “good guys”—as in non-creepers like you who read this far into a story about sexual harassment—being aware simply means thinking from the perspective of women in the gym, and recognizing how women might react to certain behaviors.
“In all walks of life, you get a few people who are predators,” Shear says. “The majority of people just get caught up in a moment—they just may not be aware. But it still can be intimidating. It starts with awareness. If you’re not awake in this particular moment in time, you have a problem.”
Part of that awareness involves understanding that many women feel very self-conscious at the gym. Nearly two-thirds of women in the Fitrated study said they’d avoided the gym out of anxiety or fear of judgment, compared to only one-third of men. The women were much more likely to feel judged about their weight, not looking fit enough, or using equipment improperly. So, guys: Be aware of that self-consciousness before you open your mouth, even when you are thinking about saying something you think might be nice.
According to Mercado-López, even a casual compliment can remind women that they are being looked at and watched. Comments on her body or questions about when she usually goes to the gym can also come across as creepy, to say the least.
Boston blogger and fitness professional Erin Bailey detailed one such incident in a piece about sexual harassment titled “What We Deserve” that went viral. “I had a man come up to me a couple months ago at the water fountain in the gym as I was filling up my water bottle,” she writes. “He then told me he liked my leggings, that they made my ass look great, and they’d look better off.”
When in doubt at all, avoid making compliments that might be seen as harassing, Shear says. “There is a fine line between compliments and the sexual undertones of sexual harassment,” Shear says. “My advice is always steer on the side of reading the signs and leaving her alone.”
If she has her headphones on and/or is working out, don’t persistently try to talk to her, Shear says.
“Don’t try to engage someone when they are in the middle of lifting weights or on the treadmill,” Shear says. “In the middle of her workout is not the time, period. People are going to be attracted to other people and want to chat with them. But, there is a time and a place, and in the middle of the gym floor and during a workout is not that time.”
It’s common for men—at least men who haven’t been married for any length of time—to think they’re right and that it’s their responsibility to tell women how they are wrong. But guys, when you’re at the gym, resist the urge to mansplain a workout or movement to women at the gym. Unless they’ve asked for feedback, don’t try to correct someone if you don’t know them.
“There is rampant mansplaining at the gym,” Shear says. “I would be lifting weights and some man would saunter up and engage in commentary on my routine, trying to teach me how to do things better. They of course didn’t know I was a certified personal trainer and own a fitness studio. It really pissed me off.”
Again, put yourself in the woman’s shoes. Would you, in mid-squat set, want unsolicited feedback from a non-professional? And while mansplaining may not cross the line of sexual harassment, it does make you a prime candidate for being “that guy” at the gym.
It doesn’t matter how you’re looking at a woman—in order to steer clear from being misunderstood, keep the wandering eyes to yourself. And for Pete’s sake, if you are engaging in conversation, remember that her eyes are not located on her chest.
According to the Fitrated survey, about 10% of frequent sexual harassment offenders at the gym are trainers. Trainers also need to be conscious of their behavior, and to avoid mansplaining and leering.
“A couple new clients have told me stories about leaving their big-box gym because they were stalked or harassed by a trainer employed there,” Shear says. “The vast majority of trainers are wonderful, but they have floor time with nothing really to do but to walk around staring at people, and that can cross the line really, really fast. The lighter side is the mansplaining, but the nefarious side is sexual harassment.”
Shear has some advice: “How could a guy engage me? I’m an athlete—I like a little competition. If a dude is next to me on the treadmill, I speed up a bit. He can speed up, too. It can all be unspoken. It’s definitely going to catch my eye if he’s just doing this little subtle competition with me.
“Women work out just as hard, they do everything that men do. We want equality. Show me that that not only do I impress you, but you want to compete with me. It’s unspoken, un-creepy, and we both have fun with it, ” Shear says.
And for a lady-approved primer, check out our guide on how to pick up women at the gym, according to women.