Blaming women for filming gym harassment misses the point

Everyone deserves to feel safe in gyms

photo of exercise bikes in a gym
PHOTO: Manmeet Sagri / The Peak

By: Saije Rusimovici, Staff Writer

Content warning: mentions of assault and harassment

From my experience, the gym is a place where I can thrive. I feel confident in my skin and glow after a good sweat on the treadmill. Likewise, lifting weights makes me feel powerful and strong. Even though I workout in the women-only section, I still often find myself looking over my shoulder, feeling like there are eyes on me. I can only imagine what I would feel like exercising in the co-ed section. With recent discussions about filming unwanted gym interactions, we should focus on the deeper issues that lead to discomfort in gyms.

Gym culture has always been something that’s difficult for many people to find their place in. Significant efforts have been made in the past decade that encourage women to take part in activities that have historically been dominated by men. Additionally, some gyms now use branding strategies that encourage inclusion for all body types and fitness levels. However, there are still many toxic components of gym culture that are ingrained into the way we perceive fitness. According to The Globe and Mail, the gym can be a place where you’re very likely to find yourself surrounded by ageist, ableist, racist, and homophobic behaviour — not to mention the sexism and fatphobia. These issues can lead to unsafe conditions for many people in gyms, particularly women who work out alongside men.

The ongoing TikTok trend #gymcreep has become a viral sensation with over 240.5 million views and counting. This hashtag has become a way for women to share harassment from male gym-goers while they work out. Something to keep in mind is that women have been subjected to unwanted advances from men in more instances than just gyms. At least 30% of women over 15 have experienced some form of sexual assault in Canada. For this reason, women have to be “on-guard” in their daily lives, thus bringing this trend to the gym. 

Video surveillance can be used to offer protection for women in gyms. Recently, a 24-year-old woman was attacked while working out alone in her apartment gym. Surveillance recordings provided a way for the attacker to be identified, arrested, and charged. When it comes to the sharing of personally recorded videos attempting to address this issue, Leilani Carver, “director of undergraduate communication at Maryville University,” told USA Today that these videos can be a mechanism for exposing problematic behaviour and harassment in gyms. She also mentions video recordings can empower women to report these individuals. Sharing their experiences with others shows that the harassment they experience is real. 

However, Carver notes that the act of filming other people in gyms is a complex issue that can also be considered a form of harassment itself, as people are being filmed without their consent. If the harassment is not explicit, it’s difficult to see what’s actually happening in these videos. She also points out that the “pile-on effect” of digital shaming may have the power to shift the narrative and create sympathy towards an offender. For this reason, it’s important that these videos are directed towards encouraging people to speak out about gym harassment, not just gaining views on social media. It’s also crucial to recognize that gym harassment still exists despite the occasionally questionable recordings that may circulate online.

The culture that’s been upheld in gyms for years has made women hyper-vigilant, turning to social media as a tool to express their long built-up discomfort. The root of this problem is a misogynistic culture that’s reinforced by media and social expectations. Going forward, it’s important that gym organizations and gym-goers work together to change this culture that has been ingrained in fitness for so long.