Women-only gyms receive a lot attention to ICT Tac recently, with the hashtag #WomensOnlyGym at 21 million views and rising. Women take to social media every day to talk about their experiences in fitness spaces, and these often include experiences of sexual harassment, being stared at and feeling intimidated or not feeling comfortable, capable or like they belong.
A recent study by Origin titled The Gym-Bullying Report showed that six in 10 women in the UK have been harassed while working out in co-ed gyms. Interestingly, 31% of women surveyed said they saw a benefit in female-only gyms and that female-only fitness spaces would help them feel safer and more comfortable. But would all-female gyms actually help? Or would they just create more division and make harassment issues worse?
According to a 2021 study on the gender activity gap conducted by Sports England as part of its This Girl Can campaign, a significant percentage of women feel unable to exercise without barriers, including bullying, embarrassment and sexual harassment affecting their experiences. More often than not, it is male gym goers who are associated with these obstacles.
Origin found that two out of five women avoid the gym because men make them feel uncomfortable. In the Gym-shyness Report, women, transgender, non-binary, and transgender people cite meeting men who make advances to them, following them to the gym, and sexual remarks as some of the most common forms of harassment in the gym.
Charlotte, 37, from Solihull, felt uncomfortable using the sauna at her local gym after the same man repeatedly followed her. “I was using the pool and a man was waiting for me next to it,” she said. “When I entered the sauna, he walked in, and it was just us. He asked me out. I said no and left the sauna. A few months later, I am went back to the sauna and while waltzing the same guy tried it again I definitely felt uncomfortable after that.
“Women might feel safer, but single-sex gyms wouldn’t solve the larger problem of sexual misconduct.”
The question is whether women-only gyms would prevent this kind of behavior from happening. In an inclusive single-sex gym, women might feel safer, but single-sex gyms would not solve the larger problem of sexual misconduct. The harassment would still continue in other spaces and on the street.
It also begs the question: should women take responsibility for protecting themselves when it is mainly men who are actively bothering them in UK gyms? By creating all-female spaces, women once again have to take responsibility for removing themselves from dangerous situations, rather than all coed gyms just repressing inappropriate behavior.
“It’s unfortunate that women feel like they need a separate fitness space, to begin with,” says fitness app founder Stef Williams. WeGLOW. “We should seek to help women feel confident enough not to need this separation; from educating them on how to use equipment to ensuring that all fitness spaces are welcoming and inclusive for everyone. I would never want a woman to feel like she should be subjected to a female-only space because she might take that as a signal that she can’t or shouldn’t move her body in other fitness areas.