Please Just Leave Women at the Gym Alone

As conversations about uncomfortable gender dynamics at the gym persist on social media, let's review the rules of being a respectful gym-goer

February 9, 2021 10:15 am
Keep your sweaty hands to yourself.
Keep your sweaty hands to yourself.
Getty Images/recep-bg

Freshman year of college, my roommate and I had an ingenious business idea: a women-only nightclub. We were fed up with the unspoken rules of the nightclub scene: having to entertain slimy promoters; donning six-inch heels and tight, short clothing regardless of outside temperature; swatting off on unwanted advances from strange men; making sure to keep our drinks close and covered the entire night. A no-boys-allowed space would remove all of these issues and foster an environment where we could freely do what we came for: drink overpriced vodka sodas and shake our asses all night.

We were not alone in this thinking. The idea of women-only spaces has been a topic of conversation lately, from gender-exclusive coworking spaces like The Wing to the domain that probably most often crops up in conversations like this: the gym.

Many users across social media have been expressing a desire for a gym that caters only to women, like Twitter’s @nataleebfitness, who recently shared a video of what appears to be a man-less workout class with the caption, “live scenes of my future women’s-only gym. the vibes are going to be immaculate I can’t waittt.” The tweet has around 275,000 likes and 29,000 retweets, with loads of comments from women wishing this was a reality where they live while citing examples of unpleasant interactions they’ve had with men at their own gyms. 

Of course, as with any valid critique of male behavior, a swarm of men who missed the point entirely arrived soon after, voicing their unwanted opinions and calling the idea “bullshit” and “discrimination against men.” Even worse, some used transgender people’s existence to make an inane, highly offensive point that, again, completely misinterprets why many women want a safe space away from heterosexual, cisgender men. And it doesn’t take much to learn the reasons why. When I asked a few female friends who frequent the gym what their least favorite part about it is, the answer was the same across the board: the leering and advancements from men. 

Regardless of how you identify, going to the gym can be a nerve-wracking, deeply self-conscious experience. Feeling the eyes of anyone on your sweaty body — one you may not feel fully confident with and are actively trying to improve — is excruciating. Now on top of those fears, imagine having to deal with the unfettered stares of creepy, horny, creatine-guzzling men while mentally preparing yourself to engage in the inevitable polite conversation so they don’t murder you in the parking lot. 

But misguided meet-cutes aren’t the only form of harassment women run in to at the gym. Over on #fitnesstiktok and #gymtok, many users express having “gym anxiety,” or the fear of being laughed at for using gym equipment wrong or judged for doing particular workouts, and that fear is clearly justified. Videos of men shaming women for only working out their legs and glutes or making fun of them for doing popular exercises have circulated the video-sharing app. In many of his videos, popular fitness TikToker @ryanreadthrive often calls out this behavior from men, explaining that while men may view it as harmless japery, they’re a nuisance to them women they feature. Not to mention these are demonstrably tough workouts, and the simple fact that they’re common among women doesn’t delegitimize that. 


#stitch with @chadlebradley ladies…IGNORE these BOYS. Do you. Keep working #fitness #workhard

♬ original sound – Ryan Read

#duet with @jackeditalian tired of this. Stop mocking women. To all the ladies in the gym at all…YOU HAVE MY RESPECT #fitness #girlpower #respect

♬ original sound – Jacked Italian

In other cases, men verbally and even physically harass women to the extent that they drive them away from the gym. One TikTok user shared her experience, explaining how her family spent $5,000 dollars to put a weight rack in their basement because men wouldn’t stop harassing her.

“I was a multi-sport athlete and when I was in the sixth grade I tore my ACL so it required lifting to rebuild the strength back in my leg and recover from that surgery,” she explains in the TikTok. “As I got into high school, I continued to power lift … I went to multiple different gyms in my area and all of the gyms that I went to this instance happened: I would go into lift by myself. I would get either catcalled by men, brutalized by men, I’ve had multiple instances where guys have come up and grabbed the bar from me mid-lift and say that it looked like I needed a spotter,” she recalls. The TikTok has more than 700,000 views, but comments have been turned off, since, as user @raeganleee explains in a later TikTok, men in the comment section claimed she was lying about the experience.

This is one of the main issues with harassment towards women in general but also extends to harassment at the gym: in response to many women’s experiences, men are often dubious, claiming that they’ve never seen this type of behavior at their gym, so it must not exist. Believe it or not, women have the critical thinking skills to decipher between creepy and non-creepy men. We know that there are men who don’t harass women, but there are still a lot of men that do, and informing us about the former doesn’t reassure us or change anything about the latter. 

So what can you do as a man who frequents the gym (or plans to in the future) to avoid being the reason women cancel their gym memberships? Keep the following in mind.

Keep your eyes to yourself: This doesn’t mean you need to walk around staring at the gym floor or are forbidden to make eye contact with a woman. But hopefully I don’t have to explain to you the difference between leering and accidental eye contact or normal glancing around. 

Don’t approach: Maybe you know a couple who met at the gym or you have some weird meet-cute gym fantasy, but like many gym-goers, women just want to work out in peace without having to entertain conversations with men they don’t know. Especially if they are giving off “uninterested vibes” — I promise you there is no double-meaning there. As one TikTok user succinctly explained when asked how to approach a woman giving off “not interested vibe no eye contact” at the gym, “When someone looks uninterested and there is no eye contact, that is not an invitation for you to approach them. It’s an invitation for you to leave them alone.” Of course, you can ask women if they are finished using certain machines or other normal, gym-related questions as you would a male gym-goer. Just be respectful. 

For the love of God do not touch anyone: Unless someone is literally suffocating under a barbell and asking for help, don’t touch anyone. Don’t remove bars, don’t become involuntary spotters, don’t brush past her and just happen to put your hands on her waist. Keep your sweaty hands to yourself — all the time, but especially in a pandemic.  

Don’t let other guys get away with shitty behavior: I’m not encouraging you to accost the roided-out sexual harasser at the gym while there are a bunch of heavy objects around. But one of the reasons why harassment persists is because many men look the other way, especially when it comes to their friends. If you see harmful behavior at the gym, inform the staff. If the victim or someone else complains about the behavior, another witness might also help the case for getting that asshole removed. 

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