Are Women-Only Gyms The Answer To Sexual Harassment?

Women-only gyms have been receiving a lot of attention on TikTok 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 often these include experiences of sexual harassment, being stared at and feeling intimidated or not feeling comfortable, capable or like they belong.

A recent study by Origym titled The Gym-timidation Report showed that six in 10 women in the UK have been harassed while working out in mixed gyms. Interestingly, 31% of women surveyed said they see a benefit to women-only gyms and that women-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 problems with harassment worse?

According to a 2021 study on the gender activity gap conducted by Sport England as part of its This Girl Can campaign, a significant percentage of women feel unable to exercise without barriers which include intimidation, embarrassment and sexual harassment affecting their experiences. More often than not, it’s male gym goers that are associated with these barriers.

Origym found that two in five women avoid the gym because men make them feel uncomfortable. In the Gym-timidation Report, women, transgender, non-binary and gender-fluid gym-goers cited encounters of men making a pass at them, following them around the gym and sexual remarks as some of the most common forms of gym harassment.

Charlotte, 37, from Solihull, felt uncomfortable using the sauna at her local gym after the same man followed her in on multiple occasions. “I was using the pool, and a man kept hanging around the side waiting for me,” she says. “When I entered the sauna, he came in, and it was just us in there. He asked me out. I said no and left the sauna. A few months later, I went into the sauna again and, in waltzes the same guy to try it on again. I definitely felt uncomfortable there after that.”

“Women might feel safer, but single-sex gyms wouldn’t tackle the broader problem of sexual misconduct.”

The question is, would women-only gyms stop this kind of behaviour from happening? Inside an inclusive single-sex gym, women might feel safer, but single-sex gyms wouldn’t tackle the broader problem of sexual misconduct. Harassment would still continue in other spaces and on the street.

This also begs the question, should women have to shoulder the responsibility of keeping themselves safe when it’s primarily men who are actively bothering them in gyms across the UK? In setting up all-female spaces, women are yet again having to take on the labour of removing themselves from unsafe situations, rather than all mixed gyms simply cracking down on inappropriate behaviour.

“It’s unfortunate that women have to feel like they need a segregated fitness space, to begin with,” says Stef Williams, founder of the fitness app, WeGLOW. “We should be looking to support women to feel confident enough not to need that separation; whether this is from educating them on how to use the equipment to ensure all fitness spaces are welcoming and inclusive to everyone. I would never want any woman to feel like they should be subjected to a female-only space because they might take that as a signal that they couldn’t or shouldn’t move their body in other fitness spaces.”