Whether you're lifting a barbell that weighs hundreds of pounds, working out with a particularly intense trainer, or standing in the front of a dance cardio class, the gym can be a pretty vulnerable environment. Unfortunately, these are some very real reasons why people don't feel comfortable or safe in a gym setting. And on top of that, there have been countless stories about people who experience sexual harassment — including verbal and physical harassment — at the gym.
So, what are you supposed to do after you've experienced sexual harassment at the gym? "This gets really fuzzy," because it all depends on what type of harassment policy the gym has in place, and which staff members have actually been trained to respond to incidents, explains Charlie Lieu, a data scientist and operational strategist who leads Safe Outside, a rock-climbing organization aimed at combating sexual harassment and sexual assault. The issue is that not all gyms have an internal policy on how to handle harassment, she says.
Technically, all fitness clubs and suppliers are supposed to have a written harassment policy and clearly communicate it to all gym members and staff, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), the trade association that represents gyms and fitness suppliers. So, if you didn't receive information about the gym's policy when you signed up, it's your right as a member to ask the company for it. (Some organizations might have their's listed online.)
A gym's policy should define sexual harassment and harassment, include a clear statement that the club is committed to running a business free of harassment and discrimination, and state that harassment is prohibited by state and federal law, a representative from the IHRSA tells Refinery29. Additionally, the policy should explain how members and employees can confidentially file an incident report. For employees, there needs to be more than one person available to field complaints, and anyone who's found guilty of harassment after an investigation should also be subject to discipline, including discharge or expulsion, the representative says.
This policy is important not only for people reporting harassment, but also for gyms as a business. If a gym or company is informed of sexual harassment, but takes no steps to correct it, then they could be held responsible, the IHRSA representative says. Depending on the laws in your state, if an incident occurred on a company's premises, the company could be held responsible, Lieu says.
Of course, not everyone trains at a gym, so if you're working out of someone's home or taking a class in a public park, the protocol would be different. In that case, you can go to the certification agency that the trainer is affiliated with (like the American Council on Exercise), and file a complaint. Most programs require trainers to sign a code of conduct that includes sexual harassment, and they can have their certification revoked if found guilty of sexual abuse.
The thing is, even when there is a clear-cut policy and procedure in place, reporting sexual assault or harassment can be incredibly difficult for survivors. Some people may choose not to report sexual assault and harassment immediately after an incident because they worry about being disbelieved or because they fear retaliation, for example. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), two out of three sexual assault cases go unreported.
Ultimately, the gym should be a place where you feel welcome and supported, so it's worth it to prioritize your safety and speak up when and if you feel ready.