Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me?

By Orla Muldoon @orlamuldoon

Remember that rhyme.  The mantra of many childhoods, wheeled out to protect youthful fragility. But do names really ‘never hurt’? Is there really no physical cost to name calling, jeering and verbal abuse?

At the start of September, I started to think about the cost of street harassment (jeering, heckling and the like). Whilst out running on my own University campus I was subjected to three different instances of harassment during a 30-minute run. This was, for the most part catcalling and jeering, though one instance was more threatening.  We were a group of three runners, one of us was was shadowed and chased down the street by a group of men.  As I began to think about this issue two things became clear.  First that this was a group based problem that was pervasive and pernicious.  Second many people including health professionals have difficulty seeing this as a public health issue.

I see you agree and think: thatis terrible and I don’t condone it, but exactly how does this relate to sport, exercise or health? The current WHO plan to address inactivity highlights the significant gender bias in physical activity participation, with females less likely to be active than males. Many European women for example, about one in three, are not obtaining the amount of exercise they need to each week. Obesity is higher amongst women then men. And sedentary lifestyles are part of the problem driving the rising prevalence of obesity. Years of research tells us that there is an inevitable gap between people’s intentions and their behavior.  Well placed advice or exercise perceptions won’t work if there are significant barriers to engagement.

Now I’d like to go one step further: individual interventions are not enough. Our everyday behavior is shaped and structured by the groups to which we belong and gender is probably the most important group that can guide and shape behavior.  From a very young age, girls play on the periphery of the playground and boys occupy the central spaces. Later in life women report being harassed on the street when they walk, run and cycle, they perceivethey may be unsafe in shared spaces or unwelcome in gyms or sports clubs. And whilst men also experience street harassment whilst exercising, the scale and nature of harassment appears to differ by gender.   Men report fewer harassment experiences overall and they rarely report that is has a sexual tone. And so gender identity, that sense of ourselves as a man or a woman, becomes inextricably linked with exercise participation. Exercise and sport may even make gender identity salient.

In the wake of my own experience, I wrote an opinion editorial for the Irish national daily The Irish Times. Many women on twitter and in a linked piece on readers’ experiences reported they have been harassed whilst running. It is interesting how people talk about this issue of ‘women being harassed’.  There is a very different way to talk about the harassment of exercising women.  Try ‘men harass women who exercise’.  Of course not all men, and of course men can feel undermined and excluded from sport and exercise routines too. That said, this is a group level phenomena for the men who harass as much as it is for the women who experience it. It is not a few bad apples. The evidence is strongly against such an interpretation. In a survey of 2000 women in the UK, being cat called, beeped by passing cars, followed by groups of men, propositioned for sex were just a handful of the everyday experiences reported. It is little wonder 60% of women experience anxiety about running alone. Men do this, not one man. Many men.

Advising women to get out and exercise more is advice that is consumed in this context. The men I encountered were jeering and catcalling women runners as a social activity.  The men who heckled us doubtless saw this as a bit of harmless fun. One group responded with joviality when I reprimanded them, another looked astonished.  These groups of men don’t have or don’t want to have any perspective on how their behaviour might be received by women or other men- the intergroup dynamic in social psychology parlance. Their concern is how their behavior is viewed by their male peers and relates to their sense of themselves as men- an intragroup concern. And because it is a behavior that is practiced socially on the street and in the gym, we can say within these male groups this type of harassment is acceptable. And the women being advised to exercise more know this.

I have been both overwhelmed and underwhelmed by the response to my article in The Irish Times. I have been disappointed by responses which decry the possibility that this is a substantive health issue. Equally I have been shocked by how threatening some find this discussion. And I have been disappointed in colleagues who believe there is nothing that can be done and the resultant inaction.On the other hand, many women and men have thanked me for raising the issue. Some tell me they have given up running and walking outdoors because of safety concerns.  Others say they don’t like to exercise in the gym because they feel mocked or objectified.  Out there on the streets, I hit on a seriously under-researched barrier to sport and exercise. I cannot find a British Journal of Sports Medicine article to reference in this blog for those interested in reading more.  I hope to write a piece that might lay out a useful research agenda.  Let’s move forward on this, please get in touch if you are interested.

A working hypothesis is ‘Names may not hurt in the short term, but where they are used to undermine exercise participation they may have a very real and significant impact on public health.’  I accept, as a mantra it’s not as catchy.

Image provided by blog author, Orla Muldoon



Orla Muldoon is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Centre for Social Issues Research at University of Limerick. She is a regular recreational runner.  Her research interested in how groups and social identities affect health and well-being. In the past she has used identity based initiatives to encourage students to take up running within an introductory module.  Ideas about how negative exercise experiences linked to gender identity might impact on engagement with exercise are a new avenue of research she is keen to pursue.


Hamilton, M. (2017). Running while female.  Runners World, Downloadable at

Kenny C. (2018). Women on running in Ireland: ‘I’ve been jeered at, catcalled, followed’. Sept 19. Downloadable at

Muldoon, O. T., & O’Donnell, A. T. (2012). ‘Running’ an introductory module.  The Psychologist, 25, 11, 828-829. Downloadable at

Muldoon, O. (2018).  Why is harassing women runners acceptable for some Irish men? The Irish Times, Sept 17.  Downloadable at

WHO (2018). Global Action plan on Physical Activity 2018-2030. Downloadable at

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