‘I’m a female personal trainer and I’ve seen women sexually touched and filmed by men in London gyms’

Men filming women while they’re squatting, being treated as ‘fair-game’ for wearing leggings and becoming a target for inappropriate comments are horrendous experiences far too many women will have encountered while working out in London gyms. Now female powerlifters are getting organized against this shocking scale of sexual harassment.

Emily Williams is a personal trainer and powerlifter, whose female clients have frequently experienced sexual harassment when they’ve been training in London’s gyms, and tells MyLondon she regularly hears about male personal trainers touching their clients inappropriately without consent.

She founded Gym Safe Ladies and, along with The 97 March group, Emily has set up the #LetMeLift campaign to collect women’s experiences of sexual harassment while working out and call for stronger action from leisure facilities on abuse.

Emily says when she started as a personal trainer around 2015, there were few policies or procedures in gyms to protect women from harassment. “A member came up behind me and said something really inappropriate about my rear end,” she said.

READ MORE:’I challenged a man masturbating on a bus – and people looked at me like I was crazy’

Sadiq Khan and campaigners

Sadiq Khan has joined the campaign for gyms to enact tougher anti-harassment policies

“This wasn’t the first time this member had said something inappropriate to me. But it was the first time I had the guts to report it. I was new to the gym and not as confident as I am now. If it wasn’ t for my coach at the time, I probably wouldn’t have pushed forward.

“But the personal trainers I worked alongside said ‘you need to report this’. So I emailed the managing director and got an interview. After being victim-blamed and not supported by head office, the member was eventually banned – but only because I ‘d taken all the steps to take it right to the top.”

Emily founded Gym Safe Ladies in 2020 after being “filmed, stared at, and mocked by men” at her South London gym. The gym has now put a harassment policy in place following her campaigning. Cody Smith, a 23-year-old activist who co-founded The 97 March, said on the same day as Covid restrictions eased last year her group was “inundated” with messages from women saying they’d already started experiencing harassment in the gym .

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Cody said: “We hear about men filming women while they’re squatting. It happens a lot more often than people realize. I myself have been filmed on public transport, with someone filming up my skirt. I notice that behavior straight away.”

And activists are less dependent on the police to tackle wrongdoing. Cody added: “We’re stepping away from the police and putting it to the gyms themselves. the [Met] Police don’t have a great track record of holding people to account for their behaviour. So we’re trying to ensure gyms enact their own policies, and put policies in place.

“It’s outrageous that some still don’t have processes in place…people come here to boost their wellbeing and relax. It’s for everyone to enjoy. Then you turn around and see someone sneakily holding their phone while you’re doing a squat, you’re going to feel very uncomfortable in that space.”

Emily suggests the political will is there to bolster safeguarding policies. She said: “The last time I made a complaint just a few weeks ago that I was being filmed, they looked over the CCTV and informed me that the member was going to be banned. If we had this for women everywhere it would be amazing.”

The anti-harassment activist and coach suggests some men think women are “fair game” simply because of what women wear in the gym. Emily, 31, explained: “We’ve lost sexual respect. Just because I’m wearing a pair of leggings or shorts to the gym doesn’t mean you can film it and send it to your mates.

“I’ve been told so often that it is acceptable to say ‘you’re wearing these leggings, therefore you deserve it’. Well no actually, I’m a human being, I pay my gym membership like everybody else.”

The #LetMeLift campaign has won City Hall backing

The #LetMeLift campaign has won City Hall backing

And she believes some men treat gyms as a dating site. Emily added: “Too often we’ve got into this mindset that [the gym is] just social. It is sociable but we don’t want it to be like Tinder. It’s a place that’s good for people’s mental health.

“I train a lot of single mums who come and only have an hour of the day to get their workout done so we need to make sure they’re feeling comfortable and that it’s not a hostile place. With these policies coming in, I feel we can make it a much better place.”

The campaign is now pushing for venues to sign up to the Mayor of London’s “Night Charter”, with safe reporting procedures put in place in every gym in London and the UK.

It comes as Sadiq Khan announced new funding to help make venues and public spaces in the capital safer for women. This morning (Tuesday, March 1) Mr Khan visited The Gym Group in Battersea to confirm the group as the first major 24-hour gym operator to sign up to his Night Charter, where venues pledge tougher action to become safer for women and girls.

Mr Khan said: “I am determined to make London a place where women feel confident and welcome at night, whatever they’re doing. With many Londoners exercising and playing sport between 6pm and 6am, I am delighted to be working with UK Active, Sport England and Gym Safe Ladies to highlight the steps being taken by the sector to improve women’s safety at night and I urge more gyms to sign up to our Charter. ”

I joined MyLondon as the outlet’s first City Hall Editor in October 2021, reporting on the Mayor, the London Assembly, the Met police, Transport for London, and wider London politics.

I moved to South London from Brussels in 2015, working in communications for the Electoral Reform Society, and covering Westminster politics as a freelance journalist. I’m originally from Cornwall and love the sea – but also London’s liveliness. I’m a big fan of puns, tea and twee folk music.

If there’s a good untold story – whether it’s housing nightmares, unfair decisions or local scandals, you can be sure I’ll aim to cover it. Got a story, piece of gossip or feedback? Get in touch at [email protected] or contact me on Twitter.

Update: The Gym Group would like to clarify that Emily’s South London gym was not one of theirs.

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