A growing number of women no longer feel safe at the gym because of persistent staring, inappropriate physical contact and intimidation.
A fitness influencer said UK gym franchises were not doing enough to combat sexual harassment.
Natalee Barnett, 23, from London, plans to set up a female-only gym as a result. “I was sexually assaulted in the gym when I was 18. I was touched inappropriately, and so that’s my driving force,” she said.
“I’ve experienced the worst of the worst, but I always say there’s a scale to Gym Harassment.
It can start as staring and following around. Then it can go to full-on physical touch and sexual assault.”
A recent report by the health club Origym revealed that six in ten women had been harassed while in mixed gyms — 31 per cent said they would feel safer in women-only fitness areas.
In November Barnett started an online survey encouraging women to report negative gym experiences.
Participants are invited to anonymously disclose whether they have been a victim of troubling behaviour, including being followed, unwarranted physical contact and sexual comments.
She has received 250 responses, some of which she revealed to The Times. One woman said that a personal trainer at her gym had sent her messages containing “sexual content” and “continued to follow me around even outside of the gym”. She told the managers but said nothing was done. As a result, she said she did not feel comfortable in a gym for years.
Barnett said that many gyms were not the “safe havens” they should be. She cited a friend who had experienced unwanted physical contact while exercising and had not been to a gym since.
On her Tiktok account, where she has close to a million followers, Barnett shares footage of other women who have had to deal with unwanted sexual behaviour. On the site, videos with the hashtag #GymCreep, which usually describe male gym-goers who have made a woman feel uncomfortable, have had more than 60 million views.
Some have criticised such videos for unfairly targeting men who are not doing anything wrong, but Barnett said she was selective about what she shared.
While Barnett has not named any gym in particular, she said a number of franchises were failing women.
She said they were lax about revoking memberships after complaints had been made, because financial gain often came first and called for anti-harassment campaigns to go beyond posters in changing rooms.
Barnett wants personal trainers taught to spot predatory behaviour, but warned that they could also be part of the problem. “I’m aware that in some gyms there’s a game being played by the male PTs [trainers] to see how many members they can pick up on their shift,” she said. “Sometimes it’s literally the people that you should report something to that are in on it.”
Gym chains say they have policies to protect their members from unwanted behaviour.