The Pulse on Gender Equity in Seattle & Beyond

Why I Don't Carry Pepper Spray

Gender Equality OverallMartha BurwellComment

I remember in 6th grade fighting the Red Man. 

No, it wasn’t some racist activity where we played ‘Cowboys and Indians.’  The Red Man was literally a man dressed in a puffy red foam outfit that we, sixth grade girls, had to "escape" from.  The scenario was that he was grabbing us to kidnap/kill/assault/rape us.  And we had just learned all our defense moves, which we were now supposed to practice on this poor guy, whose job it was to spend all day pretending to attack 11-year-old girls. 

Eye poke. Throat punch.  Palm to the nose, upwards, to shove the bone into the brain. Knee to the scrotum.  If he has you in a neck lock, wiggle so your throat is in his elbow and you can breathe.  Then use your heel to kick in his knee, or slide it down his shin and try to stomp his toes till they break.  Luckily for him, the Red Man was wrapped in foam and we couldn’t actually do him any harm.

But this was terrifying to 11-year-old me.  Which is why I remember it so well to this day. 

And the boys?  I don’t know how they got to spend that afternoon, but it certainly wasn’t being taught how not to kidnap/kill/assault/rape girls (or even how to physically defend themselves, like the girls). They never had a class on what consent means.  Or what healthy relationships look like.  Or what to do if you see someone being harassed.  They definitely weren’t taught how to recognize if they themselves, or their friends, are harassing or being violent. And what they learned on their own, through pop culture, porn, friends, and family, clearly left a lot of them dangerously confused (or even feeling entitled), based on our appalling rates of violence against women.

I don’t necessarily think it was wrong for Monroe Middle School to teach girls self-defense. 

But in neglecting to educate the boys, they put the responsibility of avoiding violence on girls and women.  Rather than putting the responsibility of not being violent on boys and men. This planted the seed of fear in us girls that only grew as we aged and began to see the horrifying statistics of violence come true in our own groups of friends.

And as practically all women (at least in the US) will tell you, that fear is still a daily part of life, and we have good reason for it.

They’ll tell you that they put their keys between their fingers if they’re walking alone.  They’ll tell you about how excited they are for the new app that tells your friends when you get home safely.

They’ll tell you that every dark walk down an unfamiliar street means you automatically scan for a safe escape.  Where can I run?  Is my phone accessible? What weapons do I have?  Who would help me? 

An example of the "Stop Telling Women To Smile" series:   Street Sign 2   by  Jeffrey Zeldman  is  licensed under   CC BY 2.0.

An example of the "Stop Telling Women To Smile" series: Street Sign 2 by Jeffrey Zeldman is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

I myself, like most other women, have often changed my route while walking home to avoid harassment.  But harassment is so common that it’s sometimes not even avoidable.  In fact, if I want to go out at night on Capitol Hill (where I live in Seattle) I have to factor in whether I have the energy to deal with street harassment that night, because it happens almost Every. Single. Time.

Carrying fear of violence is so ingrained in women's minds that it is almost unconscious.  And it’s an enormous drain on ourselves, as countless women have told us, such as "Stop Telling Women to Smile" artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, and as blogger Gretchen Kelly wrote recently

So over the past few years, I began to think, why is it my job to avoid harassment?  Why is it my job to change my route?  Why is my job to spend money on self-defense items?

This is why I don’t carry pepper spray. 

Because for me, carrying pepper spray is like letting those who would harm me win before they ever lay a finger on me.  It would be a physical reminder dangling from my keychain that I should always be afraid, always be ready. 

Not carrying pepper spray is my way of saying “you can’t win. I can choose whether to be afraid, and how much to be afraid.  And I’m choosing not to be *as* afraid every day.”  

It doesn’t mean I’ve somehow solved the problem of street harassment.  It means that I’m becoming more conscious of how we, women, have been conditioned to be afraid, and it means I’m not letting that fear drag me around as much as I’ve been trained to.

Of course, every person deals with this issue differently, and I’m absolutely not judging those people that do carry pepper spray or other defense mechanisms.  Everyone handles harassment differently and there is nothing wrong with carrying pepper spray or getting trained in self-defense if that’s what works for you!

But for me, when I need some inspiration, I like to think of this passage from Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild. Near the end of her iconic solo hike along the 2,650 mile-long Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), she’s joking with her 3 male friends about how she got the nick-name “Queen of the PCT.”

Best Book of 2014   by  Heather  is  licensed under   CC BY 2.0.

Best Book of 2014 by Heather is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

(Queen of the PCT is your nickname) “ ‘Because people always want to give you things and do things for you,’ added Rick. ‘They never give us anything.  They don’t do a damn thing for us, in fact.’

I lowered my sleeping bag and looked at them, and we all laughed.  All the time that I’d been fielding questions about whether I was afraid to be a woman alone—the assumption that a woman alone would be preyed upon—I’d been the recipient of one kindness after another.  Aside from the creepy experience with the sandy-haired buy who’d jammed my water purifier and the couple who’d booted me from the campground in California, I had nothing but generosity to report.  The world and it’s people had opened their arms to me at every turn.”

I want to help create a world that has open arms, a world that is safe for all.  And so instead of carrying pepper spray, I’m asking us to educate boys and men, and even more, I’m asking boys and men to educate themselves. 

Will you join me?

Learn more:  For teaching boys and men about consent, see “The Good Men Project,” which has quite a few teaching guides for all ages, including this one.

Take Action: If you’re a parent or involved with schools, call your school and ask them if they include quality training for all children about consent and avoiding violence.  If they do not, urge them to include this critical topic in their health classes or special curriculum.  If they continue to only have self-defense training only for girls, explain to them the danger of leaving boys out of the conversation.  

Take Action: If you identify as male, I encourage you to explore Seattle’s own Wholehearted Masculine, which provides a dialogue about masculinity and how we can widen the definition.  Dan Mahle, the founder, offers occasional workshops in Seattle on masculinity.