Tangible Fears: A Discussion on Pepper Spray

Bright pink with a comfy cushion handle, my pepper-spray sits prominently on my desk. That’s been its resting place for over six months. I first got it for free when my roommate got a two for one deal on pepper spray at a women’s center in Ventura. She gifted it to me after I had called her walking home one evening feeling uncomfortable that a man was following me back to our house. It was a dark night, and I panicked after he had followed me when I took three left turns around a block. This was a tactic passed down from my mother to see if someone was simply walking on the same path as me or had more malicious intent. When I had confirmed that he was indeed following me home I immediately called her and stopped at an ATM (a place I knew had cameras) and waited for her and another friend to come pick me up. He eventually left but that night shook my trust in public spaces. Unfortunately, this was not the first time I had been through such an experience.

I’ve never managed to actually put the pepper spray on my keychain since I’m not a fan of how bright the pink is, or how heavy it feels in my bag. The actual act of putting the pepper spray on my keychain makes the possibility of needing to use it all too real. Threats seem a lot more tangible to me when there’s a physical object in place to defend against them. Yet somehow having that bright pink spray next to my bed makes my mind rest a little easier.

I have friends who also carry pepper spray with them at all times. They all have personal reasons for carrying them, whether that be taking preventative measures or from experiencing bad situations in their past which drive them to feel a need to protect themselves.

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I have one friend who instead carries a cat self-defense keychain. It’s also pink but looks less intimidating as it’s carried (a cute pink kitty doesn’t seem like a real weapon), and is lighter than the spray. Those are technically illegal to sell in California, so she had to purchase it as a “paper weight” from an out of state online retailer. These items are designed to function as a form of protection.

Yet their concepts and purpose always come from a place of fear. Often painted over with bright pinks and purples or blues, the manufacturers usually attempt to make these self-defense mechanisms appear cuter. With some even offering bedazzled features, the target market is clearly feminine. I remember once asking someone where they had gotten their bedazzled pepper-spray. She exclaimed, “I got it on the girls section at a gun show!” I wondered aloud why the product is usually only offered to women, and she shook her head. “Boys have their fists. But if they really needed protection, that’s what the knives and guns were being sold for!” While it is unclear to me why someone might need to carry a gun or a knife, the products are also clearly purposed to defend against…something. Advertisers encourage women to carry pepper-spray and men are encouraged to buy guns and knives, all in the name of “self-defense.” Yet the people we feel the need to defend against is a more abstract idea not discussed fully in the media. “Beware of suspicious people” is the basic narrative we’re given. Painted with elaborate designs befitting the target audience, our ambiguous fears are given a commercial twist. Instead of discussing and repairing why we need these objects, our consumerist society instead takes advantage of it, selling the fearful these self-defense products. My own fears stemmed from bad experiences, a mistrust in the public sphere have given me the need to protect against the shadowy figures which lurk in the dark. At what age do people begin to discuss the necessity of these objects? I remember as a child being trained to memorize phrases such as “stranger danger” or “don’t take candy from strangers.” These inherent fears are ingrained in us at a young age.

It was not until I was in middle school that I actually knew people who had tangible evidence that these fears are not unfounded. Yet the conversation around this subject of fear have always been consumer driven: advertising self-defense products and classes, getting gym memberships to build strength. Perhaps it’s time we instead take a reparative approach. Who are these people that we fear so much and why are they behaving in the way that they do? While this discussion has taken place over several media forums, there is simply too much debate on how to approach the subject and what would improve the problem. Instead of only punishing those who attack others with prison sentences, we should study the reasons behind their behavior. Clearly, our society is designed to cultivate these issues, so a massive reformation of how we raise the next generations is imperative. Yet the changes will need to be made slowly. For now, what is clear is that a large amount of our population is fearful—large enough for there to be a consumer market for it.

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One thought on “Tangible Fears: A Discussion on Pepper Spray

  1. This post really speaks to me because there have been countless times when I am walking home from the library at 3am, scolding myself for still not having bought that pepper spray. Yet, over the course of my time in college, I have had a few scary experiences and in those moments, pepper spray never even came to mind. Spraying pepper spray in the face of one of those potential situations that makes women walk in fear at night is, like you beautifully said in class: “like putting perfume on garbage.” The commodification of our fears into these “girly” artifacts only reinforces the problem that we are hoping to solve. The very way the little bottles and key chains are stylized imply a greater perpetuation of destructive feminine stereotypes. In a sense, women are being taught to defend themselves in “feminine” ways, ways that still imply and maintain feminine weakness in relation to a man.

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