My mother was the first person I knew who carried pepper spray. Her employer required it; she worked as a home-care nurse in the ’70s, visiting patients all over rural Central Texas, sometimes in very isolated areas. “Don’t touch it,” she warned when she brought the canister home in a little leather holster attached to her keychain. “The woman who taught us how to use it said she’d been sprayed with it, and it felt just like tear gas.”
My mother had some doubts as to whether tear-gassing people was consistent with her professional obligations as a nurse, but her boss reassured her, “It’s better to be tried by twelve of your peers than carried by six of them.” I found this argument compelling, once my older siblings, with their superior knowledge of the jury system and funeral customs, explained it to me: The legality of using a particular tool for self defense might be debatable, but most people have a clear preference for staying alive.
From this self-evident truth springs one of Fear, Inc.’s most popular product lines, what we might call “pocket safety.” Pepper spray, knives, “tactical pens,” and tiny weapons that attach to your keychain or fit in a purse—such trinkets occupy a quasi-legal niche in the marketplace of fear. Many people carry them, openly or surreptitiously. Airport security agents confiscate them with gusto. They’re marketed as effective, even essential, self-defense tools, especially for women.
It’s hard to gauge the total sales of pocket safety items. Perhaps because their legality isn’t always assured, retailers tend not to trumpet their figures. But they’re easy to purchase, online or off the shelf, and if you carry one, no one thinks it’s weird. How could it be? Our moms were doing it 40 years ago.
A quick search of Amazon.com yields dozens of pocket-sized self-defense products. There are cutting-and-striking implements, designed for direct physical combat: rings with prongs to slash flesh (described as a “defensive survival tool”); a keychain shaped like a bulldog with sharp-edged ears. You can buy spiky metal buttons that slide onto the back strap of a baseball cap, so if you need to hit someone with your baseball cap, you can do marginally more damage than a baseball cap would otherwise do. And there are hands-off weapons too: stun guns, sprays, alarms, whistles. Prices are low—even the stun guns run less than $25. These items seem to be popular gifts; many of the product reviews are by men who lead off with, “I bought this for my girlfriend—” or daughter, or wife.
One ubiquitous product is the Safety Cat, an aluminum key ring shaped “to fit women’s fingers,” with two points you can jam into an attacker’s eyes. It retails for about five bucks on Amazon, from various sellers, and I read the product descriptions with interest: “As women we are told for safety reasons to have our keys in our hands as we go to and from our cars. Many of us even hold our keys between our fingers walking through parking lots or out doing errands so we will be able to fight off an attacker.” The problem, Safety Cat’s retailers want you to know, is that “keys may shift in your hand.” Their product is less treacherous. You put your fingers through the cat’s “eyes” and stab your attacker with its “ears.” “The smooth, sleek design of the Safety Cat will feel very comfortable in your hand and you will be able to grasp it firmly,” the seller promises.
When I tried the Safety Cat, I found it awkward. The thin metal rings bit into my fingers, and my test stabs (against polystyrene, bone, and wood) left red marks on my palm. That’s not a deal-breaker; after fifteen years of karate, my hands can take a lot of abuse. But carrying the Safety Cat was even more awkward. I don’t own a purse. I keep my keys in my pocket, and the Safety Cat was, literally, a pain in the ass. Every time I sat down I had to dig out my keys and set them somewhere. Only once did it occur to me to pull out the Safety Cat for defensive use, when I was walking my dog at the park and he barked at an old sleeping bag someone had left behind a bush. I did all the things my self-defense training had taught me: moved away from the problem, looked around for bystanders, and prepared to act verbally and physically. Having the Safety Cat in my hand felt a bit silly. If there had been a person behind the bush, was I really prepared to stab them simply because my dog woke them up? Plus the dog was right there. His teeth were more dangerous than the Safety Cat’s ears.
While the Safety Cat wasn’t my cup of tea, I concede that it might be someone else’s. It’s cheap and can at least poke holes in polystyrene, and if you leave it lying around it’s not going to kill any toddlers. If you want a pink feline death’s head leering at you every time you pull out your keys, it might be just what the doctor ordered. If you don’t like pink, you can choose silver, blue, gold, or green. Many of the pocket safety items marketed for women come in such “feminine” colors—Vipertek stun guns ($18.70, with built-in flashlight) come in two different shades of pink. Men’s products, in contrast, come in black and silver, or there is the KA-BAR/Snody Crisis Card, which “features titanium construction with rich, turquoise blue anodized faces and gold-colored edges” and will set you back $45 plus shipping (the sole user review grouses “I’ve cut myself at least twice with it”).
If you do like pink, you can pretty much have your pick of women’s pocket safety items. Pink-branded pepper spray is a hot seller—I picked up a canister whose packaging promised to “Help Fight Breast Cancer!” while shoe-shopping with my daughter. I hadn’t held a can of pepper spray since my mom changed jobs and gave hers back to her former employer. The makers of Sabre Red Maximum Strength Pepper Spray were quick to point out my dereliction.
“The idea is to be prepared,” the package explained, “so take SABRE RED wherever you go." Unfortunately, the canister didn’t fit in my pocket any more easily than the Safety Cat had, and I strongly suspect sitting on it is a bad idea. On the other hand, the manufacturer seems to think “carrying” their product means just that: "It is recommended SABRE RED be carried in hand when walking alone, entering buildings, hallways, elevators, parking lots, etc.” I don’t know about you, but that’s about half my day right there.
Since I’d never used pepper spray, and carrying this bottle around in my hand 24/7 wasn’t really an option, I decided to test it in my backyard. I was mildly surprised to find that the stream of liquid pepper was concentrated, almost like Silly String, and quite easy to aim from a few feet away. Take that, breast cancer, I thought as I sprayed some evil orange lines across an old T-shirt on a hanger.
I was ready to believe that pepper spray was a pretty good self-defense option, for people who carry purses. But I had trouble finding out exactly how often pepper spray is really employed for self defense. There doesn’t seem to be any publicly available data on pepper spray use. I found any number of stories about cops getting into trouble with it, but only a couple of stories about civilians using pepper spray to fend off attackers. I found many more stories about other things that thwart assault: Passers-by, yelling, kicking the attacker, and staple guns.
Of course, it may be that the media thinks “Woman fights off attacker with staple gun” is a better story than “Woman fights off attacker with pepper spray.” (OK, it is a better story, if you’re not the woman doing the fighting.) But there are tons of stories about pepper spray being used for non-defensive purposes. It’s a popular tool for robbery, for example; for spraying someone you’ve gotten into a fight with over your boyfriend’s bail money (subsequently causing the evacuation of 2,000 people from your hotel); or for gaining an advantage during Black Friday shopping. In short, evidence suggests that real-world use of pepper spray against another person is less often a question of self defense, and more often an anger management issue.
Still, if someone’s going to do self-defense wrong, these products are far less dangerous than, for example, guns. As the CEO of Mace Security International put it, “A tragedy could have been averted if George Zimmerman had chosen to protect himself with Mace instead of a deadly weapon.” That’s a hell of a sales pitch, isn’t it?
Pocket safety products aren’t powerful drivers of the culture of fear we currently live in; they’re more a symptom of it. They seem to function primarily as comfort items, a rabbit’s foot or pacifier carried to sooth and reassure. These little tchotchkes attesting to our paranoia can also serve as status markers, or even tokens of affection, binding our fears up tight with our loves. Their physical presence may make us feel more confident, yet they’re a constant reminder that we believe ourselves to be exposed and vulnerable. Fear, Inc.’s marketing of them certainly contributes to our culture’s low-level hum of expected violence, the certainty that an attack is coming, and we must be ready. "Travel with others when possible,” drones the label on my can of pepper spray; “avoid potentially dangerous situations”—one more sickly violin in the Muzak playing incessantly in the marketplace of fear.
It’s not hard to understand why one might use a weapon against an attacker. No one wants to die. What is strange is that we consider it perfectly normal to carry weapons on our person, at all times, despite living during the safest period in our planet’s history. Women especially are urged to think that “survival tools” are necessary every time we walk from our house to our car. That mindset is, frankly, insulting. It’s also exhausting. I don’t carry weapons of any kind, in part because they don’t fit in my pockets. But I also avoid them because I find the expectations behind them to be, like the Safety Cat, a pain in the ass.