It was in a Christmas present labeled “To: Maggie, From: Mom” with a parenthetical that read “I hope you never have to use this.”
As I began to unwrap the gift, my mom said, “I hope you aren’t offended.”
It was pepper spray. And I wasn’t offended.
It was the second year in a row she’d done it. This was a good, practical gift. But as I attached the bedazzled black bottle with its gold keychain to the carabiner my keys are on, it suddenly felt like a manifestation of this invisible burden of being a woman. I don’t hate being a woman, but a lot of other people hate women. And with hate comes violence.
The World Health Organization says that 1 in 3 women worldwide experience some kind of physical or sexual violence. Thirty percent of women have experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner. Thirty-eight percent of murdered women are killed by male intimate partners. RAINN reports that 1 in 6 women has been the victim of sexual violence. Ninety percent of all rape victims are female.
But I don’t need to stare at those statistics to know how dangerous it is to be a woman. While I’m fortunate to thus far have survived not becoming one of these statistics, my life is still shaped by these fears and the necessary precautions that come with them.
I remember going bowling with friends one night in high school, and how all my female friends and I strategically walked each other to our cars so no one had to go alone. Some of us lamented the lack of parking spaces in well lit areas. Others still clutched their car keys between the fingers just in case.
I remember in college asking an inebriated male friend to walk me to my car, because that option seemed better than walking alone in the desolate parking lot.
And I can recall countless moments at concerts where I was distracted from the music and the moment because I was trying to decide how sketchy the drunk, obnoxious guys near me were and if I should seek some other place to stand.
Of course, I still had a fantastic times bowling, hanging with friends, and going to concerts. But the memories of these small moments where I had to strategize, impinge upon others, and not be fully present in the moment are a reminder of the price I pay living as a female. And that’s just time and energy (money is another gripe for another day).
And even with all these precautions ingrained in my daily habits, news headlines constantly remind me of how the odds are often against me and my fellow females. In 2016, upholding a recording contract was more important than letting a singer escape her abuser. The Stanford rapist served his measly sentence and is back in the free world enjoying steak. The U.S. elected a president who bragged about sexually assaulting women and has at least 15 sexual assault allegations to his name. An old white guy mansplained rape and PTSD to a female musician after she spoke out about surviving rape and dealing with PTSD.
The more I stare at the bottle of pepper spray, the more infuriated and unsettled I am by it, especially its bedazzled body trying to pass as a cute accessory. In fact, I can’t remember seeing pepper spray in stores that wasn’t marketed toward females in some way, whether through its aesthetics (usually Breast Cancer Awareness pink) or the places they’re sold (often at craft store check-out counters). And I’ve run across articles and videos about plenty of other weapons creatively designed with women in mind, from knives disguised as lipstick tubes to pink handguns.
I wish I could tell you that I had some great moment of victory in the name of females everywhere where I realized my own strength and power and chucked the pepper spray into the woods or a trash can. But I didn’t. And I won’t. Because the statistics aren’t going to change overnight. Rape culture isn’t going anywhere. Misinformation and fake news abound. It’s going to be a long time before the first thing I do when I get in my car isn’t lock the doors.
However, I do hope that carrying pepper spray around will remind me of the work that needs to be done. I hope that if someone asks me what that giant black object snuggled beside my car keys is, it will be a doorway into discussing women’s issues. And most of all, I hope that if I ever do have a daughter some day, that I will never feel the need to gift her pepper spray.
Featured Image from Sabre Red