When teaching teens and women’s self-defense courses, I consistently get asked about mace and/or pepper spray. “Should I carry it? Is it effective? Is it legal? What’s the difference between the two?”
Pepper spray is marketed to women as a self-defense solution, but like any weapon, it’s fallible and therefore less dependable than your own body.
What is it?
Mace and pepper spray are basically the same thing. Mace is a brand name of pepper spray similar to other pepper sprays. One of the claims about pepper spray is that it will immediately incapacitate an assailant for at least 20 minutes. This claim, of course, depends on the pepper spray being in working condition (how often does someone check her pepper spray for functionality?), being accessible, and being used with accuracy.
Pepper spray is legal to carry for the purposes of self-defense in most states. I live and work in California where it is legal for most adults (including potential assailants) to carry pepper spray. It is not legal for minors to carry it. Given that 44% of sexual assault victims are under the age of 18, the laws regulating pepper spray are not protecting those most in need of protection. In California, anyone convicted of an assault cannot legally possess pepper spray, but since a buyer doesn’t have to register the purchase, anyone could end up with a can of this potentially disabling compound. As a matter of fact, only two states require people to register pepper spray: Massachusetts and Washington DC.
It Doesn’t Work in Every Situation
In addition to loose legal regulations that can put pepper spray into the wrong hands and keep it from those most likely to be victimized, pepper spray does not always live up to the claims made about its efficacy. Check out this video of pepper spray being used in an attack on a public bus. The woman uses the pepper spray on the assailant in the first couple of seconds of the video, and he starts to walk away, covering his eyes. But then…
This is one of the issues I have with women counting on pepper spray as their primary means of self-defense: it doesn’t always work. If the aim is not accurate enough to spray it in the assailant’s eyes, it won’t have the impact hoped for. And even if the aim is good, it only works on assailants who are somewhat lucid and sober because pepper spray relies on a concept called “pain compliance”: a person in pain will become compliant because the brain is deterred from the original stimulus by the need to address the pain. The problem is that people in altered states do not experience pain in the same way as those who are not in an altered state, so if an assailant who is high or experiencing a chemical imbalance is shot with pepper spray, the result may be less than efficacious. Other circumstances in which it may be ineffective are if the assailant wears glasses or sunglasses, or if it’s windy and some (or all) of the spray is blown toward your face.
It’s Not Always Available
Another concern I have about pepper spray (or any other weapon for that matter) is the person’s ability to use it effectively. Women frequently tell me they carry pepper spray in their purse or backpack. But how quickly can you get your hands on a particular (small) item in your bag, especially in a threatening situation when your fine motor skills are compromised by adrenaline and fear? (Think about the last time your phone was ringing when you couldn’t find it in your bag, and your frantic search for it escalated your panic and resulted in ineffective rustling about.) And once the pepper spray is located (after the assailant presumably waits patiently while you rifle through your handbag), what if it malfunctions after years of misuse because it has become clogged with residue in the nether regions of your handbag?
More problematically, more assaults against women happen in their own homes than any other location. No one is likely to be carrying pepper spray around the house.
Unless you practice finding, deploying and using the device, it’s not going to be there for you when you need it. If you are focusing solely on finding the pepper spray, even when other courses of action might be better, you are likely to panic if you can’t get to it or worse yet, it may be taken away from you.
It Can Be Used Against You
As with other weapons, if you have not been trained in how to use it, the pepper spray can be taken away from you and used against you. The last thing anyone wants is for an unarmed perpetrator to suddenly become armed with his intended victim’s weapon. I always teach my students to avoid confrontation and not to inadvertently escalate the level of violence in any situation. I feel the same way about guns and knives, by the way. But that’s another blog. An assailant is by nature contentious and aggravated. If you can de-escalate the situation by setting firm verbal boundaries and get out of it with no harm, please do. If you have to fight, then learn how.
Marketing to Women
My final complaint about pepper spray is the targeted marketing to women. You may have seen some of these items, almost always offered in the color pink: Little Miss Bling Sting Pepper Spray, a pink stun gun in the shape of a cell phone, and hot pink mace canisters. Pink carries a clear gendered connotation in our culture, and “pinkification” of items to target a supposedly feminine market is offensive. It’s belittling to imply that women are more likely to buy something intended to protect them because it’s pink, as if women are more concerned with fashion and appearance than our own safety. It’s offensive to imply that women’s sense of femininity should be so valued that even fighting for our lives must be marked as feminine and pretty, as if our gender identity plays a part in our fight (other than perhaps having been targeted for it). But most of all, to me it is insulting to claim that women’s safety relies on any prosthetic device of any color, that we are not essentially strong enough to fight back without the aid of a fallible mechanism designed to concoct a false sense of security and designed to capitalize on both our fear of violence and our anxiety about maintaining our femininity.
Your Best Self Defense
Through the marketing of these products, women are being told we need some kind of external weapon to be successful in resisting an assault. It’s just another way that our bodies are under attack. The message is that we are lacking, insufficient, and weak and must rely on a weapon like pepper spray in the absence of a strong man to protect us.
I see women fight successfully nearly every day of my life. We are told that muscle and size will always win. It is true that when muscle fights against muscle, bigger muscle does win. So women don’t fight that fight. Instead, we use our strengths (legs and elbows, for example) against a male attacker’s vulnerable targets (eyes, nose, throat, groin, and knees). The element of surprise combined with effective techniques beats simple muscle strength every time.
There are three things that you have with you at all times that can never be used against you in an assault situation: your mind, your body, and your instincts. Spend your time and/or money strengthening these, and you will be well prepared for a variety of potentially dangerous situations, and at the same time you’ll lessen your chances of being targeted for a crime in the first place.