On January 7th, the Paris Review published an essay by R. O. Kwon entitled “On Being a Woman in America While Trying to Avoid Being Assaulted.” It’s a well-written piece, accurately detailing what many women go through on a daily basis. Holding one’s keys between one’s fingers while walking at night, checking the back seat of the car before entering, never leaving a drink unattended. I’ve done all of this and more. It’s a dangerous world we live in.
I wish it wasn’t. I wish Kwon didn’t have to deal with creepy online messages from men and being catcalled. I wish I didn’t have to feel the ice-cold stiffness of fear shoot up my spine when I hear a man’s voice yelling across the parking lot when I’m locking up my workplace after closing. I wish I didn’t reach for my phone and dial my boyfriend so the man loitering on the corner won’t try to talk to me while I’m waiting at the crosswalk. Kwon and I both “make so many more fake phone calls than real ones.”
Kwon’s essay is most evocative when she’s listing the many precautions she takes. She’s right: it is ridiculous that we have to go through whole pantomimes designed to make us look like less-than-optimal targets. It is ridiculous that we have to coach our faces to look stern to mask our fear—but what would happen if we didn’t?
Most of the time, probably nothing. For better or worse, I’m jumpy and paranoid—I can’t even sleep with the bedroom door open to my own hallway after one too many nights up late reading creepy novels as a child—but I’d rather be paranoid than dead. Kwon’s essay ends abruptly and she doesn’t tell us what solutions she envisages, but, in her last paragraphs, when she mentions Brett Kavanaugh and the blue emergency phone boxes on the campus of their shared alma mater, Yale, I get the sense that her ideal solution is something along the lines of restrict men.
I get it. Kwon is angry, and she has every right to be. She writes, “What I’ve learned about angry men is that they can turn dangerous.” I fully agree. I’ve stood down some very scary men in my customer service day job. It’s both pathetic and chilling how violent ordinary men can become over a store’s returns policy. In those situations, I do not hesitate to give a warning, and then to pick up the phone and dial 911.
But, as much as I agree with Kwon that violent, predatory individuals are a problem, we don’t live in a dystopian world where we can put a curfew on all men. In a free world, in situations of danger, the best thing we can do is protect ourselves. Kwon is right to hold her keys between her fingers when she walks at night. I live in a city with a homelessness problem at near crisis levels, which means desperate men roaming the streets at night, congregating on street corners and outside twenty-four hour shops. When I walk home from my bus stop in the dark, I walk fast, push my long hair up under my hood so I look more masculine, and plan what I will do if I’m ever attacked. I will unleash a guttural roar; I will bare my long nails like claws; I will scream I’ll fucking kill you! like a deranged psychopath. If I ever meet a violent man at night, I am prepared to become a very violent woman.
Unfortunately, that roar, those nails and that scream are the only things my government allows me to use in defense of my own body. If I could, I would arm myself on those walks in the dark, but automatic, centrifugal and gravity knives are illegal in Canada, as are mace and pepper spray. Bear spray, while commonly carried by adventurers in the back country, is also highly suspect when carried outside of that context. “Any device designed to be used for the purpose of injuring, immobilizing, or otherwise incapacitating any person” can bring legal trouble in Canada, according to Lethbridge lawyer Greg White. While Canadian law protects the defense of one’s self and property, if you injure or kill your attacker, you can expect to be arrested and charged with a crime, go through years of legal proceedings and spend tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees. In the end, you’ll likely be found not guilty—almost no self-defense cases end in convictions—but you and your family will hardly emerge from the situation unscathed. In a 2016 article about self-defense in Canada, readers are advised that “calling police for assistance in matters of personal safety is best.”
What if I’m face-to-face with an attacker, with my life at stake? No matter how swift police are, a call to 911 could never save me faster than a can of pepper spray or a knife.
I wish we lived in a feminist utopia, in which women could skip through the night without a care in the world. But we don’t, and it’s a waste of time to lament this perfect, fictional world. In our world, I would rather advocate for the right of every woman to carry a knife, pepper spray or firearm if she so chooses. The fact that I could be prosecuted for protecting myself fills me with such rage that I’d gladly step up on a podium and talk gun rights all day long.
Leaving weapons aside, there are many things a woman can do to make herself strong. If I could, I would give every woman a copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and a couple spare hours in which to read it. Stoicism, the fortification of the mind and the cultivation of resilience, is a tailor-made weapon with which to battle catcalling and other uncomfortable situations. The worst part of confrontation, to me, is how it plays on an endless loop in my head afterward. I fixate on the bad feelings and berate myself for not handling it differently, or for attracting attention at all. The person who yelled at me or harassed me is at fault, but my reaction is entirely under my control. I can wallow in regret and self-flagellate, or I can acknowledge my feelings and then let them go. It’s a game-changing lesson on a personal level, and if stoicism became a trend among feminists at large, I think it could be revolutionary.
Don’t get me wrong: if a man victimizes a woman in any way, he’s 100% to blame. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make it harder for him to hurt us. I don’t see the utility in complaining that men are stronger and, when they are predatory, women are more vulnerable. Nature made the sexes this way. No one is to blame for the fact that I’m shorter and weaker than most men. Am I better off complaining and wanting all men to be restricted and freedom to be eroded, or in making myself strong to increase the odds that I’ll survive an attack, both physically and mentally? Any object that will help stack the odds in my favor against an attacker, I will take. It would be wonderful if my government would let me. I’m increasingly coming around to the idea that rights to self-defense are women’s rights, and I can’t believe more feminists aren’t shouting this from the rooftops.
I want more for Kwon than to bemoan the fear she has to face on a daily basis. I want her to feel safe, empowered, and strong—and I want her to be a stoic. Not all women will want to carry weapons, but if even ten or twenty percent of the women walking alone at night had deadly force at their disposal, even the most criminal man would think twice about accosting a woman.
We may be the weaker sex, but we too can be dangerous.