Why we carry pepper spray

By: Emily Friesner, Towson University student 

A few weeks before I was about to start my freshman year of college, my mother and I ventured to Walmart in search of pepper spray. When we arrived, we were directed toward the back of the store where the hunting section was located. We passed guns, fishing rods and knives until we finally spotted the hot pink pepper spray. It felt like such an odd location, as though I’d be using it to hunt predators, rather than ward them off. Both my mother and I thought that I wasn’t allowed to have the spray on campus, but every college survival guide I had read recommended it [Editor’s note: According to TUPD Captain Woodrow Myers, people are allowed to carry oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray — known colloquially as “pepper spray” — on campus for self-defense purposes]. So, we strutted up to the cash register, showed ID and purchased the little self-defense tool.

It never occurred to me that I was not the only one who decided to arm themselves before heading to college. The more I looked around, the more I noticed identical pink pepper spray canisters attached to people’s keychains and lanyards. I felt a connection to these women.

In my women’s studies class last semester, we were asked how many of us were afraid of being outside alone, especially at night. Nearly every woman in the class raised her hand. Some of us had been assaulted or harassed before, while others feared the inevitability of being attacked. We were taught to walk in packs, be aware of our surroundings, and to use our keys as last-resort weapons. We have heard too many college horror stories about sexual assault, and so we take every precaution to ensure we were not another statistic, another #MeToo.

While I could not picture myself spraying a chemical at an attacker, temporarily blinding them, there was something comforting about having it in my hand when I walked to my dorm alone at night. Being the small, 5-foot woman that I am, this was the best defense mechanism that I had available. When a stranger approaches or gets a little too close, I clutch it a little tighter and speed walk a little faster. I make sure I avoid the darkest corners of campus, and let the blue lights guide my way home.

There is something unifying about pepper spray. It says, “I am just as afraid as you are” while simultaneously saying “I am tired of being afraid and will not let fear rule my life.” We still go out at night, be that alone or with a group. We keep as far from strangers with wandering gazes as possible, yet keep our heads held high. We wear our “inappropriate,” “suggestive,” and “sexy” outfits, and we wear them well. This is not us hiding our fear but pushing it to the back of our minds because we deserve to go outside in the dark. All the while our pepper spray sits in our purses or palms, ready to be used at a moment’s notice.  

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