I Carry Pepper Spray But I Worry About What It's Teaching Our Daughters

by Jessica Mankowski

It’s 5:00 a.m. and the alarm sounds. I suit up in my sports bra, leggings, and racerback tank. It’s still dark outside, and everyone in my house is asleep. With sneakers in hand, I tiptoe down the stairs. Finally, I grab my last few accessories before I head out the door for my morning run: iPod, flashlight, and pepper spray.

Pepper spray. You know, for protection. After all, I am putting myself in danger by engaging in extremely high-risk behavior — running through my neighborhood alone.

Carrying pepper spray had never bothered me before. Like my ear buds or my Nikes, it was just another accent to my runner’s attire. I didn’t really think about it. Since I am a runner, both my mother and mother-in-law have given me pepper spray as a gift in the past. Apparently, pepper spray makes the perfect stocking stuffer for the runner in your life. It even comes with a Velcro wrist strap to make it hands-free — perfect for exercising! It’s convenient and offers me peace of mind knowing I could fend off an attacker should the occasion arise.

But recent events have cast a whole new light on my pepper spray.

My husband and I have a friend with a tween daughter. She is on her school cross-country team so she frequently runs around her neighborhood. A few days ago, a man harassed her while she was running. “Keep it up, baby!” he yelled at her. Scared shitless, she bolted home.

Our friend was understandably upset over this incident. As he relayed the story to my husband, he lamented that his daughter was too young to be harassed like this, though he realized this was something that was bound to happen to her at some point in her life. My husband sympathized and offered a suggestion. Maybe carrying pepper spray would make her feel safer when she ran alone…because that’s what I do.

I was furious.

Furious that our friend and his daughter felt helpless to do anything.

Furious that a female should consider running solo an activity that puts her at risk.

Furious that fathers feel harassment is inevitable for their daughters.

And furious at myself for my role in making this normal.

Carrying around pepper spray is NOT NORMAL. Harassment is NOT NORMAL. But the more we let it slide, the more we normalize it. I have let it slide for years, carrying my pepper spray as if it were normal. When my husband proposed my routine as a solution to this problem, I felt like I was endorsing the harassment.

What was I saying to this young adolescent? Sorry sweetie, harassment is just a part of life. Men are going to say and do things that make you feel uncomfortable, and there’s nothing you can do about it. In fact, YOU are the one that needs to change. Here, use my pepper spray.

When we change to accommodate a repeated behavior, aren’t we accepting that behavior as our normal? It is a surrendering sigh and a shoulder shrug – this is just the world we live in. I’m calling bullshit on that. Let’s shift the focus to changing the undesirable behavior rather than adapting to it.

I wish there were some way to show that man the domino effect of his actions. He probably has no idea that his casually-slung words had such an impact. He caused trauma to a young girl. She may now feel she needs pepper spray to feel safe in her own neighborhood. He took power away from her and from her family. He played a role in normalizing sexual assault in our society. I wish he had the opportunity to look her and her father in the eye as they explained all that to him. And I ultimately wish he had a chance to repair the harm he caused.

But I have no idea who this man is, so what can I do? Well, I’m not going to ditch the pepper spray. This isn’t really about the pepper spray, after all. But I am going to shout from the rooftops that THIS IS NOT NORMAL! It is NOT NORMAL to harass young girls in the street. It is NOT NORMAL to resign to the fact that our daughters risk being intimidated because they commit the high crime of walking out of their houses alone. I will use this story to teach my son and daughter that their words matter, and that it is NOT NORMAL to steal people’s power. And each morning I go for a run, my pepper spray will remind me that there is still much work to be done to reach a normal that I can accept.

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