By Elena Torres-Pepito
If you’re a woman, you’ve likely been the subject of unsolicited sexual comments from old men lounging on the sidewalk. Unfortunately, this behavior is so pervasive that it’s basically part of the coming- of-age experience. Existing as a woman, even today, entails a constant awareness that wherever you go, people will be looking at you and your body with a sense of entitlement. After a particularly uncomfortable instance this past summer, wherein a man made vulgar comments and followed me and my sister into a Safeway, I was faced with the truth that these embarrassing and disturbing encounters can easily become dangerous. While I had only experienced comments so far, these encroachments were a reminder that many times, it doesn’t end there. In fact, one in six women have been the victim of a sexual assault, and 20% were attacked by a stranger.
An awareness of this threat follows women wherever they go, informing their decisions and limiting their movement. As much as our society attempts to tell us that women can do anything, it’s hard to separate this ideal from reality–we often have legitimate concerns about our physical safety that men don’t have to deal with.
This begs the question: what can we do about this threat to our safety?An overview of potential self-defense methods reveals that there are very few effective options available, especially in California. Women are often told to learn martial arts to defend themselves, but this is unrealistic. The average woman is 5’4” and 170 pounds, compared to a man’s 5’9” and nearly 200 pounds. You can tote around pepper spray, but that isn’t instantaneously effective and definitely won’t work against those who have planned beforehand to face it. If you want to carry a knife, California law dictates that it must have a blade of 2” or less. And concealed carry permits, though policy varies by county, are often only granted if you can show a specific and immediate threat to your life. Laws surrounding weapons were established with the intent of promoting safety, but by eliminating a potential method of self-defense, they may decrease the feeling of safety for those who cannot rely on their own strength to defend themselves.
In our national conversations, we’ve painted guns, as things used only for destruction. In places like California, those who want to carry guns have been stereotyped as pro-second amendment, NRA-supporting, white Trump supporters – it’s not a stance that gains sympathy. It seems that the gun control debate takes place at the extremes – there are those who are unwilling to recognize guns as legitimate tools for self-defense, and those who are adamant about asserting that an assault rifle should be just as protected as a handgun. We rarely hear rational understanding the major implications for women’s safety that lie behind the freedom to carry guns. The right to own and carry guns is not just an American issue, but a specifically female one. It’s something that takes on a new sense of urgency amidst a new era of female independence in a world where gender violence is still pervasive. Because of this, California needs to liberalize its weapons laws to enable women to carry tools that can be used for their protection.
As women take on a larger role in the workforce and government, there has been a change in the areas women transverse. No longer relegated to the role of housewife, women are supposed to be able to explore and go through the world independently. But even as we have made great strides in regards to feminism, there are still men who harbor misogynistic views. Even if “not all men” are bad, the existence of one or two who do have malicious intentions is enough to provoke caution and alter our actions.
My little sister and friends call me regularly to tell me about the men who followed them while walking through the park, who stared at them threateningly through their window, who tailed their cars through the streets until they made enough right turns to lose them. When I think of my loved ones, I want them to be able to defend themselves if any of these situations were to escalate.
As we debate gun control with invocations of the harms they may cause, we also need to remember the benefits. In many ways, the benefits of guns aren’t as salient as crime scene photos. You can’t take a direct picture of all the places a woman visited and all the midnight walks she enjoyed with the safety of a gun in her purse. It’s difficult to quantify the securityand freedom that may result. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t exist. Even if someone chooses not to carry a gun, the option to do so makes a huge difference. It says a lot about whose freedom is valued and whose isn’t. As we move into a new age of feminism, we need to make sure that women’s freedom is held as a priority by giving them access to the tools that will make that happen. If we don’t address the unique dangers facing women that are near insurmountable by virtue of our biology, then this freedom and independence will never fully manifest.