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Shopping for Stun Guns

I was 12 years old, riding home from school on an L.A. city bus, when I noticed the middle-aged man staring at me. When I got off the bus, he did, too. As I walked, he followed 30 feet behind me. When I turned a corner, he turned, too. I picked up my pace. So did he.

I didn’t know what he wanted. But I knew, like an animal knows it’s being hunted, that I was in danger.

Unarmed in an era before cell phones, I considered my options. Break into a run, try to beat him to my house, lock the door, and call the police? No — he’d know where I lived. Bolt to a stranger’s front door and start banging, hoping someone was home? Dive through the hedges up ahead and hide? Or start screaming “HELP!” and crying like the little girl I was trying really hard not to be?

When I think back on that day, I get angry. What enrages me most is that I can’t even remember how I made it home safely. All I remember is being terrified, humiliated, certain that I couldn’t overpower him, uncertain if I could outsmart him — and filled with a resentment that’s never really gone away.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt threatened by a middle-aged man. But last week, I was invited to a party billed as “a girls’ night that could save your life.” It was a casual sales presentation for Damsel in Defense personal protection products — think Pampered Chef but with pink weapons that pack a wallop: the Tiny Takedown stun gun. The Pouch O’ Pepper spray. And a very pretty, palm-sized, keychain-ready martial arts weapon used to “jab soft tissue or break bones.”

The tools are supposed make women feel safer walking through the world — or at least through a dark parking lot late at night. But to learn about them is to acknowledge all the infuriating ways we’re vulnerable to attack.

The sprays promise to incapacitate even drunk or drugged-out assailants and will stain a bad guy’s face with UV die so cops can identify him for up to a week. But you shouldn’t use them in close quarters, like in an elevator or during a car-jacking — and as Kathy, our Damsel distributor, reminded us, “We don’t get to dictate the terms of our attack.” For up-close encounters, you need a stun gun, which requires direct skin contact with your enemy and comes with a wrist strap attached to a disable pin so he can’t grab your weapon and use it against you.

“It’s all less than lethal,” Kathy said. “We don’t want you to kill anyone; we don’t want you to go to jail. We just want them to release you.”

You don’t need a license to own this stuff, but I’m not convinced I want it. Would I have felt safer as a 12-year-old with 4.5 million volts in my backpack? Maybe. Would I have been safer? Hard to say.

More than 600 women are sexually assaulted every day in the U.S. And Kathy said her product parties often become confessionals with guests sharing personal stories of domestic abuse and random assaults.

All of this does little to allay my anger. I’m pissed off that when I’m hiking and pass a guy on the trail who appears to be meditating, I have to yank out my iPod earbuds and check back over my shoulder for several uneasy minutes. I’m frustrated that the things I say to comfort myself — my neighborhood is safe, I’m smart, my dog would bark, I’m tall, I’m loud, I’m not afraid — are nonsense.

But I didn’t buy a weapon at the party that night, for several reasons. The good reason: I’m afraid my kids would mess with it. The bad reason: I don’t like to think about needing one. The real reason: I may not be packing any personal protection in my purse, but I’m carrying some anger with me everywhere I go. And the only thing worse than an angry woman is an angry woman who’s armed.

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