Since Sarah Everard was abducted and killed on March 3 this year, over 80 women have been murdered by men.
The feeling of fear on the streets is palpable, with Sarah’s death – and those of other victims like Sabina Nessa – hanging over us as a warning that a dangerous predator can take any form, be it police officer or pizza delivery driver.
Cressida Dick, Commissioner of the Met Police, was forced last week to release a statement offering advice to women who are approached by lone plain-clothes police officers, suggesting we ‘shout out to a passerby, run into a house or wave a bus down’ for help.
Before addressing the fact that this may be considered resisting arrest and could escalate the situation, one thing that’s clear from statements like these is that safety options are woefully limited.
When the country’s highest-ranking police chief suggests waving down a bus (as if it’s not hard enough to flag one down anyway) to protect yourself from those who are supposed to protect you, it’s a wake-up call.
Women and girls are at risk.
Most of us know the drill while walking home: slot your keys between your fingers, don’t wear headphones, and stay in well-lit areas. With those ‘tips’ falling short of making us feel safe, many are choosing to effectively arm themselves.
Safety keychains are becoming more and more popular, with small business owners seeing growing sales of (often pink or floral) self-defence sets designed for women.
They’re extremely popular on TikTok. Videos with the hashtag #safetykeychains have had 254 million views, while videos labelled #safetykeychainsuk have amassed over 7 million.
Rebecca, 28, started her company, Fearless Keychains, in 2021, in part after seeing the news about Sarah Everard.
She makes her own keychains that are sold alongside a variety of safety tools such as alarms, torches, and seatbelt cutters.
Legally defending ourselves in the UK can be tricky, as stun guns and pepper spray are both illegal to carry and use. This meant that Rebecca had to be creative about the items she included as part of her bundles, adapting items popular in the US to be compliant over here.
Rebecca, from Dunstable in Bedfordshire, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘I also include a criminal identification spray supplied by a company based here in the UK. They designed the spray to be non-harmful, to meet with the UK laws.
‘When sprayed onto the attacker it marks their skin and clothes in a visible dye, as well as a UV dye not visible to the naked eye, but that can be detected by police equipment – and it has a foul odour which can distract the attacker, giving you vital seconds to run.’
Her company has gone from strength to strength, and she now has 158,000 followers on TikTok, with her weekly drops selling out in under 10 minutes at points.
The response she’s received is indicative of the climate of fear we’re living in. Rebecca says: ‘So many people have reached out to thank me for giving them that confidence to go out alone again.
‘People leave me notes when they order from my website, telling me stories of when they or their families and friends have been attacked, followed, and unfortunately even murdered.’
After 23-year-old Gracie Spinks was murdered by her stalker in June, her friends purchased keychains from Fearless, saying they were ‘terrified’.
‘The amount of people who reach out to me has really opened my eyes to how big the problem we face is,’ says Rebecca.
‘I have lost sleep over some of the things I’ve read from my customers. It absolutely breaks my heart, but I am so happy to help bring some sense of security to them.’
Tamara, 23, and Hildegard, 25, started a similar business in lockdown. Empowerment stocks brightly-coloured keychain kits like Rebecca’s, with the pair also being spurred on by publicised cases of violence against women.
Tamara told Metro.co.uk: ‘Every girl we know including ourselves has stories – whether they be minor or major. From a very young age we were both told by our families to hold our keys in between our fingers when going home alone.
‘Although this is something we have been aware of for most of our lives, I think the Sarah Everard case made us think “enough is enough”.’
These products were borne out of a feeling of helplessness, but unfortunately they don’t always allow victims to regain control.
One study from the US found that women with access to firearms become homicide victims at significantly higher rates than men.
American boxer, Christy Martin, had her own gun turned on her by her ex-husband, who left her for dead after shooting her.
Speaking out years after the attack, she said: ‘Just putting a weapon in the woman’s hand is not going to reduce the number of fatalities or gunshot victims that we have. Too many times, their male counterpart or spouse will be able to overpower them and take that gun away.’
If you’re attacked on the street, the response you have will be unique to you and the situation. Some people freeze up, while others try to run or fight back.
Jayne Butler, CEO of Rape Crisis England & Wales tells Metro.co.uk: ‘We hear a lot about “fight or flight”, but, when we are in a situation of extreme fear or danger, many of us are unable to use strength or speed to struggle or run off.
‘Three very common reactions to fear and danger are “freeze, flop. and friend” which are just as instinctive as fight or flight, and we don’t get to choose which ones we experience in the moment because it is instinctual.
‘All five responses are our bodies’ automatic ways of protecting us from further harm and enabling us to survive a dangerous situation. So, self-defence products will only be able to make a very marginal difference for most women and girls.
‘The onus must be on men and boys to stop perpetrating violence against women and girls.’
None of the above responses are remotely wrong, but those who victim-blame seldom look at the reality of rape and assault. It could be argued that women who have self-defence tools on their person – and do not use them – consent to what happens to them.
A paper on women’s right to self-defence published by the Queensland University of Technology reads: ‘There is a danger that if women are told they ought to resist and precisely how to resist, those who choose not to, or are unable to, will feel that they have failed or are in some way responsible for the attack.’
‘The narrative around women and girls needing to protect themselves is one that feeds into myths and stereotypes about trauma responses to sexual violence and abuse,’ says Jayne.
The idea that anyone is to blame for being attacked may be disgusting, but it’s not one without precedent. In a rape trial in Australia, pictures of a woman’s underwear were shown to the jury, with the defence arguing that her ‘sexy lingerie’ implied consent.
In a speech in the House of Commons, MP Liz Saville-Roberts told of a similar incident: ‘Emma was followed by a stranger who attacked and tried to rape her. Her screams were met with the threat of, “stop or be killed”.
‘Fortunately two off-duty police officers heard her screams, but the trial fixated on why Emma chose to wear a red dress on that summer’s evening.’
The list goes on: Former congressman Todd Akin famously stated in 2012 that a woman could not become pregnant if she had experienced a ‘legitimate rape’, as ‘the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.’
19-year-old Shana Grice was charged £90 for ‘wasting police time’ after reporting her stalker’s constant harassment. Mere weeks later, she was murdered by the same man.
It’s a sad fact that the onus is placed on us to defend ourselves. It’s also a misunderstanding of rape culture to perpetuate the idea that this is always an option.
This doesn’t line up with what the public think rape is. 97% of people believe it’s definitely rape if a stranger forces themselves on a woman in a park at night, yet almost a quarter believe that in most cases it isn’t rape if non-consensual sex occurs within a long-term relationship.
As well as this, they’re effectively saying there’s a ‘safe’ way to behave and to live. But we know from experience it’s not true.
Sabina Nessa and Sarah Everard did the ‘right’ things. They told friends and family where they were, they stayed in populated areas, and they were still targeted.
Tamara, of Empowerment Key Safety said: ‘Everybody reacts differently in these types of situations, especially when they are scared. As much as we obviously do not want the victim to be blamed for not being able to fight back, this is the society that we live in now.’
Fearless Keychains’ owner, Rebecca, added: ‘People can argue that carrying equipment to use in the case of emergency is us “accepting” responsibility to avoid an attack, but it should never have been like this.
‘It’s more like we are forced to take the responsibility into our own hands. Companies like mine exist because we don’t feel protected or safe…
‘The focus should always be on the crime committed, not what the victim does or uses in the event of the attack.’
Make no mistake, it’s not women starting small businesses and selling safety items that are the problem. The problem is a culture where just 1.6% of rape cases result in a charge, where women are far more likely to be murdered by their partner than be struck by lightning, and where we have to constantly modify our behaviour to avoid being attacked.
These sprays and spikes are an understandable choice for people living in fear, but they’re a damning indictment of what the world looks like right now, and show that unfortunately we cannot be truly safe until gender-based violence is tackled in society.
Contact Rape Crisis
If you’d like to speak to someone about the issues discussed in this article, visit the Rape Crisis England & Wales website or contact the Rape Crisis National Telephone Helpline on 0808 802 9999.
Do you have a story to share?
Get in touch by emailing [email protected].