Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra

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Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Pepper spray won’t solve gendered violence

Apr 24, 2024 | Commentary, Opinion, Safety, Feature

Written by Kat Berney

For every complex problem there is always an answer that is simple, clear and wrong.

We often see these answers crop up when dealing with the wicked social issue that is violence in our society.

There is currently a petition circulating online asking for legislation changes that would allow women to carry pepper spray.

I absolutely appreciate that in the wake of the crimes in Bondi people are feeling confronted and afraid, which comes with the need for action.

I can offer assurances to these people. There is a lot of meaningful work happening across the country. For the first time in a decade, we have a government who is genuinely invested in reducing violence against women.

In 2018 the Australian Party’s Senator Fraser Anning pushed for a bill that would allow pepper spray to be imported into the country and would legalise its use in all states and territories for self-defence. Mr Anning’s motion was rejected due to the complexities of how the legalisation of pepper spray could be more broadly weaponised. That hasn’t changed.

I am concerned about how this horrific event is being weaponised, even from those with the best of intentions who are hoping to shine a light on gender-based violence.

In trying to advocate for women’s safety, they are demanding reactive policy with potentially catastrophic outcomes.

This campaign has not come from the public sector or government despite some false claims that my colleagues and I are fully supportive.

We are certainly not.

Reactive response like this lacks a trauma-informed lens. It puts the responsibility of the choices of one individual onto victims and does not address the core issues of male violence.

I have read completely irresponsible rhetoric in the Daily Mail that has suggested if women had pepper spray the Bondi attacks would have been stopped. Let me be exceptionally clear – there is zero evidence to support this claim.

The attacker was neutralised with a weapon– not pepper spray- by a senior police officer. This would have been an educated choice based on training and years of experience by the officer who did an exceptional job.

The issue with the blanket statement ‘pepper spray reduces violence against women’ is that there isn’t evidence to support it.

The ABS personal safety survey from 2022 demonstrates in the most recent incidents of violence by a male, the perpetrator was more likely to be someone the woman knew (85%) than a stranger (16%). The perpetrator was most commonly an intimate partner (53%), including a cohabiting partner (28%), and boyfriend or date (25%).

The data tells an important story of how and who women need to be protected from.

What are we suggesting will happen when a potential victim is armed with pepper spray? What happens when the violence escalates and the perpetrator is also armed with the same weapon?

If women and non-binary folk can carry pepper spray, so can men. So can gangs. So can everyone.

Pepper spray is legalised in WA, however the legislation requires a high threshold for people to be able to carry it – as it should.

There is clear evidence that shows the misuse of pepper spray can cause severe injury and even death.

In 2022, a 20-year review into people with pepper spray injuries that presented to emergency departments in the United States (where pepper spray is freely available) concluded that patients with pepper spray-related injuries tended to be older children and young adults. Not people protecting themselves from lone wolf attacks.

In the wake of widespread protests in 2020, it was found that protestors and police were both using pepper spray as well as its far-stronger counterpart, bear spray.

This study and many others find that the use of pepper spray is not effective in reducing rates of violence.

The petition does not address the role that men need to have in being a voice in the protection of women. They have to be involved in challenging systems and power structures that entrench the view that women are responsible for the violence that happens to them.

The simple argument that ‘women need to carry pepper spray’ creates a neat media narrative to avoid having that tough conversation on a national scale.

Gender-based violence and men’s violence is mostly importantly an issue for men to take the lead on.

Carrying a concealed weapon simply supports the idea that men don’t have an active role to play in the prevention of violence.

There is a lot of work happening across the country to address these issues and I would encourage all people who want change to engage with established campaigns and organisations who champion the issue of women’s safety to Parliament in a way the ensures they will really be kept safe.

 

 

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Katherine Berney is the Director of the National Women's Safety Alliance. She's also a PhD student in sociology at University of Canberra.

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