Written by Amelia Tait

With heightened fears around women’s safety and 41% of women taking steps to protect themselves from assault, Amelia Tait reports on the rise of self-defence gadgets and asks: is this really the answer?

The video starts with a miniature pink plastic suitcase, a little bigger than your hand. In goes some lip gloss, followed by a baby pink pen that is secretly a knife. Next, two more knives: one shaped like a gun; the other, a key. A shiny, hot pink chrome tool is added to the case – it can be used to break a car window in an emergency. Then there’s some pepper spray decorated with gems. A fluffy pom-pom keyring finishes off the package.

Nearly 7 million people have watched this TikTok uploaded by @stayprotected.ladiess, just one of the numerous accounts marketing self-defence kits on the site. In particular, keyrings are having a moment: the hashtag #SelfDefenseKeychain has an astounding 1.3 billion views. These colour-coordinated, aesthetically pleasing lanyards are laden with alarms, torches, knives and knuckledusters and sell for as much as £47 each.https://www.tiktok.com/@stayprotected.ladiess/video/7111882722393525547?is_copy_url=1&is_from_webapp=v1&lang=en

Indeed, a new self-defence economy is growing online. Sellers who have no history in the self-defence space are marketing products to women who fear for their safety in a country where 97% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed. To many, these products are a welcome way to claw back some control; to others, they represent the failings of our wider fight to tackle male violence against women and girls. So how worried should we be about the rise of this self-defence economy? And, more than that, how worried should we be about what it represents?

According to a November 2021 YouGov poll, women now feel less safe walking alone at night than they did in 2018. Almost 65% of women “always” or “often” feel unsafe on the streets after dark – and names that should not be household names are enough to understand why. Sarah Everard. Nicole Smallman. Bibaa Henry. Sabina Nessa. And just last week, Zara Aleena.

It is no wonder, then, that YouGov also found that 41% of women now take steps to protect themselves from assault, up from 32% percent in 2018. “These are scary, scary times,” says Catherine Rottenberg, a professor at the University of Nottingham and an expert in neoliberal and popular feminism. Rottenberg is not surprised that women are investing in personal safety tools. “When a society does not address or redress systemic violence, then the onus inevitably is placed on individuals.”

Because it’s not just keychains. Ware-based personal safety company Walk Easy saw demand for its personal alarms double after the murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021. In the 10 days following Everard’s death, the safety app WalkSafe+ was downloaded 500,000 times. By November, Metro reported a rising demand for self-defence classes. Google searches for “self-defence keychain” spiked astronomically in March 2021, the month Everard was killed; today, numerous sellers flog them on Etsy, TikTok, eBay, Amazon and even Not On The High Street.

Britain is currently in the midst of a cost of living crisis, but British women are faced with a cost of not dying crisis, too. It means women are being made to feel like they need to spend money in order to feel protected. “It really is a whole extra expense in life,” says Gabriela Gregorian, a 26-year-old London-based performer. Following Everard’s murder, she looked for self-defence kits online but ultimately baulked at the £20+ price tags. “My industry was one of the first to go into lockdown and one of the last to come back, so at that particular time, the price was a [concern],” she says.

Like many women, Gregorian regularly gets Ubers and Bolts home after nights out to feel safe. “I do find it to be a very expensive thing,” she says, adding: “I’ve had a lot of situations myself where I’ve been followed.” Gregorian compares the expense of personal safety to the cost of period products: “It’s things that are completely out of our control, yet we’re the ones that have to fork out for it.” As well as the financial cost of hailing a ride-share via an app, women like Gregorian have to deal with the mental cost of planning their journeys in this way, too.

But for some of the women running self-defence businesses, it feels complicated. Rebecca Cole, who single-handedly runs Fearless Keychains – bright and colourful keyrings, each housing a window breaker, seatbelt cutter, torch, alarm and criminal repellent spray for £25 a pop – wishes her company was obsolete. “I’ve always had the belief, since opening my business, that my business shouldn’t exist,” says the 29-year-old from Dunstable.

Cole had the idea for her company in 2020 after a group of men followed her and her friends on a night out, and one of them grabbed her arm. She spent six months researching what women are legally allowed to carry for self-defence – unlike in the US, women here can’t walk around with knives or pepper spray as it is illegal to carry offensive weapons in the UK. Legally, women cannot buy products that are designed to cause injury (but, if you were carrying an object that had another use – say, an umbrella – you could legally use it for self-defence purposes if the need arose). None of the items Cole sells are designed to cause injury, so her keyrings – to the best of her knowledge – are legal.

Other sellers are not so concerned about legality. “Part of me was in and out of the idea – I didn’t want to start a business from something I feel like shouldn’t have to exist in the first place,” Cole says – but after seeing another UK company sell keychains with knives, she decided to go ahead: “I wanted to make one that is completely UK-legal.” Various sellers online now market cutesy cat-shaped knuckle dusters, but people have been arrested for carrying them in the past.

Fearless Keychains launched in 2021, and for eight months, Cole’s items were “constantly sold out” – at one point, her restock alerts had 15,000 subscribers. As she didn’t sell before Everard’s death and was already selling at full capacity when Sabina Nessa was killed, Cole can’t say whether either tragedy caused a spike in sales, but says she uses TikTok to market her keychains because the video format gives her time to explain each of the products on the chain.

Her keyrings are decorated with patterns – be that strawberries, cow print, peaches, sunflowers or hearts. “It was really important for me to try and get to as many personalities as I can,” she says, “It’s such a horrible thing to even think about having to carry, so I wanted to at least make it look aesthetically pleasing.” Yet aesthetics can distract from what these products truly represent – ultimately, a societal-wide failure to protect women. 

While Cole offers a range of patterns, many other sellers offering similar kits seem to have a limited, even arguably sexist approach, selling glitter-laden pink offerings. And, of course, glamorising these self-defence objects can make them seem cool and desirable, rather than emblematic of state failures. “There are going to be people that see it as a quick marketing gimmick and they just want to get a quick buck out of it, and that in itself does make me feel really sad,” says Cole, who has donated alarms and sprays to women’s shelters and domestic abuse victims in the past.

Beyond the realm of glittery keychains, personal safety apps are also rising in popularity. Emma Kay is the Surrey-based founder of WalkSafe+, a map app that alerts you when you’re walking near a crime hotspot and allows friends to track your journey. As well as seeing a spike of half a million downloads after the passing of Everard, WalkSafe+ was downloaded 5,000 times in the week after Nessa’s death last September. But from the moment she launched her app in 2020, Kay knew she wanted to keep it free for users.

“We fundamentally believe that personal safety is a basic human right,” Kay says. “All of what we’ve done has been based on my own experiences: I’ve been catcalled, I’ve been groped, I’ve been followed, I’ve been flashed at… So, when we were developing the app, it was just fundamental to us that this wasn’t going to be another price that a woman should pay. I’m hesitant when people are profiting out of fear.”

And the self-defence industry has always had its problems. “The industry has been full of get-rich-quick schemes and individuals for years,” says Andrew Holland, who runs the educational safety website The Self Defence Expert and was a police officer for 17 years. He argues that a lack of regulation means many self-defence instructors are simply “teaching what they think is best” – he has spoken out in the past about people declaring themselves experts on social media and sharing improper techniques. While the internet is, by its nature, a difficult space to regulate, a group of 70 MPs are currently lobbying for new laws banning unsafe electrical goods being sold via online marketplaces – there’s no reason that dodgy, illegal self-defence items should not also fall under this remit too.

Yet even if everything sold online was legal, self-defence capitalism still puts the onus on individual women to protect themselves. And Rottenberg argues we are currently living in an era of “neoliberal feminism” which is “hyper-individualising”. She says that while many feminists took up martial arts for self-defence in the 1970s, it was “part of a larger movement, where collective action was also part of the agenda. [Today] the collective aspect of these strategies has fallen by the wayside, and what we have is an individualising and individualised strategy. [These] aestheticised products are all about (individual) women’s empowerment.”

It’s no coincidence, then, that self-defence keychains are thriving in our particular era – or that they have product descriptions such as “beautiful handmade premium chunky glitter wristlet” and come in colours such as rosebud, rose gold, vintage rose, fairy dust and sugar-frosted lavender. Vicki Dabrowski, a sociologist at the University of York who researches gender, relates it to the ongoing marriage of capitalism and feminism, whereby feminism has become a “fun”, “happy” brand plastered on clothing, jewellery, water bottles and phone covers. “Here we can see the natural outcome of capitalism, feminism and violence against women and girls via the commodification of fear, vulnerability and violence,” she adds. “To protect oneself against harm in this context means that you have to consume.”

Here’s the thing: women are being led to believe purchasing keychains and apps can keep them safe – in reality, violence against women and girls isn’t something individuals can buy their way out of. These products also put the responsibility on individual spending over government spending – it’s no coincidence they are booming at a time when the government is rolling back funding to support victims of gender-based violence. “Companies are capitalising on feelings of vulnerability, making enormous profits from the idea of empowerment via self-defence and individual responsibility,” says Dabrowski. “This takes the onus away from the wider structural and political forces that should be working to counteract cultures of gender-based violence and provide resources for groups that are in dire need.”

What message does a TikTok featuring knives, pom-poms and a little pink suitcase really send? It tells women they – and their wallets – are responsible for their personal safety, while glamorising self-defence. The work that needs to be done to prevent violence against women and girls is far less glitzy –  and those in power should be prioritising this, not people like Cole, who wishes she didn’t have to create such products in the first place. Government should be increasing its spending to fix this, not us women. 

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