Re: why I don’t carry a knife for self-defense

January 15, 2016


A few weeks ago, I had the kind of subway ride that I’m sure most people who live in cities with mass transit are familiar with: the kind where you’re like, “Huh, is this angry passenger actually gonna kill me or nah??” Later that day, I told a male friend of mine about it in an ongoing email thread we had going about Making a Murderer; the day before I had been saying that I wasn’t sure if I was going to watch it because true crime shows stress me out. This is the email I sent him after the subway ride:

“Speaking of being afraid of murdered, this morning on the train I had a VERY unsettling encounter. I sat down and this man was across the aisle from me, facing me directly, while my left side was to him. He was older, gray hair/beard, shouting unintelligible things REALLY loudly (just like…angry noises), and swinging his arms around sort of wildly, and every 20 seconds or so he’d SLAM his open palm on the seat next to him. At one point he spat, loudly and angrily, on the floor of the train. He was shouting in my general direction, and as the ride went on, it seemed like he was maybe shouting AT me but I couldn’t tell for sure, and then there’s that thing women do where you’re like ‘Surely he’s not shouting at me!’ and try to talk yourself out of the fact that you’re feeling uneasy/afraid. There were no other women very near to him, and the two dudes closest to him — one was about the same distance away from him as I was, the other was a little further away — were keeping an eye on him but were also looking back at me, which made me think he was definitely shouting at me…which made me super stressed out and uncomfortable and I was just like GET ME OFF THIS TRAIN. I was on an express train that was in one of its longest stretches without a stop, and it felt like it was going extra slow. I started calculating the best exit route so that he couldn’t like, stand up at the same time I did and be within grabbing/lunging distance. When the train finally got to the next stop, I got the FUCK out of there and moved to another car. There are plenty of crazy people in NYC, but every so often you get the ones where you’re just like, ‘Huh, is this the one that’s actually going to stab me though??’ Ugggggggh.”

My friend, who, I want to be clear, is a very good friend/person who I have known for eight years and who considers himself to be a responsible gun owner — which I’m inclined, based on what I know about him, to believe — responded with (among other things) this: “Do you carry mace or a small knife on the subway?? I know you’re not a fan of my weapon suggestions, but good lord, with situations like that, what if that creepy guy ended up approaching you closer or following you? Might not be a bad idea to have a ‘break in case of emergency’ device or something in your purse if you’re ever in a bad situation.”

This response was completely predictable (and I mean that with a lot of love) (like “I know you’re not a fan of my weapon suggestions” lol) and he and I exchanged a few more quick emails laughing about just how predictable a reaction it was before I responded that I was at a photo shoot, and that I would respond to the mace/knife question later. That night, I sat down and wrote him a 2500-word email and took a bunch of photos to illustrate my points. Because I spent so much time writing the damn thing, I decided to put a (lightly edited) version of it here — so that other women can reference it in those conversations about violence against women when a smart, well-meaning, and genuinely-trying-to-be-woke white guy suggests we should carry weapons to protect ourselves. Now women will be able to respond to that with “Hahahahahaha… A knife! Oh, you’re cute!” and then send the link to this post.



First, you should know that in general, I try to carry as little as possible every day. My purse holds a wallet, phone, pens, keys, and a couple other small things, but it’s pretty tiny. (Like, 7 inches tall by 7 inches wide, and the opening, as you can see below, is not very big. )

Here’s my purse with my wallet in it:

And without my wallet in it:

Most days, I carry the small purse to work inside a bigger tote bag that holds my laptop and anything else I need on a daily basis, which is usually VERY little. Here’s the regular setup:

It’s a pretty deep/spacious bag but I try to keep it mostly empty because I’m really conscious about women carrying heavy bags (why is why I did a project about this last year and why I am here for the fanny pack). However, because of the photo shoot today, I really wasn’t traveling light at all; I had a coffee mug and a can of Diet Dr. Pepper and a computer mouse and assorted other sundries in my tote. So it actually looked like this:

Along with the purse and the tote bag, I also had the new (SLASH AMAZING!!) bag that I got for all of my nice craft supplies/tools — both for home storage and also to carry that stuff with me to photo shoots. Including this so you can get a sense of like…how full my hands were today.

OK, still with me?

OK, so today it was cold and raining so I was wearing my winter coat; it’s pretty thick and has a big hood and relatively deep outer pockets, no inner pockets. It’s thick enough that wearing anything over it (including my regular tote bag) is kind of bulky…which is why I started downsizing my bags in the first place when I moved to the city.

So when I got on the train, the tote with the laptop, purse, etc. in it was on my left shoulder, and then the tool bag was in my right hand because the straps are on the shorter side and it would have been hard to put it on my shoulder with my bulky coat. Under the coat, I was wearing a sweater and leggings. If it had been summer, I would have likely been wearing jeans with small pockets (it’s well-documented that women’s pockets are fucking tiny) OR wearing a lightweight cotton dress with small pockets OR shorts with small pockets OR an outfit with no pockets at all.

So here’s what today’s setup looked like:

​OK, SO. Let’s say I carried a knife with me and that I had it on me when this happened. (I’m going to go with a knife in this scenario because pepper spray is not legal everywhere — it’s legal in NYC in general, though whether or not it’s allowed on the subway is not totally clear to me — but mostly because people often caution against pepper spray because it’s too easy to spray yourself in the face during a struggle. Technically a knife is 100% NOT ALLOWED on the subway, which is actually a better answer to your question but whatever — I’m in too deep now with this other explanation, so let’s just proceed as though a knife is legal, OR we can accept that it’s illegal but pretend as though I carry one anyway with the hope that I’m light-skinned enough to not get searched by one of the cops I regularly walk by in subway, because then I could be charged with “intent to injure.” Here’s more on what happens when you’re black and carrying a knife and the NYPD stops you. Again, I, personally, may not need to worry about this as much as I would if I hard darker skin or braids in my hair, but a lot of women don’t have that privilege and it’s also NOT THE KIND OF THING I WANT TO RISK.)

So let’s say that I’m in the train car and the guy starts coming at me and it’s clear at that point that he might actually try to hurt me. Where, in the setup I just described, would my knife be, and how would I easily get it out and use it to…what? Tell the guy to back the fuck off or I’ll stab him? Actually stab another human being?? I don’t even know, but that’s beside the point here. First we need to figure out where the knife is in this scene.

  • Is the knife in my coat pocket? This means I have to like…carry a KNIFE IN MY COAT POCKET (sorry iPhone, gloves, HANDS, etc.)…and then I either take it out of my pocket constantly so I don’t have to carry it around with me when I just step outside to take the dogs out or to get lunch (though in this world, why wouldn’t I just take it in case I need to stab someone while walking the dog or running errands?), or I just keep it in there all the time and lose a ton of the functionality in my pockets. But even when I have my gloves or phone in my pockets, I find myself worrying I’ll accidentally drop them as I take my hands in and out of my pocket. Basically, I’ve learned in this year that while my coat pockets are a very tempting place for me to store things, it’s not really that practical in everyday life. Also, this option isn’t even available to me for more than half the year. ALSO it’s very hard to get into the pockets when I’m sitting down, which I was this morning when all this went down on the train.
  • Is the knife in my purse? This seems reasonable, because even when I don’t have the laptop bag, I have the purse (like if I’m out to dinner or something) so it would minimize needing to move the knife from bag to bag…BUT remember that the purse is tiny and also that it’s at the bottom of my bag. Even when I just need my keys from the purse that’s in the bag, it often takes me a sec to find them, and if the bag is on my left shoulder, I’d have to use my right hand to look for them. And remember, my right hand is holding the tote bag. Also remember that I’m trying not to draw any attention to myself because this dude is stressing me the fuck out and I want to be invisible.
  • Is the knife in my tote bag? This also seems reasonable…though it raises the question of where exactly the knife is in the tote bag if all I have in in the bag is my laptop and my tiny purse. Is it just rolling around at the bottom of the bigger bag? Is that something I want to have happen? And, again, if it’s at the bottom of the bag, it’s still going to take me a second to reach it.

So for the sake of this conversation, let’s say the knife is either in the tote or the purse and I want to access it. To get it out, I’d put the tote that’s in my right hand onto my right wrist/forearm (not comfortable for most of the time, but fine for a second), reach across my body and into the purse or the tote, and locate the knife. Now the knife is in my right hand, but still in the tote — the tote which is hanging on my left shoulder. So now this is my setup:

EXCEPT I’m sitting down, so it actually looks more like this:

BUT in that photo I’m not actually touching the bottom of the bag, where the imaginary knife is. To reach the bottom of the bag, I’d have to twist my upper body considerably, so it would look more like this:

Note: in that photo, my hand is touching the bottom of the bag but it’s still on the right side of the bag. If the knife were any further toward the left side of the bag, it would require even more shifting around and not-at-all-subtle digging to actually find it.

At that point, I’m pretty immobile because of the bulky shoulder bag and then the tote full of stuff that’s now on my right forearm. (Actually, when I was sitting on the train planning my exit, one of the things I was super conscious of was the tote bag on my left shoulder…because I felt like even if I had the room to sidestep him as I exited the train, he might still be able to reach out and grab the bag.) Anyway, I can’t discreetly move a KNIFE from the bag to my pocket. (Which I…guess is where I’d want to put it temporarily? Not that I can easily put something into my pocket while sitting down but whatever.) I don’t have enough room to draw it up into my coat sleeve. So I have to stay in this awkward position, which I GUESS is a fine way to stay if my life depends on it but is also like…kind of at odds with my “don’t call attention to yourself” plan.

OK so let’s say I’m sitting like that, and then the guy comes at me and so I want to pull out the knife with my right hand, but I’m sitting down and I still have the tote bag on my right forearm/elbow area, which makes it kind of hard to actually make a stabbing motion. Sure, I could stand up, drop my right arm and hope the tote slides down my arm/coat and over the knife, and that I still have time to stab him but, like…that…seems unlikely to happen smoothly in a crisis scenario? And to even consider that is to assume a bunch of things:

1. That he doesn’t have a knife.
2. That he doesn’t have a gun.
3. That I have the time to realize that he is, in fact, coming toward me to hurt me, and that I do, in fact, need to use my knife. (He was about four feet away from me when all this started. I’m likely not going to realize he’s actually trying to attack me until he’s inches away, at which point it’s too late to drop the bags and such. I might not even have time to stand up. And, like, how easy would it be to stab someone if you were SITTING DOWN with an armful of grocery bags? Probably…not that easy?)
4. That he doesn’t walk over and just slash me in the face before I realize what the fuck is even happening.
5. That he doesn’t grab me by my hood, bags, etc. while he’s still a little further away put me in a position where I can’t even use the knife (like, say, standing behind me with the knife at my throat/face). What exactly am I going to do with a knife in my right hand and all these bags and this big fucking coat in that position? (Going back to your other suggestion, what am I going to do with pepper spray in that position? Also: pepper spray on a train with other people seems like a bad idea.)
6. That he’ll back off if I threaten him with a knife.
7. That if he doesn’t back off, I’ll be able to stab him in a meaningful way.

Also, one woman I know who was sexually assaulted on the subway was pinned down and her arms were not free to grab any sort of weapon. She was also frozen with SHOCK, which is often a thing that happens to victims.

ALSO, women get called crazy so goddamn much for being afraid of dudes that doubting ourselves becomes a habit — there’s a deeply ingrained need to be absolutely, 100% sure that yes, this man is actually trying to hurt me and there is incontrovertible proof before we do anything defensive or in our own self-interest. I’m now at a point in my life where I no longer debate these things as much (the book The Gift of Fear helped a LOT with that) which is why I got off the train immediately at the next stop…but the entire time I was on the train, I was going between figuring out an exit strategy and trying to decide if I was actually even right to even be worried in the first place. The reality is that sometimes you don’t see it coming, or you talk yourself out of it…but even if you DO see it coming, there often just isn’t time or an actual practical way to protect yourself.

All of this is to really say that I don’t carry a knife because it would not make me feel safer. I know the reality of how I travel each day and know that in most of the scenarios I can envision, a weapon just wouldn’t be a practical solution. MAYBE if it were legal, MAYBE I’d carry a taser because it requires less motion overall, but, again, the likelihood that it would actually help just seems…silly. So it’s not that I’m against carrying a (legal) weapon, it’s just more like…why even bother? It just seems like having false hope. After 30 years on earth as a woman, I know that my best bet is to be as aware as possible of my surroundings, to always trust my gut when I feel uneasy (even if that means some people might think I’m “overreacting” or “paranoid”), and to do everything I can to be in situations where there are a lot of people around because that seems like your best bet these days — bystanders to discourage, distract, tackle, call for help, etc.

A friend of mine was in a similar situation last year, where a dude just went ape shit on her on a bus in D.C., screaming at her for no reason; she calmly got off the bus at the next stop…and he fucking FOLLOWED HER OFF, still screaming at her…so she went into a Starbucks and he FOLLOWED HER IN THERE TOO. Luckily, he didn’t stay in the Starbucks for too long and when he exited, a barista locked the door behind him. But then he stood outside the door still screaming at my friend until the cops came. So, again, OTHER PEOPLE are often what I’m looking for more than a switchblade, you know?

Also, while we’re on the topic of women and self-defense, I’ll go ahead and mention this: the reason women don’t all carry weapons to protect themselves from rape — which PLENTY of lawmakers and also the gun industry think is a great idea — is not only because of everything I listed above…it’s also the fact that, statistically, we’re more likely to be raped by dudes we know, not strangers in the bushes. So, again…why even bother?

Mmmmkay, now that I’ve explained all of this to you, I expect you to send back an equally long and detailed email explaining:

1. Why, exactly, we as a culture still can’t figure out how to teach men that they are’t entitled to any woman’s attention and
2. Why mental health services in his country are such a goddamn mess.


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