Why legalising pepper spray isn't the answer.

There's an Australian petition that is growing by the minute. 

A Melbourne woman has called on the Federal Government to reconsider its ban on possessing pepper spray for self-defence. The petition wishes for it to be legal for women who have no criminal history of violence to carry pepper spray to protect themselves. There are thousands of signatures.

Women are scared for their lives right now. There's no question.

But there are a number of complications when it comes to legalising pepper spray as part of a national bid to end violence against women.

Watch: women and violence, the hidden numbers. Post continues below. 

Video via Mamamia. 

Why legalising pepper spray isn't the answer.

There are some pragmatic cons to legalising pepper spray.

Pepper spray comes in the form of an aerosol and it's made from a type of capsicum chilli pepper. It's used to incapacitate people and the effects last for about an hour, causing temporary blindness, difficulty breathing and a burning sensation on the skin. Police carry pepper spray, and reports suggest it is "relatively safe" but does cause intense pain.

This recent petition wishes for it to be legal for women who have no criminal history of violence to carry pepper spray. The challenges of establishing a federal-binding rule that only applies to one gender would be a legal minefield for the government, and near impossible to legislate amid discrimination laws. 


Another issue is that the pepper spray defence tactic is often recommended in relation to random stranger attacks. The premise is that carrying a canister in your handbag would be easy to grab and simple to administer. But the cold, hard truth is that the vast majority of victims and survivors of violence — whether domestic violence or sexual violence — know their perpetrator. With this in mind, abuse from a perpetrator known to the victim happens more commonly behind closed doors, so the handbag argument sadly doesn't hold much relevancy in situations like these.

The one place where it's legal to carry pepper spray for self-defence is Western Australia, but there are stipulations to the law about 'reasonable grounds' that brings confusion.

Having access to pepper spray hasn't changed the devastating rates of violence against women in this state. In 2022, 37 per cent of homicide and related offences in WA were family and domestic violence related. 64 per cent of assaults were family and domestic violence related. WA overall has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in comparison with other states and territories in Australia. 

Just this year alone, three WA women have been killed, allegedly by men known to them.

Plus, if pepper spray were to be legalised, it would be yet another weapon that could be used against women. We don't need more weapons that could fall into the hands of perpetrators. We need systemic change, mental health support, attitude shifts, education, stronger law reform, bail restrictions and conviction rates against repeat offenders.


Why is the onus constantly on women to protect themselves?

The call for women to use pepper spray to ward of rapists and violent abusers isn't a new concept.

We've been told to carry pepper spray, a rape whistle, grip our car keys between our fingers, not walk at night, not walk in the very early morning, be cautious of what we wear, learn self defence training... this exhausting list could go on. 

Society knows it shouldn't be up to women to police their own behaviour and consciously ruminate over every single thing they can do to keep themselves 'safe'.

But that's the world we live in — where the onus is on women to protect themselves.

This week, one publication suggested there's "one weapon that every woman could carry in her handbag that could have stopped" the Bondi Westfield attacker. The recommended weapon was pepper spray. 

Why must it always be on victims — who statistically speaking are most often women — to carry the mental load of how they should avoid an attack on them?

Where are the perpetrators — who statistically speaking are most often men — in this conversation? What's being done and spoken about to change their behaviour?

The debate around pepper spray was summed up aptly by Kaleidoscope News' journalist Demi Lynch.

"I understand people are just desperate to feel any sense of safety right now, but pepper spray isn't going to fix this," she noted.

"We have a systemic issue here in Australia — violence against women and the audacity of men to be violent against women is not something that can be fixed overnight. I wish it could, but sadly this is something that needs to be looked at in many different spaces."


What needs to be done to combat violence against women. 

Jacquie O'Brien is the Director of Communications and Community Change for Respect Victoria. Speaking with Mamamia, she agrees that placing the onus on women to stop men's violence from happening is not the solution. 

"Violence against women is preventable. We need to intervene at the earliest opportunity to stop violence from happening or escalating. This means working with men who use violence and men at risk of using violence. At the same time we must change attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that drive the violence in the first place," she says.

"To prevent men's violence against women, we must support everyone to understand what healthy relationships look like, and the red flags to watch out for that indicate violence or the risk of violence. We must intervene early when there are increased risks of fatal violence. And we need to change the attitudes and behaviours that drive violence in the first place because we ultimately need men's violence against women to be an unacceptable choice."

This means working with not just individuals but with governments, businesses and the justice system to make sure the necessary laws and policies are in place. 

"At the same time, we need all services that address men's violence against women — including crisis and response services, early intervention and recover and healing support — to be well resourced."

There is no perfect fix-all to what women are dealing with right now. And that's simultaneously exhausting and terrifying. 


We shouldn't demonise those who try to come up with solutions to an ever-growing issue. It speaks to the collective feeling that women don't feel they have time to wait for systemic generational change to take place. Their lives are at risk right now, in the present. 

But there are positives to take away from this very conversation.

Debating the validity of things such as pepper spray is a good thing, as it keeps the wider issue at the forefront of the national agenda. Hearing responses from advocacy groups and experts also drives home the message that pepper spray is simply a bandaid to a far bigger and more complex epidemic. 

Pepper spray won't stop us being abused, violated or killed. What will keep us safe is perpetrators changing their behaviour and being held accountable, not only by their peers and society, but by the law too. 

In the meantime though, it's women who are paying the ultimate sacrifice.

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) — the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.

Mamamia is a charity partner of RizeUp Australia, a national organisation that helps women, children and families move on after the devastation of domestic and family violence. Their mission is to deliver life-changing and practical support to these families when they need it most. If you would like to support their mission you can donate here

Feature Image: Canva.