Written by Narang Kim
Translated by Youngjoo Kang
This world openly advises that I am responsible for my own safety. I shop for self-defense tools and spend money and time to learn Jujitsu. I might as well be the last female warrior standing in the zombie world.
“This is detective Jungshil Jo at the Seoul Central District Prosecutor's Office.” I received a text order to appear. The case I reported last November must have been turned over to the prosecutor’s office. I had a dispute with a taxi driver on my way home, and grabbing my arms, he ended up taking me against my will. I bit his fingers as I was struggling to release myself, and managed to call the police. That was my third time visiting the police station. The first two were both for sexual harassment cases that happened on my way home from work, but I chased down the criminals and took them to the police both times. One man was a white collar businessman, and the other had five previous convictions. This time, however, we were mutually at fault thanks to a doctor’s medical diagnosis of the taxi driver’s finger. I met with him for the second time to settle the case, sitting right next to him during the investigation and leaving at the same time in the middle of the night. The fear returned that I had managed to suppress until then. I realize now that it was dangerous for me to pursue the criminals, but I was lucky to have them put in jail. I hid inside the police station until the taxi driver’s car was completely out of sight. I looked around before going into my apartment building to make sure I wasn’t being followed.
I began shopping for self-defense products for the first time since I bought pepper spray ten years ago. Tears filled my eyes thinking about how naive I had been. I was surprised at how much the self-defense industry had evolved. The volume of search results was compatible to that of women’s clothing on the same search engine. I closed the tabs and called my friend. “I can’t decide what to buy for self-defense. Maybe I should carry around a box cutter until I buy a real weapon.” She replied that she indeed carries a fruit knife with her when she goes for her nightly walk. “I would be lucky I were fast enough to even be able to use it,” she confessed bitterly and added, “the best policy is to run after pressing a panic alarm.” I looked up panic alarms on the web and numerous results turned up. I clicked the top selling 30,000 won alarm. The description read that once the safety pin is removed, the 130 decibel sound exploding out of it could “bleed your ears out”. The description goes on to say that it otherwise resembles a piece of jewelry. I would not carry a bear shaped panic alarm as an accessory, but the point is, it is absurd. It’s not terribly different with other products. Description words like “convenient and easy”, “German”, and “adorable” give you the impression that you are shopping for a dishwasher or clothing. The industry uses intense colors and flashing images as if to hypnotize people.
Laura Bates, a columnist for The Guardian, agrees. One day, she saw a ring with a razor that “helps you jog safely outside.” It was pink and, again, it was described as convenient and pretty. There was rape prevention underwear that lets out electric current as well as a nail polish that reacts to date rape drugs. Bates says that we are living in a society that constantly sends out a message to “open your wallet and spend money for your own safety.” Women in Korea today are pressured so much by the government to be responsible for their own safety to a certain degree. On one women’s online community, a reply to a question of whether you need a self-defense product read, “Don’t count on the society. You’ve seen it all through major disasters. Only those who acted survived.” Throughout the supporting comments, people shared their reviews of self-defense products. Tasers or tear gas guns are available for 200,000 won, but due to the logistics of requiring a permit, panic alarms or batons were more popular. I added them to my cart and fearlessly continued my search. Recently, a taser slash cell phone case was released, which works with a touch ID that reduces accidental discharges and automatically transmits the location to police. It costs 150,000 won. “I’ve got to buy this!” I thought and added it to my shopping cart. All self-defense products share the same catchphrase: “You are the only one who can protect yourself (so hurry up and buy me.)"
Ellen Snortland, the author of Beauty Bites Beast and a lawyer, said at a TED conference that women should be prepared to defend themselves rather than become submissive “sleeping beauties”. At one point, getting a Brazilian hot wax ranked higher than taking a self-defense class on her bucket list, but her priorities drastically changed when her house was broken into. During her 18 minute TED talk, she emphasized that saying "No" is crucial to self-protection. Ellen reenacted the night by shouting "Go away!" to the acting burglar and he ran away in panic.
I searched for some self-defense classes online. There was a Feminist Self-Defense Training hosted by the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center. The first thing I saw on the website was the slogan "Women Who Fight Win the Battle", and some exercise pieces such as “How to Deflect Negative Stares” and “Sparring for Counter Attacks.” Even if I were to take the classes, it would feel like touching an elephant’s leg, but the participants reviewed that they felt empowered by the exercises. Even though the class was free, the next class was not yet scheduled, and it was too far from my house. I looked up private self-defense classes. Jujitsu classes costed as much as the yoga classes I attended. The price was not the issue, though. Did this mean I would have to go to the class after taking my yoga class? What would happen to my free time then? Why should I have to spend extra energy, time and money for my safety, a basic human right?
The taxi incident altered the pattern of my life. Not only did it affect me at the moment it occurred, but also my general behavioral patterns and mindset, the way I manage my time and daily budget. It will perhaps resonate within me for the rest of my life. Not surprisingly, a 2016 survey by the Seoul Foundation of Women and Family reported that the 2,030 single female respondents' biggest concerns were financial insecurities (26.6%), insufficient resources responding to crises (26.3%) and the general risk of sexual assault and danger (19.5%).
The society, however, shifts the burden of safety costs and responsibility to individuals. Certainly, there are projects suggested by government agencies. For example, I saw an article that Songpa-gu, which is where I live, would extend their policy on womens' safety. The office is planning to set up emergency alarms in all public restrooms, expand The Safe Courier Service*, open more self-defense courses and improve the security of neighborhood alleys at night. These are, however, granted primary responsibilities of the government and not fundamental solutions of women’s safety. Two years ago, there was a great deal of controversy of "women’s tax" in France where products targeted at women cost more than those of men. We are still paying another form of “women’s tax” for our safety. Until I receive the package containing the self-defense products, I am planning to use the service called Get-Home- Safely Scout for Women in Songpa-gu, Seoul. It is a service that designates two people to escort you home safely at night. I appreciate both the government and individual effort, but it still takes energy and effort on my part to interact with “strangers” in order to ensure my safety.
*The Safe Courier Service is a delivery locker installed in public spaces such as government office buildings, libraries, and cultural centers in Seoul. It is especially targeted at single female residents whose safety and securities might be at risk due to exposing their contact information while frequently receiving packages.