Why is the use of tasers and stun guns so normalized among urban women? These weapons have been studied in the context of policing, but very little research has been dedicated to the individual use of tasers for self-defense.
In a hallway lined with tasers and stun guns, young men in black-and-white-striped prison uniforms scramble through tires and over plywood hurdles. This isn’t a torture scene, it’s a scene from Jackass, a popular MTV television and film series from the early 2000s that featured slapstick skits where white cisgendered straight males would willingly inflict pain on themselves and on each other for the entertainment of viewers. I own a taser, and like many of my urban-dwelling female peers, I carry it daily for purposes of self-defense. Whenever I’m in the presence of white cisgendered straight men and they become aware that I have one, without fail, they ask me to tase them so that they can see what it feels like. This started out as a funny story, but became such a frequent phenomenon that I began to wonder about men’s casual attitudes toward non-lethal weapons as well as their tendency to sensationalize or make a game out of pain. No woman has ever asked me to willingly inflict pain on her, because women view the use of tasers not as a challenge, an entertaining game, or even as a choice, but as a necessity to survive—for them, the ultimate goal of owning a taser is to not have to use it. These discrepancies in behavior led me to question more broadly the personal use of tasers.
To someone unfamiliar with the current state of crime in modern cities, the idea of carrying around a powerful weapon that could electrocute strangers at any moment might sound morbid and barbaric. However, female citizens of any major urban area such as New York, especially women of color, have become accustomed to the idea of carrying such a weapon. Defined as a non-lethal electrical self-defense device that puts out a high voltage and low amperage shock that causes pain and electrical disruption to an assailant, tasers and stun guns became widely popularized for personal use in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.1 These weapons have been studied in the context of policing, but very little research has been dedicated to the individual use of tasers for self-defense. My research explores why the use of tasers and stun guns is so normalized among urban women and identifies the underlying issue that taser use is both a symptom of and a temporary solution to. My findings contribute to the fields of sociological psychology in the evaluation of the effect of crime in major urban areas on female citizens, the use of self-defense weapons, and how these practices differ according to gender and race.
Before discussing the popular modern pocket-taser, it is important to analyze the history of the use of tasers in police brutality and their evolution into the marketed commodity they are today. Police patrolmen in the 1960s were known to carry electronic cattle prods as “shock batons” for crowd control, which led to public outrage and accusations of discrimination and cruelty. In the summer of 1965, at the height of the Civil Rights movement and just before the famous Watts riots which resulted in thirty-four deaths and four thousand arrests.2 President Johnson ordered a study of “free society” and associated crime trends, which recommended that patrolmen use a “non-lethal” method of incapacitating a criminal with minimal risk for lasting injury. This led NASA aerospace scientist Jack Cover to invent the first taser, which delivered a pair of electrode projectiles tethered to a gun by small wires. Cover could not have known the extent of damage to communities of color that his invention would cause, but he did give the product its name, which was an acronym for Tom A. Swift’s Electric Rifle, a novel which portrayed a “civilized” white savior-type hunter who travels to Africa to plunder ivory.3 Tasers began to be officially manufactured and marketed as non-lethal and safe for citizen use in 1993 by TASER International. However, Cover’s patent was adapted by Nova Technologies and sold well before this as the NOVA XR-5000 in 1983, just before the first trial of Chicago Police Commander Detective Jon Burge, who had been exposed for cruel and unusual torture of suspects involving electrocution. Although he was convicted, the appearance of the first official taser for police weaponization came at a remarkably convenient time to ensure the legal continuance of electrical weapons to subdue criminals.4 The use of the stun gun as a torture device did not stop, as the new products’ tendency not to leave marks when properly used benefitted police by hiding physical evidence of torture. In addition, police forces such as the LAPD used tasers not merely to immobilize, but to diagnose the use of PCP. If such a powerful device did not work it stood to reason that the victim must be high on PCP. The practice of electric diagnosis led directly to the most famous police brutality case of the late twentieth century, the Rodney King affair. After firing twice, the taser failed to immobilize Rodney King, convincing the officers that he was on PCP, which led to his being beaten with metal batons, an assault prolonged because the supervising sergeant was attempting to untangle the wires from the taser to deliver a third jolt instead of controlling his officers.5
Despite police departments’ and taser companies’ claims that tasers have never killed anyone, an Amnesty International report from 2012 claims that at least five hundred people in the United States have died since 2001 after being shocked with tasers either during an arrest or while in jail.6 In addition to health risks such as abrasions, internal organ ruptures, bone fractures, and loss of motor control that are recognized by Taser International, many studies conducted by outside sources have revealed that taser application can lead to immense cardiac problems, often causing ventricular fibrillation, “a state in which the heart muscles spasm uncontrollably, disrupting the heart’s pumping function and causing death.”7 The widespread police use of tasers combined with tasers’ tendency not to leave marks has led to countless unreported deaths and tortures, and thus the number of lives lost to taser abuse to date is not known. However, it is known that urban police forces use taser torture on inarticulate subjects, on those with criminal or institutional histories, and in cases of intense public disapproval of the alleged crimes (such as African American and Hispanic youths suspected of drug dealing), and those in custody––overall, police abuse of tasers affects people of color a disproportionate amount.8
Following a string of lawsuits in the 1980s, taser and stun-gun manufacturers realized that to avoid the risk of litigation and bad publicity, they needed to redesign their products to be marketed to a new audience, an unthreatening polar opposite to police departments who abused their abundance of power. 9 While Taser International kept manufacturing tasers, they were mostly in the form of key chains, lipsticks, and rings, in an array of pinks, purples, and bedazzlements. The company marketed them to women by claiming it was a woman’s best defense against rape.10 By obscuring the racist history behind tasers and reinventing them for a less threatening population, these companies were effectively capitalizing on the fears and public insecurities of women. Women of color in particular, being more likely to be sexually assaulted and having a lack of trust in the police, are taken advantage of by being sold the very weapons that were once historically used against their race.11 TASER International’s final transformation came in 2017, when the company changed its name to Axon and began offering free body cameras for police. Clearly, the company aimed to distance its association with weapons and place emphasis on collecting law enforcement data.This shift in direction shows that although personal taser use can empower marginalized individuals by “taking back the power,” these weapons above all represent a history of aggression and abuse of power against people of color. Even their new role in personal self-defense can contribute to the oppression of women who are minorities, as companies have attempted to change the appeal of their products by marketing to audiences who are perceived as “weaker.”
As part of my research, I interviewed ten female undergraduate peers at NYU who own a taser, 80 percent of whom are women of color. The experiences of women of color are frequently the product of intersecting patterns of racism and sexism, and tend to be underrepresented within the discourses of both feminism and antiracism. Because of their intersectional identity as both women and of color within feminist and antiracist discourses that are shaped to respond to either one or the other, women of color are marginalized within both.12 For this reason, it’s important to acknowledge that while my research focuses primarily on women in urban areas, the racism embedded in the history of tasers and in violence against women indicates that taser use is a symptom of larger issues that apply more to women of color than anyone else.
It is no coincidence that taser use is much more normalized amongst females in urban settings than in other settings. As urban areas have the highest frequency and concentration of violent crime, there exists an aggression cycle within these areas which perpetuates fear and violence in both victims and perpetrators. While it may be fear-inducing, the frequency of crime in public areas normalizes the sight of aggressive acts and the sight of aggressive weapons. One outcome of this normalized violence is desensitization, the tendency to become used to and thus less influenced by a stimulus. As we see more violence over time in our daily routines, “we become habituated to it, such that subsequent exposures produce fewer negative emotional responses.”13 In the end, if we live among violence, we may begin to see violence as a given, a normal part of everyday life, and become accepting of it. Additionally, witnessing violence increases the cognitive accessibility of violence. When “we see violence, violence is then activated in memory and becomes ready to guide our subsequent thinking and behavior in more aggressive ways.”14 Weapons affect our perception of a threat and our decision-making process in a confrontation. The presence of a weapon reminds us that we may respond with violence. When weapons are around, “violence is highly cognitively accessible, and this accessibility increases the likelihood of responding to provocation with violence.”15 The aggression cycle can also be demonstrated by noting how women of color’s awareness of the violent use of tasers in police brutality can cause them to feel unsafe around police and motivate them to buy their own taser for self-protection instead. Therefore, witnessing or encountering violence tends to create more frequent aggressive thoughts and foster self-preservational tendencies in women through the aggression cycle. These self-preservational tendencies, coupled with the fact that women are traditionally less likely to use lethal force than men, mean that women in urban areas are more likely to use tasers because they are desensitized to violent crime, expect aggression, and therefore respond defensively with aggression.16
The fact that even non-violent women see their safety as their personal responsibility to be protected through non-lethal force in everyday life also points to an implicit critique of the state institutions that are in charge of ensuring the safety of residents. In my interviews of ten fellow female undergraduates at NYU who own tasers, two of my peers stated that time and place is a large factor in their sense of safety. One stated,“Rapes and attacks often occur in places where police aren’t around,”17 while another reasoned, “Since alerting a police officer takes time in a dangerous situation, a taser provides safety more effectively in quick, more dangerous situations.”18 Furthermore, every single subject interviewed stated to some degree that they do not feel safe with the police, especially since “The law in general is really awful at protecting women of color in these situations.”19 Citizen security is undermined whenever states fail to protect their population from crime and social violence, signaling a breakdown in the relationship between those governing and the governed.20 If public institutions fail to perform their function properly, then it’s up to citizens to take their safety into their own hands. Paradoxically, this is the argument that gun owners often use as their reasoning for their right to own and use lethal weapons—they see this as the way things should be, instead of a massive flaw in the system. As gun-owners’ view of government is generally more passionate and popularized than those of taser owners, their pro-gun arguments along the lines of self-protection are therefore reinforced in legislation. Under current U.S. law, gun use is less regulated than taser use.
Typically, the primary motives for a citizen to purchase and use a non-lethal weapon consist of a concern for personal safety combined with “religious or ethical compunctions about killing,” an emotional inability to kill even when doing so would be ethically proper, “worry about erroneously killing someone who turns out not to be an attacker,” reluctance to kill a particular attacker due to a personal relationship with them, and the fear that a lethal weapon might be misused.21 In my interviews of female taser owners at NYU, six subjects stated that their taser was given to them by family members or purchased as a “college essential” for safety, while three subjects described fear-inducing encounters they have had in which they realized they had no way to defend themselves as motivation to purchase a taser. Despite the respectable motives behind their use, many debates exist surrounding the nature of women’s self-defense. The most widespread public controversy is regarding the justification of the right to keep and bear arms in self-defense. The concept of self-defense is a metaphorical weapon that can be “used both by law-abiding citizens who are genuinely defending themselves and by criminals who are trying to cover their offensive attack.”22 In addition to the danger of criminals falsely claiming self-defense, the definition of self-defense itself is often subject to circumstantial debate.
Jurisdictions that allow self-defense “usually require that the harm avoided be significantly greater than the harm inflicted,” but the circumstances in which self-defense is applied are often not black and white.23 There is controversy about the boundaries of self-defense—about “how much of a threat will justify the use of deadly force and how reasonable the defendant’s belief in the threat must be.”24 Many people believe that self-defense is an undeniably aggressive act and that killing another human is unworthy of justification regardless of circumstances. For this reason, the use of non-lethal weapons in self-defense would seem to be the most viable way to pacify such debates. However, the legislative debate surrounding weapons of self-defense directly contradicts this argument: The legality of self-defense weapons is decided on a state-by-state basis, with some states such as Michigan, Massachusetts, and Hawaii banning non-lethal weapons such as tasers and stun guns but protecting the use of lethal weapons such as firearms. The reason for this is not because allowing tasers is more dangerous than allowing only firearms, as the labels “non-lethal” and “lethal” show. Instead, “it’s because firearms bans draw public attention and hostility in ways that stun gun bans do not.”25 There is no well-organized National Stun-Gun Association passionately fighting for citizens’ autonomy in self-protection. While “supporters of gun rights argued for protecting the right to defend oneself with a gun, no one was arguing for—or likely even thinking about—the right to defend oneself with nonlethal weapons.”26 Gun owners push the agenda that in a perfect system, ensuring one’s safety is the responsibility of the citizen and not the government or the justice system. This is in direct opposition to the feminist debate surrounding women’s self-defense, which argues that self-defense should not be preached by feminists because focusing on defending targets of sexual assault constitutes a form of victim blaming. Rather than insisting that women “use precious resources of time, money and energy to protect themselves against an unjust threat,” as gun owners do, “we should insist that men take responsibility for not posing that threat in the first place.”27Although the many lines of reasoning that attack tasers prove contradictory when compared, they all point to the same fact: Taser use, even in self defense, is still a statement and an act of aggression. This strengthens my argument, which is not a simple critique of tasers, but instead that self-defense is aggressive in nature, and therefore my critique is of a society that creates situations in which non-violent people must defend themselves, and yet restricts their weapon of choice more than it restricts lethal weapons, which are more likely to be carried by a violent person.28
The focus of my study on women in particular is intentional, as the self-defense tactics of men and women and the reasoning behind them differ greatly. In the United States, men are statistically more likely than women to carry a gun, to commit a violent crime, and to defend themselves against an assailant on the street.29 Men are taught that violence is inevitable and thus go on the offensive, assuming the role of the protector against “bad” people entering their homes or walking through the streets. Men are socialized to believe that guns are the best means of asserting dominance because they inflict the most pain, and aggressive men will go out of their way to own a gun, while non-aggressive men will often question the absence of violence in their lives and therefore seek it out. On the other hand, women are more likely than men to carry a taser.30 Women are taught that violence is inevitable and that they will all be victims of it at some point, and thus go on the defensive because they are taught to be fearfully hyper-aware of potential violence.31 The way that women are socialized means that even the least aggressive women are made personally responsible for protecting themselves against assault and therefore buy tasers because they inflict the least permanent damage while acting as a deterrent to attackers. While the experiences of these two genders with self-defense is very different, the main similarity between the two is that both genders are taught that violence is inevitable in our society.
Not only are men more likely to choose lethal weapons because they are taken more “seriously,” privileged men tend to view the non-lethal weapons that are so important to minorities and women as playthings. Take for example Jackass boys and their voluntary run through a taser-lined obstacle course. Research into the psychological reasons that men of this demographic and social status have to voluntarily seek out pain is to prove their masculinity in competition with other males.32 Masculinity has, historically, generally been “defined by aggressive and risk-taking behavior, emotional restrictiveness, heterosexuality, and successful competition,” and needs to be protected and defended through aggression and violence in order to avoid victimization from (mostly) male peers.33 Just as men engage with violence to compete with and defend themselves against other men and ignore the potential for women to be threats, men also engage in violence using the threat of lethal weapons and often ignore the potential for non-lethal weapons such as tasers to be threatening, instead viewing non-lethal weapons as toys. Men also voluntarily seek out pain to exert their privilege over others and show the fragility of societal rules. Many Jackass skits were done in public, broke federal laws, and cost thousands of dollars in damage to property, but the show barely got into any legal trouble in its many seasons.34 Finally, men also voluntarily seek out pain to subconsciously fill the absence of pain that their comfortable non-marginalized status creates. Pain and the tolerance of pain can often signal power and experience. As white straight cisgendered men occupy the optimal social status in society and are least likely to be victimized by citizens or police, pain is not a regular occurrence for them, and thus they turn the pain on themselves as a way to “engage in alternate ways of asserting their authority, and enjoy camaraderie as a result.”35,36 Men subconsciously seek out pain in order to gain power and experience over their unafflicted peers in different ways, one of which could be showing that they can withstand the pain of being tased.
On the other hand, women lack this tendency to communicate or compete with other women through the infliction or self-infliction of pain because it does not hold the value or rarity that it does for those in an optimal social status. Violence against women is treated almost as a certainty in society, which is why most of the systems in place to tackle this issue are not so much preventative as they are reactive, focusing on caring for victims instead of targeting the root causes of violence against women. I approach this topic by treating widespread violence against women in urban areas not as a given, but as a morbid issue that is the source of all of the symptomatic preventative methods in place such as self-defense with tasers. If there is any hope of eliminating the need for tasers altogether, preventive and interventive treatments must clearly define the outcomes expected from the intervention, should include an examination of the relationship of risk factors such as poverty, childhood victimization, and mental health to outcomes of sexual violence, should stress the need for state intervention through the implementation of new laws and judicial decision making, and ultimately must emphasize intervention to stop violence against women before it happens.
Although the taser has been made out and marketed to be a pink, sparkly, and somewhat light-hearted tool for women to accessorize with and use in defense when necessary, my research exposes the morbidity surrounding the invention, history of police usage, reasons behind its use, controversies, and misogynistic gender roles that are implicit in the popularized taser. This popularization makes sense because as we are socialized to believe that violence is inevitable, encountering violence makes us more prone to violence, and the taser, as shown, is an inherently violent object. The racist and sexist connotations ingrained in the taser’s evolution have often been overlooked because of the lack of academic research on not only the taser’s past in police abuse of power, but beyond that into its development as a tool for civilians. Additionally, the emotions and circumstances that motivate an individual to purchase and use a taser are beyond morbid, as they are rooted in a distrust in the federal institutions designed to protect us and a fear of female bodies being treated as they have been historically. The conversations I had with my peers showed me that women with tasers have them in order to break out of the weak, inferior mold that society has created for them and fight back against potential danger—in other words, to somehow escape the violent issues that are intrinsic to our culture by purchasing a tool which was created by that culture. Ultimately, I argue that the normalization of non-lethal methods of self-defense for women such as the taser stems from a widespread desensitization to violent crime against women in urban areas, a lack of faith in the institutions designed to protect them, and from a culture that invalidates women as potential threats and blames victims of these violent crimes for their failure to defend themselves. While tasers can ensure the safety of many of these women, they perpetuate the issues listed by creating a symptomatic temporary solution instead of forcing citizens and institutions to introspectively fix the systems and behaviors that create the need for such a solution.
- “Stun Gun Information,” J&L Self Defense Products.
- Donna Murch, “The Many Meanings of Watts: Black Power, ‘Wattstax,’ and the Carceral State,” OAH Magazine of History 26, no. 1 (2012): 37-40.
- “Where Did the Word ‘Taser’ Come from? A Century-Old Racist Science Fiction Novel,” American Name Society, December 13, 2015.
- Darius Rejali, “Stun City,” Torture and Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2007), 240-241.
- Rejali, “Stun City,” 245-246.
- “Amnesty International Urges Stricter Limits on Police Taser Use as U.S. Death Toll Reaches 500,” Amnesty International USA, press release, February 15, 2012.
- Elizabeth Seals, “Police Use of Tasers: The Truth is ‘Shocking,’” Golden Gate University Law Review 38, no. 1 (2007):116-117.
- Joseph De Avila, “Racial Disparity Found in Police Taser Use,” The Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2016.
- Laurel Wamsley, “Taser Changes Its Name To Axon And Offers Free Body Cameras For Police,” NPR, April 7, 2017.
- “Civilian Less Lethal and Self Defense Weapons Market,” Transparency Market Research, June 8, 2016.
- “Black Women, the Forgotten Survivors of Sexual Assault,” American Psychological Association
- Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241-1299.
- Rajv Jhangiani, Hammond Tarry, and Charles Stangor, “The Violence around Us: How the Social Situation Influences Aggression,” Principles of Social Psychology, 1st International Edition (BCcampus Open Publishing, 2014), 1.
- Jhangiani, Tarry, and Stangor. “The Violence around Us: How the Social Situation Influences Aggression,” 2.
- Jhangiani, Tarry, and Stangor. “The Violence around Us: How the Social Situation Influences Aggression,” 3.
- “A Deadly Myth: Women, Handguns, and Self Defense,” Violence Policy Center, 2001.
- Gabrielle Trinidad, NYU undergraduate, in SMS message with author, 5/8/2021.
- Leah Sarwani, NYU undergraduate, in SMS message with author, 5/8/2021.
- Shreya, NYU undergraduate, in SMS message with author, 5/8/2021.
- “Report on Citizen Security and Human Rights,” Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, December 31, 2009.
- Eugene Volokh, “Non-lethal Self-Defense, (Almost Entirely) Non-lethal Weapons, and the Rights to Keep and Bear Arms and Defend Life,” Stanford Law Review 62, No. 1. (December 2009): 207-208.
- Volokh, “Non-lethal Self-Defense,” 215.
- David Wasserman, “Justifying Self-Defense,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 16, no. 4 (1987): 357.
- Wasserman, “Justifying Self-Defense,” 357.
- Volokh, “Non-lethal Self-Defense, 210.
- Volokh, “Non-lethal Self-Defense, 211.
- Ann J. Cahill and Grayson Hunt, “Should Feminists Defend Self-Defense?” International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics 9, no. 2 (2016): 173.
- “The Relationship Between Firearm Prevalence and Violent Crime,” Gun Policy in America, RAND Corporation, March 2, 2018.
- Craig Rood, “Addressing Gun Violence by Reimagining Masculinity and Protection,” Gender Policy Report (University of Minnesota), September 22, 2020.
- “Civilian Less Lethal and Self Defense Weapons Market,” Transparency Market Research, June 8, 2016.
- Carol Runyan, Carri Casteel, Kathryn E. Moracco, and Tamera Coyne-Beasley, “US Women’s Choices of Strategies to Protect Themselves from Violence,” Journal of the International Society for Child and Adolescent Injury Prevention 13, no. 4 (2007): 270.
- Noah Bender, “Why Do Young Men Love Hurting Themselves? An Exploration of Masculinity, Pain, Humor, Privilege, and Jackass,” Emerson College Honors Program, December 2019, 19.
- Erin Mankowski, “Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention, and Policy,” American Psychological Association, 2013.
- Stephen Steve-O Glover and David Peisner, Professional Idiot: A Memoir (Hachette Books, 2012).
- Andrew R. Flores, Lynn Langton, Ilan H. Meyer, and Adam P. Romero, “Victimization Rates and Traits of Sexual and Gender Minorities in the United States: Results from the National Crime Victimization Survey, 2017,” Science Advances 6, no. 40 (September 30, 2020).
- Bender, “Why Do Young Men Love Hurting Themselves?”