Women under Attack Seek a New Detente

Article excerpt

FOR the past year a small, cylindrical object labeled "Riot Control Agent" has occupied a forgotten corner of a file drawer in my office. Sheathed in a blue vinyl case and attached to a key ring, the lipstick-size spray canister contains tear gas. It is designed to give me "practical, positive protection" in the event of danger.

This "chemical defense weapon" arrived as a gift from a family friend, a man in his 80s who has obviously read his share of stories about crimes against women. "Lock your car doors," he says solemnly, "and carry this with you."

I am not the only woman in the newsroom with a key-ring-size supply of tear gas. A young colleague received a nearly identical gadget when she was a college freshman. Concerned about reports of campus rapes, her father tucked the spray into her Christmas stocking. But she too keeps it in a drawer, as aware as I am that these mini-weapons offer little more than the illusion of safety.

Yet self-protection has been on the minds of many women this summer as rape has become the subject of daily front-page headlines. From the Kennedy compound in Palm Beach to St. John's University in New York, where three young men were acquitted of sexual assault, and from the farmhouse in New Hampshire where a 76-year-old grandmother was attacked to the boarding school in Kenya where 71 teenage girls were reportedly raped, the stories are creating a climate of fear. They raise a legitimate question: How do women protect themselves?

As if to offer an answer, however unsatisfactory, a spate of summer movies is celebrating a new breed of heroine - strong, aggressive, and above all, armed. In "Thelma & Louise," Louise kills a would-be rapist with a single bullet. In "V.I. Warshawski," a female private eye brandishes not only a gun but a nutcracker. …