The Magic Key

Erin Lynn Nau, PhD, LCSW
3 min readMar 11, 2021

There has been a story in the UK about a young woman, Sarah Everard, going missing during her walk home from a friend’s home around 9 pm. This story was brought to my attention from my little corner of feminist Twitter, where women are talking about the victim-blaming that is occurring in this case “Why was she walking alone at night?” I have been thinking a lot about women and girls and their safety lately.

I was reminded of my first self-defense class. During the spring semester of my senior year in college, one of my many PE credits. Every Wednesday night, my roommate and I would learn how to defend ourselves against predators. I remember a few things from that class. First, it was almost completely women. Secondly, they taught us that if someone attacks you, you are supposed to hook them in the eyes and knee them in the groin. Finally, they told us to keep our keys between our fingers to use as a weapon. I have not walked outside without a key between my fingers for more than 20 years. It makes wearing mittens impossible. At some point in time, most women are taught there is magic in keeping that key between their fingers. That key will keep you safe.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of things I know about being a woman that are dangerous. I also know that it is much worse for women of color.

  • Do not walk alone, especially at night. But if you do, keep your keys between your fingers so you can stab someone in the eye and then hook their eyeballs.
  • Don’t leave your drink unattended in a bar. Someone might put a drug in it and then assault you. One of my research participants, an eleven-year-old girl, told me that she knew when she was older, she would have to watch her drink if she goes out when she is older. She is eleven, a drink for her is a soda, but she worries that someday in the future, she cannot leave her to drink unattended so she won’t be attacked.
  • Don’t wear anything too revealing, or you will be “asking for it” plus, if you show your midriff or too much leg, it will distract the boys from their studies. Another one of my participants told me she was afraid of going to college because she heard about some college men chanting, “yes means yes. No means yes.” She was thirteen.
  • Also, don’t wear clothes that cover up too much if you work in the service industry and want tips. In my 20’s I was a bartender. The dress code was for the women to wear skirts. I wore a long skirt because that is what I was comfortable in. My boss told me I would get better tips if I wore shorter skirts. He was old enough to be my father.

As far as I can tell, men do not get these lessons. They can just be in the world. They do not tell their male friends to text when they get home to ensure their safety. I am not sure how asking for the text message ensures safety, but it helps to know that someone will know when you left and when you should be arriving home. Many of my friends, I don’t even have to tell anymore. They just text, and I do the same.

I know this is not a unique perspective, but how nice would the world be if instead of women taking self-defense classes in school to keep themselves safe while walking to their cars at night, boys took “women are not for you to attack or objectify” classes. I find myself talking to the girls in my life about how to be safe. I catch myself and think this is not right! It is not fair that they have to do something to be safe. But the alternative is if no one tells them how to be safe and something happens. I hate that we are still having conversations about the magic key, and I hate that Sarah Everard and so many others could not walk home safely.



Erin Lynn Nau, PhD, LCSW

Feminist. Social Worker. Researcher. I am a PhD candidate whose research focuses on self-worth and early adolescent girls.