Photo: Richard Potts, CC BY 2.0
Hey lovely readers! Trigger warnings for discussions of sexual assault in the following piece. If that is (understandably) not your bag, please rejoin me next week, where I will hopefully not be talking about it again.
Few things get more media attention, for less payoff, then anti-rape devices. They’re the tchotchkes, clothing items, and gadgets that are supposedly going to help (usually women) avoid rape. And they always make me think of a certain song. There’s a section of Bo Burnham’s “Love Is” that pretty accurately defines the nexus of sexual assault prevention, good intentions, and capitalism:
And love is being the owner of the company that makes rape whistles,
And even though you started the company with good intentions trying to reduce the rate of rape,
Now you don’t want to reduce it at all ‘cause if the rape rate declines, you’ll see an equal decline in whistle sales.
Without rapists, who’s gonna buy your whistles?
Burnham hits upon the problem that is at the core of every “rape prevention” device on the market. If the problem you’re trying to fix is actually fixed, then you suddenly find yourself out of a job. Understanding that these companies seem to be trying to work themselves into obsolescence makes you take a look at all of their breathless PR with a little bit more skepticism. And according to Rae Paoletta at Gizmodo, we need to look at them with a whole lot more skepticism.
Paoletta examined a handful of the most high-profile supposed anti-rape devices from the last few years and found… mostly a whole lotta nothing. Whether it is underwear with anti-pull and anti-cut technology at the waist and leg holes that you have to use a “clock position” combination in order to get off (I would almost instantly need to use the bathroom very, very badly and forget my stupid combination), cups and nail polish that are supposed to change color in the presence of date rape drugs, a ring that sends a signal to your friends and would-be vigilantes that you are in trouble, or stickers that sends a message to your friends if you don’t seem to be consenting to clothing being taken off, all of the devices generated a lot of buzz at the time they were announced, and in the intervening years… have continued to mostly not exist. Most of the devices made bank on Kickstarter or other crowdfunding and investment sources, and most seem to be either shutting down shop, or making excuses for why things are delayed.
In the case of the ring and the pull-tight underwear, there isn’t a clear explanation for what’s gone wrong. The underwear company AR Wear (for anti-rape. Get it?) hasn’t posted an update since March of 2016, and won’t respond to comments. The ring, Nimb (which, by the way, costs almost $250 plus a $155 per-year monitoring fee) is apparently facing production problems in China. And as for the color changing glasses and nail polish? Well… those will probably never happen. Because science. It’s incredibly difficult for a simple product to detect the specific chemical components for a date rape drug when it is mixed with a variety of other ingredients, say in a mixed drink. And it’s even harder to make a product that can test for that successfully in non-opportune testing situations, like say, hurriedly at a bar where you can barely see and you’re trying to rush before your date comes back from the bathroom.
But the deeper problem Paoletta points out is that all of these products seem to prop up a dangerous underlying notion: that it is women’s responsibilities to prevent themselves from being raped, and not the responsibility of rapists to not rape.
The idea of “prevention” in these terms is the cause of debate amongst parents, teachers, feminists, sexual assault prevention advocates, and media figures of all stripes. On the one side of the argument: no one is responsible for their own sexual assault. A woman should be able to walk down the street naked and blitzed drunk and not get sexually assaulted. On the other side of the argument: the world is shitty, and it is full of shitty people, and women face a very high chance of being sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Even if in an ideal world they shouldn’t have to watch their drinks, constantly check in with friends, etc., shouldn’t we teach them to be as safe as possible in the current social conditions?
And then I come in. Because of course no woman is responsible for her own assault. Yes, the world is a shitty place, and we occasionally have to do things we shouldn’t have to do if it makes us feel safer (and I freaking hate it. I cannot tell you how often I have a pang of fear in my stomach walking down a dark street or how warily I eye a bartender when they are pouring my drink. And I hate it. Every time). But this type of prevention is not what we should be focusing on. Making useless gadgets that repeat “stranger danger” misconceptions and that feed into ideas that emphasize the “woman vs. world” notion of sexual assault in which a woman has to guard herself constantly is not helpful. It can, in fact, lead to a lot of messed up results. What happens if a woman buys that assault-proof underwear but is forced to give oral sex? Are we going to say she wasn’t prepared enough? Are we going to invent assault-proof mouth guards? And what if a woman quote unquote “does everything right” and is still sexually assaulted? How will she feel if she has worked so hard to keep herself safe and, in the eyes of cultural expectations, has “failed”? No thank you.
Commenter Simia Dei puts things quite well: “Here’s an anti-rape gadget that I think would work pretty well: robust educational curricula regarding consent and sexual autonomy.” Damn right. What Simia Dei is suggesting is known in advocacy circles and public health circles as primary prevention: doing something to stop a problem from happening, rather than addressing the consequences of the problem. Instead of asking women to shell out $400 so that they can “easily” call for help if they are being assaulted, we should increase public education regarding sex, consent, autonomy, and boundaries, and simultaneously change cultural understanding of sex, consent, and assault so that would-be assailants understand consent, are less likely to seek power and control via sex, and don’t feel entitled to sex. While not 100% foolproof, this is the “don’t rape people” side of prevention, rather than the victim-blaming “don’t get raped.”
A second, also non-victim-blamey solution is to increase what is called bystander intervention. This is the “if you see something, say something” version of prevention, where basically everyone is asked to keep a better eye on one another, and to intervene in the safest method possible if they see something that may be leading up to sexual assault. Again, this isn’t 100% foolproof, but it is still a better option than asking a woman to put on color-changing nail polish and stir her drink with her pinkie.
Paoletta sums up the state of affairs:
Ultimately, no one but sexual assault survivors can choose what helps to make them feel safe. If carrying mace or using a safety app feels like an integral part of their armor, so be it. But the tech industry should be wary of presenting sexual assault as a software glitch that can be “fixed” with crowdfunded vaporware that is unlikely to make it to the market.
I don’t get to tell anyone what will make them feel safe. But I do get to tell people what will make our society safer as a whole. And anti-rape devices, whether well-intentioned, greedy, or both, are not going to make the world substantially safer for women.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not repeating over and over that “don’t rape” is the lesson, rather than “don’t get raped,” she studies gender in popular culture.
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