Ringing the alarm against rape: is it any good?

By Sahita Pierre-Antoine, YWCA of Haiti

 On May 9, 2016, the New York Times published a short article on India’s idea of incorporating panic buttons and GPS to all phones as a way to manage and respond to sexual attacks. In a statement, a government official declared that “in order to provide safety to women in distress situation, it is important to enable them to send out distress signal to a family member or the police authorities so that they can be rescued”.

This article reminded me of several other anti-rape technologies that have been developed over the years.

The Rape-aXe condom made news around the World Cup in South Africa in 2010: the condom, to be worn in the vagina, comprised of spikes within its inner lining that would cause pain and damages to the attacker’s penis. In 2014, media discussed an innovative nail polish that could detect a certain level of “date rape drugs” (GHB, rohypnol, etc.) in a person’s drink by changing color once the polished finger had been dipped in the cup. A quick search for the words “anti-rape device” in your browser highlights multiple items that have been modified to counter sexual assaults: from cups that change colors upon contact with certain drugs to phone apps to clip-on alarms to electro-shock lingerie and irremovable underwear, each one more innovative than the last.

 

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© Wikipedia The original rape alarm? 

I remember receiving a flat brightly colored whistle imprinted with the phone number to the campus police my first weekend at university. I lost it before the end of the first semester, but I had managed to memorize the phone number.

However, these items are not without controversy. First, they inadvertently place the responsibility of the crime on the victim and secondly, they do not take into account the context and consequences of the actual assault. These products are aimed primarily towards women (cis-women, in general) – discounting the experiences that men, trans men and trans women face when it comes to sexual assault – and are marketed to make women feel “empowered” to “take charge” against their aggressors. The devices wearers would feel in control, capable of ending or delaying the assault and immediately contacting authorities. This is a tremendous amount of responsibility to bear and only perpetuates the adages of rape culture that we already know: “Don’t walk alone at night” turns into “Don’t forget to wear your nail polish/clip on alarm/phone with panic button/spiky condom when you go out at night.” I can almost hear the echoing “well, why didn’t you use [insert device] when it’s so readily available?!?” during police and trial interviews…

Furthermore, these technologies perpetuate the stereotype of “stranger danger” when we know that most of the time aggressors have some familiarity with their victim. An alarm or a phone might come in handy if you are accosted in the streets, but what happens when the violence occurs in the home? When the abuser has taken away their victim’s phone in order to isolate them? In certain contexts, these devices could even increase the level of violence, enraging the aggressor after they have been hurt or if they notice the victim trying to alert authorities. Finally, these devices don’t take into consideration the obstacles in reporting and denouncing such attacks. If the law enforcement and other judicial authorities don’t take sexual assault seriously or if they don’t have the resources to intervene immediately, what good is sounding an alarm when there is no one there to answer?

I understand the public interest in developing these sorts of “anti-rape” devices. They are a quick response to an alarming and frightening problem, and controversy and failings aside, they do keep the spark alive on the much needed conversations around sexual assaults. However, these conversations need to focus on the right topics…Instead of putting the responsibility on the victim by creating items that “she” would wear or use, we should be talking about the root causes of rape culture, about gender inequality and how it creates an environment for sexual assaults, and how to ensure that the law enforcement and judicial systems are adequately informed and resourced to address and reduce the cases of gender-based violence.

To repeat the slogans of many anti-GBV rallies, it’s not about teaching “Don’t get raped” but rather “Don’t rape.”  

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