Technologising Rape and Sexual Assault: Can we really innovate the problem away?


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This blog post by Lesley McMillan (Glasgow Caledonian University) and Deborah White (Trent University, Ontario) is part of our series for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.


Sexual violence against women and girls remains a major social problem with as many as one in three (35%) women worldwide experiencing either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Despite major policy and law reforms, as well as initiatives such as those focussed on educational and self-defence programmes, states worldwide have been largely ineffective at tackling the prevalence of rape and sexual assault. In the context of this inefficacy, along with the widespread availability of social media platforms, we have started to witness the emergence of new technologies targeted at women for the purpose of preventing rape.

Struck by the increasing number and types of technologies – from anti-rape bras and tampons, to mobile phone apps to communicate distress or a concerning situation – we decided to research this phenomenon in greater depth. Over a period of more than two years, we used ‘Google alerts’ and ‘Google Scholar alerts’ to identify new and proposed anti-rape devices. During this time we were startled by the nature of the technologies being devised, and whilst not all are currently available for purchase – some are prototypes and others have been funded and manufactured but are not yet widely available – these devices, based largely on the commodification of women’s safety, seem to represent a significant, and concerning, growth area.

In the course of our research[i], we categorised the various, and in some instances, farcical, technologies as those designed for the physical protection of a woman’s body, those intended for communication with others, and those that combine the two.  In terms of bodily devices, although too numerous to list here, examples include the Personal Space Dress that detects when someone is too close and uses special motors to expand its size to protect the wearer’s personal space; anti-rape underwear that can only be removed by the woman; colour-changing anti-rape nail polish that detects date rape drugs; the Rape-Axe condom worn internally by women and equipped with jagged teeth intended to dig into a rapist’s penis, affixing itself and requiring medical attention to be removed; and, the Anti-molestation jacket that, at the touch of a button, discharges 110 volts of electricity into anyone who is making unwanted advances.

For those communications-based anti-rape technologies, which are primarily intended for mobile phones, we see examples such as the “We Consent” suite of apps, where those considering engaging in sexual activity say their name, their partner’s name and an explicit ‘yes’ to sex. The app then records the statements, adds a time stamp and geo-code, encrypts the footage, and stores it off line. More common in this category is a range of apps that alert family, friends or the police if a woman feels she is in a situation that may be dangerous.  For instance, the Circle of 6 app uses text messaging and GPS to let a woman notify up to six contacts of her whereabouts if she feels unsafe. Apps such as bSafe allow others to track an individual’s journey in real time using GPS to ‘virtually’ walk her home. It also includes an SOS feature, and begins video recording if the alarm is deployed to collect evidence of a possible crime.

9 Circle of 6 App

Some anti-rape technologies combine bodily and communications features.  For example, the Personal Guardian, designed to be attached to a bra strap or belt, is activated when two buttons are pressed simultaneously. The device connects to a woman’s smartphone which contacts a monitoring station where staff listen for screams or signs of a struggle, using GPS to identify location, contact police or relatives as necessary. Other wearables include the Athena Pendant, the Guardian Angel and the Revolar Instinct. The latter, marketed as a ‘fashionable device’ with a step counter, is designed to prevent sexual assaults by sending out help alerts and includes a ‘ring me’ feature which allows users to ring their own phone and excuse themselves from uncomfortable situations, or “bad dates”.  A more recent addition, the Intrepid, is a wearable bra sticker that can allegedly detect forcible grabbing or touch upon which it sends a distress signal to the user’s family and friends using Bluetooth and a mobile phone.

Once we had identified these technologies we examined more closely the nature of the claims made about their assumed role in the prevention of sexual assault. Whilst some developers and promoters seemed aware that their products were just one potential solution to a much more complex problem, overwhelmingly the language characterising these devices was about their ability to end violence against women. Despite grand promises, we argue that there are a number of problems with these technologies.

Firstly, there is potential for product failure and unintended consequences. For example, for the communications tools to be effective, a woman must be holding her telephone, must have it charged, must be in range of a signal, and must be able to engage the app. For those technologies designed to protect the body, many have the capacity to injure the wearer (e.g. sharp devices worn internally, electric voltage clothing, anti-rape pants that may not be able to be removed should medical attention be required).  It is also likely that in a time of stress when someone may be under attack, they may not be able to deploy two buttons at once or find a device on their bra.  There is also the possibility of an assailant being further angered by a woman’s attempt to use such devices, particularly if he is injured by one, for which there could be serious repercussions.  Additionally, and worryingly, these technologies could become the tool of the coercive controller, as they offer potential for the increased surveillance of women. Devices that offer remote monitoring of someone’s location or a ‘follow me’ or ‘I’m here’ feature, for instance, could allow stalkers or abusers to identify locations as well as regular routines. Women could also be coerced or forced to remove the anti-rape underwear, or to give consent to the “We Consent” app.

Our second concern is the misplaced responsibilisation for sexual violence. In essence, these technologies place responsibility on everyone except perpetrators.  Foremost, they focus on women taking routine measures for their own sexual assault prevention, and even in some cases for collecting their own evidence for the criminal justice system. In many ways this is nothing new, women have always been encouraged to consider where they walk, what they wear, how much they drink, but this responsibilisation is now enhanced by having to wear or carry new devices to prevent being sexually assaulted. Women are frequently blamed for their victimisation[ii] and this could become more intense if questioned as to why they were not using a safety device, why they had not informed someone of their whereabouts using an app, or collected evidence of the assault. Not only do these devices responsibilise women, they also responsibilise friends, family and bystanders to prevent or intervene in sexual assaults.

Our third issue concerns what we see as the misrepresentation of rape and sexual assault embodied in these technologies.  Many of these devices feed into the common, and erroneous, assumption of ‘stranger danger’ – the myth that rapists primarily jump out of bushes late at night[iii].  We know this type of sexual assault is very rare, and most women are raped by someone known to them, including partners, relatives, friends and colleagues[iv].  Those technologies based on the body, such as the anti-rape pants, reinforce the notion of rape as vaginal penetration, suggesting that if an attacker cannot remove a woman’s pants then she is safe. In reality rape takes many forms[v] including, for example, forced oral penetration, for which anti-rape pants would not offer much protection.  There is also a heavy focus in the prevention discourse about drug-facilitated rape, with drugs such as Rohypnol and GHB used to justify technologies such as anti-rape nail varnish, however studies confirm only a very small number of rapes involve the covert use of such drugs[vi]. In the most part, alcohol is the rapist’s drug of choice[vii].

The final part of our analysis centres on the fear-mongering and marketing surrounding these products. The expanded use of these technologies has the potential to normalise sexual assault; the assumption that ritualistically putting on prevention jewellery or clothing, or using an app to track your whereabouts, suggest that a woman’s daily activities should incorporate efforts to prevent sexual violence. This naturalising of constant threat and vigilance is largely tied to the market. Whilst there are ‘social impact’ or ‘moral entrepreneurs’, often with good intentions, behind the development of these products, and some are non-profit organizations that put a portion of proceeds towards education programmes, many are sold for profit through Amazon, and some, like Guardian Angel, include monthly subscription fees. Tying rape prevention to the market is highly problematic, not least because even if they were shown to be effective at rape prevention, which we doubt, many women could not afford these devices or may not own mobile phones. Rape prevention effectively becomes the privilege of the wealthy.

These devices do not meet the discursive claims of their proponents in terms of solving sexual violence. Moreover, they are largely depoliticised and decontextualized, and are situated within, and highly compatible with, neo-liberal culture and capitalism.  In essence they further privatise and individualise the problem of sexual violence taking the polar opposite approach to global initiatives such as the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. These products treat sexual violence as an individualised crime – and just as individualised efforts such as self-defence training for women have not eradicated sexual assault – selling women bodily and communication technologies to incorporate in their daily lives will not ultimately end the historic pattern of pervasive sexual violence.


Biographies

Lesley McMillan is Professor of Criminology and Sociology at Glasgow Caledonian University.  She is Associate Director of the Scottish Institute for Policing Research and academic lead for public protection research.  Her research focusses primarily on sexual violence, with a particular interest in statutory and institutional responses including criminal justice, policing, and medico-legal intervention.

Deborah White is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Her research focuses on the institutional responses to sexual violence, particularly medico-legal interventions and the role and nature of forensic evidence and experts in criminal justice systems.

 

 

 

[i] White, D. & McMillan, L. (2017) Innovating the Problem Away? Exploring the Possibilities and Perils of Technologizing Sexual Assault Prevention, STS (In)Sensibilities, Annual Meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S), Boston, Massachusetts, 30th August – 2nd September

[ii] McMillan, L. & White, D. (2015) Silly Girls’ And ‘Nice Young Lads’: Vilification And Vindication In The Perceptions Of Medico-Legal Practitioners In Rape Cases, Feminist Criminology, 10:279-298

[iii] Du Mont, J. & Parnis, D. (1999).  “Judging women: The pernicious effects of rape mythology”.  Canadian Woman Studies, 19(1 & 2), 102-109

[iv] McMillan, L. (2013) Sexual victimisation: Disclosure, Responses and Impact, in Lombard, N. &  McMillan, L. eds. Violence Against Women: Current Theory and Practice for Working with Domestic Abuse, Sexual Violence and Exploitation, Research Highlights in Social Work Series, Jessica Kingsley

[v] White, D. & Rees, G. (2014). “Self-defense or undermining the self:  Exploring the possibilities and limitations of an anti-rape technology”.  Violence Against Women, 20(3), 360-368.

[vi] Krebs, C.P., Lindquist, C.H., Warner, T.D., Fisher, B.S. & Martin, S.L. The Campus Sexaul Assault (CSA) Study Final Report, NIJ Grant No. 2004-WG-BX-0010, Washington: National Institute of Justice

[vii] Horvath, M and Brown, J., (2007) ‘Alcohol as Drug of Choice; is Drug-assisted Rape a

Misnomer?’, Psychology, Crime and Law, 13(5): 417-429.

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