Trigger warning: Mentions of rape, sexual assault and emotional abuse
In October 2021, a tweet by Sky News that announced ‘The Great Debate’ on women’s safety started with a question, ‘Do you clutch at your keys while walking home at night?’. Many women replied to the tweet that the defensive posture was now a default part of their life. At the outset, the question seems innocent, sensible even.
But upon pondering, the idea of preventive technology for rape as it exists currently, reveals its biases. A quick look into its foundational principle will help us see the bias in the way both the question and the technology posits the onus on women when it comes to their safety from sexual assault.
Product designs and technological interventions have always been situated around the survivor’s body, with little to no intention of directing them towards the perpetrator. Beginning from the chastity belt, anchored on the patriarchal values assigned to virginity and chastity, preventive devices for sexual assault were always carried in person by the most probable targets, particularly women.
The commodification of women’s protection is unmissable in the technologising of rape prevention. The hyper-normalisation of the fear of sexual assault is, in reality, inextricably linked to gendered lifestyle consumption. The upsurge in self-defense classes both online and offline, as well as the umpteen variations of pepper spray carriers, are examples of this consumerist approach to women’s safety.
The co-founder of the company that launched The Athena Pendant, a rape prevention accessory remarked, “It is a stylish module that can be worn as a necklace, clipped to a bag, attached to a key fob, or any other location that suits the wearer’s lifestyle . . . the ultimate accessory for the everyday woman”. This routinisation of such devices and their usability goes on to normalise the culture of rape, in turn, making the securitising culture for women a sham. Capitalist biases aside, the notion of science being objective and value-neutral is tested through innovations in rape prevention devices.
Technology is socially shaped as sociologist Judy Wajcman establishes through her book, Technofeminism. Many of the suggested or available anti-rape technology represent and replicate particular depictions of sexual assault, which mirror several widely held, gendered rape myths.
This is worrisome in terms of its potential effectiveness at the individual level, as well as the legitimisation of false notions regarding sexual violence. By placing the responsibility on women and other potential targets to remain safe from rape, there is a subtle reinforcement of the idea that rape somehow becomes the survivor’s/victim’s fault.
Many of the clothing technologies that came up in this domain, in case of malfunction, can potentially have a severe impact on the women themselves. For instance, the underwear that emits electricity harbours a chance that the woman will have to choose between getting electrocuted or getting assaulted. In addition, such clothes can be uncomfortable or restricting for women.
Many corporeal devices and their associated rhetorics (e.g., anti-rape underwear, sophisticated locking system buckles) promote the notion of sexual assault as vaginal penetration, implying that a woman is protected as long as an assailant cannot remove her bottoms. Anti-rape products can be exclusive, thus, not only due to economic reasons but also due to their definition of who needs protection and from what.
Another oversight in such an approach is the assumption that such accessories and clothing would be used by women everywhere. With sexual assaults happening in one’s own house, the underlying notion of ‘stranger danger’ in these devices might be lacking in reality. The increased surveillance that preventive rape apps subject women to, also has serious implications on privacy and ironically, their safety.
There is greater surveillance on women, particularly in light of GPS communication technology that allows many individuals to virtually track a woman’s location at all times. For instance, the live GPS trail in apps like bSafe gives such access. Additionally, such apps also work on the assumption that the woman will be in a situation to access the phone in case of the potential danger of sexual assault.
A study by Rena Bivens and Amy Adele Hasinoff on such apps shows that the experiences of actual sexual assaults are not included in the design features of these apps. Their major features “do not address the forms of coercion that known perpetrators typically use, including emotional manipulation, abusing a power relationship, or targeting intoxicated victims.”
Rape prevention technologies highlight potentially unsafe places, drive women to police their own movements, and define how they connect with public spaces in regularised ways, in addition to determining how they should dress and decorate and what they should carry. Most rape prevention wearables are also trans-exclusive.
Apart from the fact that many women do not have the option of avoiding specific neighborhoods (they may live or work there), these technologies assist to impose greater societal control over women’s daily lives, increasing their vulnerability. The technology that is supposed to keep women safe, then, becomes a tool to create a self-disciplined feminine subject.
The only measures that are not directed toward the victim involve bystander interventions and their technological supplements, even if they are not as developed as they should be. The narrative is still focused on places that women/potential victims of sexual assault visit that can be risky or the risky substances that they may consume (hence innovations that detect date rape drugs), and not on men and their violent beahviours.
The talk is still centered around how women can overcome physical force, not on educating the perpetrators on the idea of consent or assimilating interventions to nab them. Such technology is also devoid of measures to prevent assaults that occur through emotional manipulation and not bodily coercion.
The existence of such rape prevention devices with all their technological biases is a help, no doubt. However, they only do the job of treating a stab wound by putting a band-aid on it. They might help some, but they do not address the underlying causes of rape. This self-help structure of rape prevention does not absolve the society of the larger need to create systems and measures that prevent rape by focusing on the attitude of the society as a whole.
If we focus only on rape prevention technology that works on the responsibility of women and other potential targets, it will soon become another arena for victim-blaming. Constant awareness and education on the importance of consent and abhorrence towards the attitude that portrays rape as a power rush are imperative. If science and technology want to intervene, such efforts must address systemic gender violence and how perpetrators can be instilled with a fear of consequence.
Featured Illustration: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism In India