What Every Woman Needs to Know About The iPhone’s New Wireless Earbuds

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Of all the things Apple announced yesterday, its wireless AirPods are quickly becoming the most talked about. AirPods are wireless headphones that turn on or off when they sense they’re actually in your ears, let you access Siri, and play music (of course). When they ship in October, they can be yours for the price of just $159.

Yes, it seems Apple has finally done away with headphone jacks and cumbersome wires to introduce us to the headphones of tomorrow (though for those of us who prefer to live in the past — or just lack the money to spring for AirPods — the iPhone 7 does come with a pair of wired AirPods that plug in through the Lightning port). Reaction to these new AirPods has been mixed. Many people have been quick to point out all the downfalls of this new device: they appear remarkably easy to lose, they could pose a potential choking hazard to small children, and, well, they look sort of silly.

But there’s one downside to the AirPods that, so far, has gone largely undiscussed: The impact that the loss of the visible white cords could have on women and other marginalized people who experience harassment on the street and use headphones much like a piece of armor, a layer of protection between us and the outside world when we’re navigating public space. That cord is a sign that we don’t want to be bothered. It sends the message that we don’t want to talk to you. And those wired earbuds drown out the unpleasantries that are often screamed at us when we’re just trying to walk to the train. (It’s much nicer to have Rihanna in our ears than lewd shouts about how nice our ass looks.)

Of course, visible headphones don’t deter men who seem to think that they’re entitled to the attention of women simply because they want it. We were recently reminded of this just last week when an essay about how to talk to women who are wearing headphones went viral. It was written by a man who considers himself a “dating and relationship expert” and included advice that noted that most men “give up too easily” when trying to talk to a woman who isn’t interested and is otherwise occupied at coffee shops and bars. Essentially, he advocated for textbook street harassment, which I’ve heard always lands men dates (insert eye-roll emoji here).

If this is what marginalized folks have to put up with when we’re out in public and our headphones are visible, imagine what it will be like when our headphones aren’t so easily seen. Ignoring unwanted advances has, for too many women, invited even more harassment and, yes, even violence. If this seems far-fetched, it’s not — women have been killed or violently assaulted by street harassers for such offenses as refusing dates, not wanting to give out their phone number, or asking a man to stop grinding on them. This risk is increased for women of color and trans women of color, in particular, who are already most at risk for physical violence on the streets.

To be clear, Apple isn’t responsible for the safety of women as we walk down the street. AirPods are by no means the only wireless earbuds on the market. In fact, Apple’s iteration is arguably bulkier, and therefore more obvious, than some of its competitors’ versions. But Apple is the trendsetter. With the release of the AirPods, it’s only a matter of time before wireless headphones become the norm. By sacrificing those identifiable white wires, women also unintentionally sacrifice a small measure of security, a modest and accessible tool in our catch-as-catch-can arsenal of tricks and hacks developed to protect our personal space from unwanted advances and harassment. I, for one, will be sorry to see them go.
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