Trigger warning: This article discusses rape and sexual assault.
The marketing potential for any technology that claims to stop women from being raped by men is huge. Think of five women you know and see regularly: friends, family members, colleagues or even someone you pass on the street on your way to the supermarket. Statistically, at least one of these women (20%) will have been sexually assaulted or raped in the years since they were 16. There is a 90% chance that the person who attacked them was someone they knew and not a stranger waiting in a bush ready to pounce. Yet only 1.7% of all rape cases reported to the police end with a conviction, many are thrown out due to a perceived lack of evidence.
In the United Kingdom alone, we have a female population of roughly 34 million. Do the maths. That’s around 6,800,000 women who have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. So, any technology that could help to protect them from a fate that, currently, is being treated as if it's almost inevitable, stands to make a lot of profit.
You can see why multiple innovation awards and funds are dedicated to finding something that works. The trouble is, many of the anti-rape products are built around the very same myths that prevent women from accessing justice: that sexual assault is, somehow, something they could have prevented. Indeed, some anti-rape products might even make us less safe, experts fear.
Criminology and sociology experts Professor Lesley McMillan and Professor Deborah White have undertaken one of the first critical studies into this burgeoning market, weighing up the pros and cons of each product against what makers claim they are able to do. The paper, called Innovating the Problem Away? A Critical Analysis of Anti-Rape Technology, looks at several different types of technology that can be worn on or in the body, accessed via a mobile phone app or both.
Only 1.7% of all rape cases reported to the police end without a conviction, many are thrown out due to a perceived lack of evidence.
Items that went under their magnifying glass include the RapeX, a female condom worn internally that shoots pins into an unwanted penis on penetration, an electric shock-administering anti-molestation jacket and Safe Shorts, which are made of material that can’t easily be removed. They also examined an array of consent apps, like We-Consent, which encourages couples to record a 25-second video consenting before they have sex and check-in apps, like bSafe, which connects users with friends and family to let them know when they arrive at destinations and trigger an alarm if they fail to.
bSafe also has a real time 'follow me' function that can track a user’s movements at street level. Meanwhile, HarassApp warns women about no-go zones in potentially risky areas, while the The Night Owl allows a woman to alert the host of a party, or other women nearby, if they are in a situation they perceive to be risky.
According to McMillan and White’s paper, there are more than 200 anti-rape apps available for download right now. “We see a lot of young people winning awards for innovation in this area, people are desperate to find something that is going to help,” study co-author Professor McMillan tells Refinery29.
“There are a lot of not-for-profit companies behind them, some commercial, and lots of students. Potentially, there could be quite a lot of money to be made from these that could be used at universities and colleges,” she adds.
For example, the mixed-gender team behind check-in app Circle won a White House competition in 2011, which was set up by then Vice President Joe Biden to look at technological innovations to prevent sexual assault. Meanwhile, a father-daughter team from Norway came up with bSafe after the daughter was raped by two boys as a teenager. And, the women-led team behind the Invi “self-defence” bracelet, which covers potential attackers in a distinctive scent to make them easy to trace, frequently team up with NGOs like Help A Child on sexual violence prevention programmes across the globe.
All of these initiatives appear to be well-intended. But none of them tackle the source of the problem; men who rape women. So why is this? One of the biggest reasons, Professor McMillan says, is that technology is socially shaped, and that the inventors hold biases (perhaps based on their own experience) about sexual assault that are then integrated into the design.
“A lot of the products are predicated on this notion that strangers will assault you, but we know that those instances make up a small percentage of rapes and sexual assaults,” McMillan continues. Because an overwhelming 90% of women who are sexually assaulted know their attacker, they are unlikely to be armed with a spiky condom or have checked in on a rape-prevention app when they are in company that they believe themselves to be safe in. On top of that, none of these innovations can tackle the nuances of coercion and manipulation that characterise long-term partner abuse.
“And then there are other problems,” Professor McMillan adds, “for example, with the shorts made from material you can’t get off. What if you get hit by a car, and then when an ambulance comes to treat you they can’t actually remove your clothing?”
Another issue is that many of these products rely on assumptions about how women react physically and mentally to the trauma of a sexual assault. We’re far more likely to freeze up than we are to think of connecting with an app on our phone which may or may not be charged or have access to the internet when we need it.
A lot of the products are predicated on this notion that strangers will assault you, but we know that those instances make up a small percentage of rapes and sexual assaults.
Professor Lesley McMillan
There is even the potential that such items could escalate a violent situation for women: a perpetrator who finds out that he is being filmed or has been shocked or hurt by a worn device is likely to be angered, which could put the person wearing it in greater danger.
Indeed, beyond the immediate danger posed by an attacker, many of these apps and devices incorporate GPS tracking and alerts are triggered when the user fails to 'check in' or arrive at certain destinations. Mass use of these apps could lead to a heightened surveillance of women’s movements and bodies – something intimately connected to stalking and ripe for misuse by coercive partners. It may also leave women more vulnerable to cyberstalking.
McMillan and White note that some of these products are even marketed to women, concerned parents and college students as 'empowering' every-day items to be taken with you everywhere you go.
“Marketing them as a fashion accessory is also encouraging people to normalise this as part of their everyday existence,” Prof McMillian says. “These everyday steps to stop women being violated aren’t targeting perpetrators, we’re not seeing these marketed to stop men raping. No-one is thinking of creating apps for men to stop them attacking women because it would be considered ludicrous – and rightly so.”
Dr Fiona Vera-Gray is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Durham Law School and the author behind 2018 book The Right Amount of Panic: How Women Trade Freedom for Safety in Public.
“[These products] undermine just how good women actually are at preventing rape,” she tells Refinery29 in no uncertain terms. “Day-to-day, we’re doing things to keep ourselves safe. Selling women another set of products undermines women’s work, and it doesn’t do anything to change the situation, which is endemic. Instead, it actualises and individualises the problem, rather than acknowledge the fact it is a social problem. It really impinges on women’s freedom to be in public space.”
“The other thing I take issue with is that some of these are being marketed as empowering to women,” she continues. “These products need to be used constantly. If you’re having to use them all the time, the message that is sent is that women are not safe. That means half the population are walking around thinking that the other half of the population wants to do them harm. That is not empowering.”
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But, here we are. It’s 2020 and Dame Vera Baird, the Victims' Commissioner, has publicly warned that rape convictions are so low that it has effectively been decriminalised in Britain. Some of the anti-rape apps make a bold claim - that they can be used to gather evidence for potential court cases. While there is little to no precedent set for use of such evidence, Professor McMillan has 'grave doubts' as to how it would help secure a conviction.
[These products] undermine just how good women actually are at preventing rape. Day-to-day, we’re doing things to keep ourselves safe. Selling women another set of products undermines women’s work, and it doesn’t do anything to change the situation, which is endemic.
Dr Fiona Vera-Gray
“We know that women’s sexuality is used against them in court,” she says. “If I have an app that records where I am and what I’m doing, then it may be regarded as such by other people in the criminal justice system and used to discredit me. Even if it would be considered admissible in my particular incident.”
However, criminal defence lawyer Georgia Lassoff, who has defended in cases of sexual assault, as well as undertaking pro-bono work with the Centre for Women’s Justice, thinks any video evidence of an attack could be potentially useful in court cases – and admissible.
“Any time you can record what is happening to you, that’s a good idea,” she tells Refinery29. “Think about the Black Lives Matter protesters and their videos of police violence.
“If CCTV is admissible, body cam recordings from the police are admissible, then so would this. But we’d have to look at cases where the victim would be in a safe enough position to start recording” she adds before noting that consent in and of itself is complex.
“If the recordings were used anywhere but criminal proceedings, it would be distributing sexual images without their consent, which is a crime. And it could be charged under the Malicious Communications Act, like revenge porn.”
And as for the consent apps, the makers fail to understand the nuanced way consent works: it can be withdrawn at any time.
“It presupposes against that lack of consent has to be someone screaming no and fighting, too, which is not the law, but it gives the defence another way to introduce that rape myth,” Lassoff continues.
“If we add more of these kind of things into the mix, it gets us further away from a place where a witness’s word is good. If it is credible, consistent and reliable, it should be as good evidence as anything else.”
So, well-intentioned as anti-rape products might be, they’re nowhere close to being able to protect women from attackers, let alone tackle our society’s cultural problem with rape and believing women. The technology many of these products call on might be new, but the concept behind them is centuries old: they are the modern day chastity belts and rape alarms that put the onus of ending sexual violence squarely on women and ignore the broader, root causes of the issue: gender inequality and patriarchy.
“Ultimately it is profiting from women’s fear of violence – it is selling a product,” Dr Vera-Gray concludes. “Even if the designers have good intentions, again it's women being asked to habitually assess and be held accountable for their own safety. Actually, we should be actively making sure these profits go to charities and into funding broader prevention programmes, rather than trying to sell some band aid of a solution.”
Professor McMillan agrees and concludes the only real way to tackle the social issue of violence against women is “widespread and wholesale change” which focusses “on fundamental inequality in relation to gender where it is both the cause and consequence” of sexual violence.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.