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Thursday, 9 August 2012

Rapex and the enduring myth of the rape-prevention tool

The following is cross-posted from the Damsel in de Tech blog. Click here to see the original.


As someone who has worked with rape crisis centres and many survivors of all gender expressions, I absolutely understand the desire to have a simple solution to rape. Whether it be avoiding a particular alley, a particular kind of person, a particular article of clothing, or by using a particular device. A simple solution to rape is the holy grail to survivors.

This, I'm certain, is why the Rapex has been doing the rounds on Facebook and Tumblr (and everywhere else I don't frequent, probably).


In terms of rape-prevention, it seems to have everything we commonly look for: a heart-wrenching story, someone determined to make the world a better place, and a cheap, tangible, and easy-to-use product that we can see and share pictures of.

Now, I have no issue if people personally want to try this device and incorporate it into their arsenal of self-defense tools. But, I have serious concerns about this device that prevent me from being able to endorse it as the tool-to-end-all-rape that many have lauded it to be.

*CONTENT WARNING - RAPE: I'm going to graphically describe some rape scenarios to illustrate some of my concerns, so if you think that might prove triggering, here's a photo of a kitten. Please procede no further unless you're up for it*



1. Not all rape is vaginal. And if this item becomes common, it is more likely that rapes in the areas where these are employed will perpetrated in other orifices.

2. Not all rape is carried out using a penis. If this item becomes common, it won’t take long for perpetrators to figure out to use an object to check for this device or to use an object to generally inflict rape upon their victim. Rapists don't exist in another plane, away from the social media that we use - if a lot of potential survivors are finding out about this via Facebook, so are a lot of rapists.

3. Another concern is retaliation from the rapist. What started off as a rape may turn into a severe assault or murder if they’re caught in this device.

4. People tout this as a way to incapacitate rapists because an object that punctures the penis sounds scary and painful. However, I know a lot of men who have one or multiple piercings on their genitalia, and they were all done without sedation or any kind of numbing agent, and they were quite capable of getting themselves home on their own power afterwards. The small size of the barbs would indeed make this item shocking and unpleasant, but I highly doubt it would be incapacitating.

5. I know the designer/ manufacturer states this device will protect against STIs, HIV, pregnancy, etc, because it won’t draw blood, but how do they know? Have they run human trials? Some rape victims freeze, but some fight back, and as such it’s not unreasonable to worry that a struggle would cause this to draw blood that could infect the victim with an STI or HIV/AIDS.

6. Women would have to wear these at all times to use them as a safety measure. When it comes down to it, a lot of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim - a partner/ ex/ family member/ friend/ acquaintance, etc, which further complicates using such a device.

7. The problem with low reporting rates cannot be solved as simply as charging a man who goes into the ER with one of these attached to him. He could say that (and it’s plausible that) his partner consensually engaged with him without telling him she was wearing the device. If she’s one of the women who’s decided to wear it at all times ever, then it’s plausible she could have even forgotten she had it in. The problem with low reporting rates is that victims often aren’t believed or are blamed for the crimes committed against them. This device doesn’t deal with the societal issues as to why that happens.

8. In terms of this being marketed to South African women and therefore immune to criticisms from North American women, if we're talking about people being raped as a tool of war, then often that is gang rape and object rape. If the victim is being raped by a solider, then the chances of being killed in retaliation are exponentially high.

I also need to address the issue of the White Saviour Complex when bringing up women from "Third World Countries" whom this would apparently benefit. Yes, I understand that women in areas of conflict, such as the Congo, are at an excruciatingly high risk of rape. Anything that can mitigate their risks is important. But, in opinion, marketing a passive device like this that could put them at even greater risk of retalitory violence, is short-sighted and dangerous. If there were simple solutions, the women living in conflict would have come up with them. There are no simple solutions when dealing with rape as a weapon of war.

9. On a note about its functionality, I use a diva cup, which is a silicone cup used for menstruation that is shaped somewhat similarly to the Rapex, only inserted upside down. From using those, I have my doubts as to whether the Rapex would stay in place in order to latch onto a penis, as is being advertised. Unless the Rapex were long enough to anchor itself on the cervix, it could just get pushed out of the way. And if the penis or object is large enough it doesn't fit in the Rapex, the Rapex could wind up getting pushed into the victim's cervix and cause even more internal damage.

10. Not everyone has the same access to justice or the same relationship with the justice system. While it feels very gratifying to imagine exacting painful, bloody violence upon a rapist, there can be very damaging and long-term consequences for the survivor for harming her assailant, even in self-defense. This is especially a concern for people whom are already regularly marginalized by the justice system, such as persons of colour, queers, trans*folks, undocumented immigrants, sex workers, and persons with mental disabilities, to name a few.

This may seem counter-intuitive, like, "Why don't you want victims to fight back? Every victim wants the rape to end as soon as possible so how can you try to tell them not to fight?"

Frankly, not all victims react the same when they are being assaulted or after their assault. There is no right or wrong way to survive an assault because all one has to rely on in the moment is their instincts and ability to gauge threat/benefit to fighting back. Even if someone wanted to fight back, sometimes the body's natural reaction is to freeze.

Also, not all victims are abused and attacked by strangers or by people they know but whom they could conceivably physically hurt back without being inflicted with even more severe punishments. Take as an example the recent cases of Cece McDonald, and Marissa Alexander, two women of colour who were jailed for acting in self-defense. No, these were not rape cases, but the same denial of access to justice applies.

11. The Rapex doesn't actually stop rape. In order for the Rapex to be used as a weapon against the assailant, the victim has to be penetrated. Perhaps the duration of the rape of shortened, but this isn't a rape-prevention device in the traditional sense. Maybe its use will prevent future victims because of the damage and potential legal consequences meted out upon the rapist, but that's a pretty big but. More likely, in the future the rapist will use an object to check for the device or assault new victims using other orifices. Either way, the potential safety of future victims is a lot of responsibility to erroneously place on a victim whose first and only responsibility should be to their own safety and healing.

12. Aside from the practical use of the product, or how it may or may not be circumvented by rapists, devices like this and the Rape Drug Straw, are doing the exact same thing that all the other rape prevention strategies do - they take the onus off of rapists to not commit crimes and onto potential victims to juggle every rape prevention technique out there to stop their own rape. These tools can all provide some individual level of safety, and can prevent individuals from becoming victims. They cannot and do not stop rapists from working around these new tools to create new victims. If I use the rape drug straw, maybe I'll detect a drug that could have had serious and long-term effects on me. That's a good outcome. But that doesn't stop the rapist from trying to use those drugs on persons who don't have the straws or from trying to incapacitate me with alcohol or violence. This isn't a design flaw with the straw, it's a flaw in thinking that this will stop the net number of rapes.

And when we use these products and they fail, or if they're available and we don't use them and are assaulted, then there's another open opportunity for victim-blaming. If one victim uses this and another doesn't, then there's another open opportunity to pit "good" victims against "bad" victims. Even being skeptical of these items in the war against sexual violence is enough for people to question my "dedication" to ending rape, as opposed to having a practical understanding of the realities of rape and not letting Liam Neeson guide my self-defense measures.

All in all, I can see why someone would want to design such a “simple” solution, but because of the concerns I’ve mentioned and more, I absolutely cannot support this device being touted as a “rape prevention” measure.

The funny thing is, there are some very simple ways we can help reduce rape. We can not give rapists a social license to operate. We can not make rape jokes so that we make our culture safer for survivors and less amenable to rapists. We can believe people when they report. We can understand the many different forms rape takes, and hold abusers accountable for the crimes they've committed, rather than let them off because their rapes weren't rapey enough.

Let's hope those rape-prevention tips catch on more so we can really make a dent in the number of rapes.



Thanks for hanging in there for this tough topic. Here's a funny ermine.

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