But Look What She Was Wearing! (The problem with anti-rape underwear.)

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Perhaps you’ve heard: a company called AR Wear (anti-rape wear) is crowdfunding to release a line of underwear, running shorts, and “traveling pants,” designed to “frustrate an attack” and prevent rape. It’s structurally reinforced underwear with a combination lock that only you (and therefore not a rapist) can take off.

The motto is “Comfort & Protection that can be worn;” the tagline is “wearable protection for when things go wrong;” and the campaign has raised $43,600 of the $50,000 goal to date. Last week, Fox NY reporter Linda Schmidt stopped by to ask me, on behalf of Stop Street Harassment, what I think of the idea.

New York News

Later in the week, Voice of Russia radio asked me to call in and comment on the same.

The internet has had quite a reaction to the (not new) idea of anti-rape underwear. On the one hand, many people initially see the product as a good idea. Note the impressive amount they have raised, and the woman-on-the-street interviews in Schmidt’s story. On the other hand, everyone from Business Insider to PandoDaily to the Washington Post, not to mention, reliably, Think Progress and Feministing, have published criticisms of the product and its marketing.

Interestingly, a critical article also appeared on Slate – where editors seem keen to publish both ‘sides’ of the issue. Amanda Hess’ article calling AR Wear the “comfortable, elegant chastity belt for the modern rape victim” and slamming the product as one more piece of rape culture runs just weeks after Emily Yoffe editorialized that society doesn’t do enough to tell women how it’s our responsibility to stay safe.

I think Thing Progress sums it up best. Their article includes a list of what the company, AR Wear, “gets wrong about rape”:

1. Rape isn’t an accident.

2. Rape doesn’t typically occur among strangers whom women encounter at clubs.

3. White, pretty girls aren’t the only ones at risk of sexual assault.

4. It’s misleading to suggest there are simple steps women can take to guarantee they won’t be raped.

5. We already know about some very effective strategies to prevent rape; we’re just not implementing them.

When it comes down to it, as I told both of the reporters I spoke with, this product gives women one more reason to feel like rape is our fault.

The marketing of this product perpetuates that narrative that rape only happens when a stranger accosts a woman and holds her down. But in fact, even if this product were to be effective in the cases where that particular kind of violence does happen, the product itself would not have prevented a sexual assault. It may “frustrate” vaginal penetration, but an assault would still have taken place, and even in the absence of penetration it is still likely to be both violent and sexual.

Furthermore, in most cases, rape happens outside of the contexts this product is marketed for. AR Wear is meant for going out dancing, going on a first date, traveling, or going for a run. But too often rape happens when a woman, or man, is with someone s/he knows and trusts – not in a setting where she would have thought to wear protective underwear. (As far as I know, the product isn’t available to men.) These are the instances when assailants, police officers, family members, classmates, teachers, clergy members, reporters, judges, and society at large are likely to claim “s/he wanted it.” After all, if she didn’t, she would have been wearing anti-rape underwear.

Many of the people I know have responded to my press comments, and the other articles I’ve shared, with something to the effect of “But isn’t this a good idea? Rape is still going to happen – don’t you want women to be safe?”

Yes, I absolutely want every woman, and man, to always be safe. That’s why I do all of the anti-violence work that I do. And I think that when we invest our money in supporting the creation of product that makes assault the victim’s responsibility, we’re missing an opportunity.

If we lived in a culture with a preponderance of public policies, campus programs, Indiegogo and Kickstarter campaigns, PSAs, events, rallies, social media outreach, blogs, news articles, court cases, and other efforts aimed at rapists and preventing them from committing rape, and in that context rape were still a problem, then maybe could take this product at face value and call it a good idea. But we don’t live in that culture.

Sadly, we live in a culture that says street harassment is a compliment, that subjects rape victims to lie-detector tests, and that laments the ruining of promising young (male) lives when boys who not only committed sexual assault, but exchanged laughs about it on social media, are convicted and sentenced appropriately under the law. We live in a culture that has a myriad of excuses to protect men’s access to women’s bodies – that says that men cannot, and should not be expected to, control themselves – and that tells women we had better cover and censor ourselves if we don’t like what is inevitably coming. Rape culture is itself the very notion that it is not, in fact, a man’s responsibility not to rape – after all, boys will be boys – but that it is a woman’s responsibility not to get raped.

The truth is, if your anti-rape underwear come to good use, a sexual assault has not, in fact, been prevented. It has already happened. (And I’m trying not to imagine what the assailant does upon finding them.) When we put our money behind something like this – and validate years of research and development – we are not, in fact, preventing sexual assault. We reinterpreting the message that women should live different lives than men, and that if we don’t – if we go out, if we drink, if we wear what we like – sexual assault is our responsibility.

If we want to live in a world without sexual assault, products like these, for potential victims (or products at all), are not the way to get there. I’ve already said in other spaces that I would never tell another woman not to do something that makes her feel safer, and so if AR wear is something you want for your night out or your evening run, I would never judge or try to stop you. But if you want to put money, effort, column inches, or page views behind actually preventing assault before it happens, we need to look to the source. We need to take efforts to deconstruct rape culture, and to let potential perpetrators know that their actions will be punished. We need a culture that trusts women, that supports bystander intervention, and that holds perpetrators accountable for their actions.

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