Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What to do about rape in South Africa? New Rape-aXe condom may not work, but at least she's trying

One in four men in South Africa admit to raping a woman, many having done so multiple times.  In America, one in four women will be sexually assaulted or abused in her lifetime, but at the hands of a relatively small number of perpetrators.  The number of available perpetrators in South Africa make sexual assault a virtual certainty for women who live there.  This is a developed country, with a functioning government and police force.  It is not a war zone.  It is not even a society with high gender inequality.  This has got to stop.

One woman had an idea--a toothed condom-like device a woman could wear inside her vagina that would painfully stop a man from completing an act of rape, tagging the attacker as a rapist, and preventing her against STD infection simultaneously (important in a country with a 12% HIV infection rate).  It's basically a modern-day chastity belt, and as Jezebel points out, it's not without it's problems.  For one, it puts the responsibility for preventing rape on women, who are the potential victims.  It also could create the unintended consequence of making additional violence more likely.  Moreover, it can't actually stop rape, since penetration has to occur for it to work, and anal and oral rape could still take place unfettered.  For my money, I doubt the device will actually work much in practice, but a few highly publicized cases of a man getting his penis shredded attempting rape might deter some would-be attackers--until they resolved to check for a device and remove it before attempting penetration.

But Jezebel also rightly points out that the critics of Rape-aXe are coming at it from the perspective of living in a society where rape is a relatively rare occurrence, and thus no one would consider leaving home with a vaginal insert to protect themselves.  This, tragically, just isn't the case in South Africa:
[Rape-aXe creator] Ehlers isn't suggesting that British or American women run out and purchase this product - it was introduced in South Africa to address the terrifying frequency of sexual assault. South Africa has one of the highest levels of rape in the world; a 2006 study found that a woman is raped every 17 seconds. To make matters even worse, a 2009 Amnesty International report found that out of over 20,000 reports of rape, only 8% led to convictions. 
This might not be the solution, but one is desperately needed.  And at least this somewhat shocking device is getting the word out on an issue that deserves greater attention.  So, what can South Africa do to protect rape victims?  And, how can the World Cup, happening in South Africa this summer, be used as an opportunity to bring attention to this issue?


  1. While I understand what Jezebel means by saying this product "can't actually prevent rape," is that really the right headline? The question that matters the most to me is, "Will the introduction of this product reduce the incidence of rape in South Africa?" I'd hypothesize that the answer is yes, and that you're understating the deterrence effect (note there are some positive externalities like the lojack story), and Jezebel failed by not even mentioning it (though it is in the comments).

    I don't know what the profile of the typical S. African rapists is, but given that the incidence is so high, I cannot imagine that most rapes are perpetrated by types who cannot be deterred or will react with more violence upon finding this product. I'd guess that a lot of rapes are done by weak men who perceive that women are incapable of defending themselves and that time and time again there are no consequences for rape. For these weaklings, even the small likelihood of this product being successful would be a successful deterrent.

    Finally, I don't like that your bottom line is that this product might not be "the solution." You'll never find "the solution." There will only be better ideas. I agree it would be preferable to find an idea that doesn't have many of the downsides you listed, but that idea doesn't exist yet. I would emphasize that the creator deserves praise for coming up with a product that has more potential to prevent rape (as a deterrent) than any other idea that's ever been brought to my attention, while agreeing with your points that this product succeeds in raising awareness about this issue and still leaves plenty of room for better ideas.

  2. Even in South Africa, the leading anti-rape activists want this device banned. This isn't merely about philosophy or what "should be".
    The problem is that the presumed effectiveness of this product is based on a host of myths about how and why rapes happen and how they are prosecuted.

    Among other things, the device is fairly easy to disarm by performing object rape before penile rape. Just stick in a stick to remove it. Or a rapist could threaten to kill the woman if she removed it. Women have trouble enough proving non-consent if they remove tight jeans. Imagine what a fun time a defense attorney would have with someone who removed the device and then claimed rape. Then there is the small problem that about half of sexual assaults in South Africa are performed by gangs, 35% on children, and 16% on adult men.

    And this is only the beginning of the reasons why this device would to little or nothing to stop rape. For a blow by blow discussion of the various claims in favor and objections raised see:

  3. The previous post's link has plenty of interesting data -- much better than anything in the Guardian article. That said, why ban this product? If this product is really useless, it'll disappear rather quickly without the ban.

  4. Thanks for the info, Elizabeth. I agree with you that the device is problematic, and unlikely to have a wide-scale impact on South Africa's troubling rape statistics. I also absolutely agree that the primary things that need to be done to prevent sexual assault in South Africa is to increase the prosecution and conviction rate and change the norms regarding masculinity. However, I found many of the problems with the device listed on your site to be of the form "May not work in the case of..." Many things, like pepper spray, home alarm systems, or self defense courses, are not as effective as their promoters suggest, do not work under many circumstances, and can lead to a false sense of security. However, I don't think the answer is banning these things, and taking another choice away from women who already have too few. That is not to say you shouldn't be using your voice to say "This isn't the most effective thing, and giving money to this means less money for something else." If you have other suggestions, or want to start a counter campaign, I would love to support it. But, in the meantime, I'd rather focus on giving women more options instead of fewer.

  5. In a real life defensive/combat situation (and I count rape as one of them), the most important choices you will ever make are the choices available to you _at the time_. I'm speaking from experience.

    My own deepest concern is that the rape-aXe actually takes choices away. Every rapist is different, and even during the course of a rape, the rapist's motivations can change. For one's own safety, it is absolutely vital that one be able to keep one's options open. Precisely because no defensive tool is all encompassing, flexibility is really your best defense.

    Having a device like the rape-aXe buried in your body, actually takes away choices. If you decide that this particular rapist is likely to become more violent if hurt, you don't have the option of saying "Gee, can you wait a minute. I'd like to disarm one of my defensive devices because I've decided it really isn't the best tool to fight you".

    On the other hand, with pepper spray or martial arts or blowing a whistle or shouting "Fire! Fire or talking someone down, you always have a choice of tool to use. So I am all for tools like those. Nothing in life is a guarantee, but these are all tools that expand options rather than forcing one down a particular path. The more choices, the more scenarios you can fight successfully.

    As for banning. I don't personally share the position of those activists. I'm more interested in truth in advertising. Maybe: something like surgeon's general warnings?

    A rape-aXe that had to advertise all the ways it would fail to meet its purpose might in fact be a good thing because it would force awareness of what really motivates rapists, the complexities of self defense, and the social issues behind high rape rates and low conviction rates.

    I found myself rather frustrated with both the Guardian article and the Jezabel response because they both turned this into a philosophical discussion rather than a practical discussion of what really is involved in an effective defense on both an individual and cultural level.


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