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Why are women still carrying the burden of rape?

Human Rights

Anti-rape underwear perpetuates rape culture. Richard Potts under a Creative Commons Licence

Decades after women cast aside their chastity belts, locking up genitalia is back in fashion. US company AR Wear has launched ‘anti-rape underwear’ that is advertised with the tagline: ‘A clothing line offering wearable protection for when things go wrong.’

Promoted using language not dissimilar to slogans advertising tampons or incontinence pads, this product is the latest in a long and embarrassing line of gimmicks including hairy stockings and female condoms with hooks geared at ‘protecting’ women from rape.

AR Wear considers sexual assault in narrow terms. The product will not prevent some types of rape. And anti-rape underwear is something of a paradox. If an attacker has violated a person to the extent that they have removed their clothing – even if the underwear helps avoid a so-called ‘completed’ rape – it is hardly grounds for a marketing campaign. It also presumes the use of physical force.

The underwear consists of a skeletal structure with thigh and waist straps. The material cannot be cut or torn, yanked to one side or taken off and only the wearer can undo the waist lock that has 132 different combinations, randomly assigned.

The company’s page on the crowd-funding site Indigogo assures potential buyers that ‘a woman or girl who is wearing one of our garments will be sending a clear message to her would-be assailant that she is NOT consenting’.

But this message equates what a woman wears with her right to be safe. It has the troubling undertone of manipulating women into carrying the burden of rape.

‘Anti-rape underwear feeds into the mythology that survivors are responsible for preventing their own victimization,’ says Anu Selvam, senior legal adviser at Rape Victim Advocates. ‘This further deflects accountability from those who commit sexual violence, and grossly ignores the fundamental nature of sexual violence. It is a violation that usually occurs without the use of physical force, primarily relying on the violence of psychological manipulation and abuse of power.’

Suggesting that not wearing this garment may cause confusion around consent is similar to other excuses for rape that are internalized from a young age: that wearing a short skirt, getting drunk or going to a party alone somehow makes a violation less clear and the victim more responsible. Victim blame is not only morally reprehensible, it doesn’t work. If it did, sexual violence would not be at epidemic proportions. Instead, one in three women worldwide is beaten or sexually assaulted by an intimate partner or by a non-partner in their lifetime.

While women are disproportionately victims of sexual violence, AR Wear has come under fire for using a young, white, slim and physically mobile woman to model the product, and for targeting cis females to the exclusion of other groups including men.

In the commercial, the narrator, another young and attractive white woman, asks: ‘Have you ever been out walking at night, wishing you could feel safer?’ Yet far from a stranger lurking in a dark alleyway, most victims know their attackers. Lockable underwear would be unlikely to help in these situations. According to the Ministry of Justice in England and Wales, ‘90 per cent of victims of the most serious sexual offences (rape) in 2011/12 knew the perpetrator’. In the US, over half of all rapes are committed at the victim’s home and one in ten at the home of a friend, neighbour or relative.

It is vital not to ignore or undermine the experiences of those who are raped by a stranger, but it must not be seen as the only narrative.

Maintaining the stereotype of a depraved and unknown rapist ‘stops the conversation at “rape is wrong”,’ says the activist collaboration FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture. ‘Categorizing rapists as awful people [who are] separate from us puts a neat ribbon on the whole rape-discussion bundle so that we can collectively avoid the more uncomfortable topic, which is: what in our culture and what in ourselves creates this epidemic of sex as violence?’

While the makers of the anti-rape underwear (both of whom are survivors of sexual assault) no doubt have sincere intentions, the company is crowd-funded and profit-making. It has raised over $55,000 – and counting – through donations on Indigogo for start-up costs. In return, supporters are offered a small discount off the $50-$60 underwear once it becomes available. Should the estimated July 2014 release date be delayed or cancelled, there is no requirement stipulated by Indiegogo to give donors their money back.

The company has an ethical responsibility to its supporters particularly because of the emotional and personal investment many have made; yet both its message and product perpetuates rape culture instead of confronting it and, in targeting potential victims of sexual violence, it normalizes the crime.

But there are ways we can counter the culture that seeks to maintain the status quo. Talking about rape using cultural and community platforms like One Billion Rising, empowering women, and men too, by being frank about individual boundaries and consent, and most of all, challenging the patriarchy that lies at the core of violence against women.

Today is not just Valentine’s Day, it is the second One Billion Rising day with organizers hoping that one billion women, men and children will take to the streets, dancing, marching and making a noise to end violence against women and girls.

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