Dr Sonnet Ehlers recently returned with a new and improved design for the Rape-aXe (formally known as Rape-X), a rubber device designed to catch a rapist's dick in its Velcro-like network of hooks. This has, naturally, spawned some debate.
We've mentioned some of the controversy surrounding the "anti-rape condom" before, but with the World Cup readily approaching, some new voices have entered the fray. The newest entry falls staunchly and unequivocally on the anti-Rape-aXe side. In her article for The Guardian, Lara Williams argues that the very existence of the Rape-aXe is an insult to women. She compares it to a modern-day chastity belt, and rightfully points out that this cannot prevent rape. Even if the Rape-aXe works perfectly, snaring the rapist's dick and incapacitating him with pain, it can only serve to cut the assault short. Penetration must occur in order for the Rape-aXe to work, which means the rape has already taken place. Williams also discusses the problems of anal rape (which would be a easy way for rapists to get around the device) and oral rape.
But for Williams, the biggest problem with the Rape-aXe is that it places the responsibility of preventing rape squarely on the soldiers of would-be victims. She writes,
Advocating placing a foreign object inside your body as a matter of course places the prevention of rape, once again, squarely with women. Tips on walking home at night are circulated amongst female friends and colleagues with the same tired routine as the latest YouTube meme. Women are berated for wearing revealing clothes and blamed for their attacks, whether for getting into an unlicensed cab or for flirting. The responsibility for stopping rape is aimed singularly at women. With all the effort exerted instructing women on how not to get raped, shouldn't an equal amount of ardour be directed at educating men to, well, not rape?
Although there is nothing wrong with Williams's argument - in fact, she raises some very good points about the disturbing prevalence of the blame the victim mentality that contributes so readily to rape culture - she displays an incredibly western-centric view of both the product and the crime that inspired it.
In an interview last month with Radio Netherlands, Ehlers addresses some of the criticisms that have been leveled at Rape-aXe. Although she does not specifically respond to the issue of victim-blaming, her words reveal the essential difference between a writer addressing rape culture in the UK (or the US) and an activist attempting to stop a common crime. In response to the argument that Rape-aXe could serve to further enrage the attacker, spurring him on to new acts of violence, Ehlers says:
The men are violent already, so I cannot make them more violent with Rape-aXe. And another thing is if they kill their victim, he will be in double trouble. Because he's tagged, he cannot remove it, he's got to go to a hospital, and then he's identified. So now at least he'll be up for rape, and not for murder and rape.
If this sounds like a defeatist argument, that's because it is. And for good reason. 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. A quarter of South African men have admitted to rape, half of whom admitted to multiple rapes. Rape is used as a bonding experience for men and a way to "cure" lesbians. Although rape is a problem around the globe, for South African women, it is a far more impending threat. Williams mentions the problematic myth of "stranger danger" and the blame placed on women for their short skirts, but while these are very real problems within rape culture, when sexual violence is as common as it is in South Africa, some of the surrounding issues feel less pressing, almost besides the point.
For what Ehlers is trying to do is to stop rape now, and by any means possible. She even recognizes that her product may get some women killed, but she justifies this with the thought that at least it could prevent further murders. Her tactics may not prove particularly effective, and they certainly aren't pretty, but they come from a desire to fight back against attackers. Rape-aXe can't prevent rape, but in its ideal form it could turn the tables on the rapist, causing him pain, humiliation, and possibly even bringing him to justice. Furthermore, despite the many problems with the conception and design of Rape-aXe, its existence has already accomplished something important: it has opened the dialogue about rape. The shocking nature of a dick-ripping condom makes people, male and female, sit up and take note. Some have suggested the Rape-aXe will do the most good simply by inspiring fear in the hearts of potential rapists. I'm not sure this will happen. However, it has brought new voices into the discussion about rape and rape culture, and while "raising awareness" may not feel like a victory, it is a small step towards a world without rape.