The 21st Century Rape Whistle: How to Think Critically About Tech for Women’s Safety


Tech projects aimed at women’s safety are hot right now: a new one pops up every couple of weeks. It’s easy to get excited about them, because violence against women is a persistent problem, and tech holds the promise of a shiny, new, and groundbreaking solution.

But there’s a lot below the surface. I’ve had many conversations on the subject recently, and what I usually do is point people to Jessica Valenti’s article, “Why is it easier to invent anti-rape nail polish than to stop rapists?” Then I started thinking, maybe what would be useful is a media-literacy style set of questions to help us think more critically about these projects.

Here are six questions to ask yourself the next time a product or app related to women’s safety hits your newsfeed:

1. Who is the target audience for this project?

It’s usually college-aged women. This audience is a good fit for this type of product, because there has been significant press around how rape culture affects this group. Rape culture means a culture where sexual violence is normalized, considered inevitable, and joked about (examples here). In rape culture, sexual assault is seen as inevitable, and the responsibility falls to individual women to prevent it from happening by taking self-defense classes, dressing modestly, not going out alone, watching their drink, and GPS tracking their walk home.

So what happens if an assault does occur? It’s her fault. Victim-blaming is easy: just point out how she failed to protect herself. It is really important to understand that there is no concept of “ending sexual assault” in a rape culture. Rape culture dictates that sexual assault is an inevitable part of life, and all you can do is make sure the next victim isn’t you.

Sub-question: Who is not the target audience for this project? Why not? Sexual assault affects every demographic and every community, some – like trans women of color – at much higher rates than others.

2. What is the purpose?

What specific problem is the project trying to solve? Apps like Circle of 6, Kitestring, and Companion, and wearables like safety jewelry have been released over the past few years, with the purposes of connecting women to friends, family, and authorities who can help in an emergency. They usually focus on sexual assault, often referring to the dangers of “walking home alone,” which strongly evokes the image of a stranger rapist in a dark alley (quite literally the least of our problems, since most sexual violence is between people who know each other. I should also mention here that only a tiny fraction of assaults are committed using date rape drugs. Yet these are the two most frequently conjured images in women’s safety tech marketing).

Sub-question: What does “prevention” mean? Preventing an individual assault in the moment is one thing. Primary prevention, aka getting to the root of the problem, is something entirely different.

3. Does the app or device refer to itself as a “21st century rape whistle”?

I’ve recently seen tech safety devices referred to as 21st century rape whistles, or some kind of high-tech mace.

But this tradition goes back even further. Did you know women in the early 1900s were stabbing their harassers with hatpins? Yep. That was 100 years ago. We are reinventing the hatpin.

Sub-questions: What does it mean that we keep coming up with new devices for women to protect themselves? How is this approach working out in terms of solving the problem?

4. How does the project frame the problem it’s trying to solve?

A frame is the context in your brain when you’re thinking about an issue. The three main frames I’ve seen used to talk about apps/devices are: as a women’s issue, anindividual issue, and inevitable.

Women’s issue:
How many times have I mentioned the word “men” so far in this piece? Zero. That’s funny, because sexual assault is primarily a men’s issue. How is it possible that we spend so much time talking about women’s role in addressing sexual assault, and so little time talking about men’s? This is rape culture in action. While men are very much involved in perpetuating the problem, we see far fewer calls to men to help address it (and yes, there are many ways for men to be an active part of the solution).



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