Everyone’s talking about this IndieGogo campaign for a women’s clothing line that basically works like a modern-day chastity belt. My commentary is probably not the first you’ve seen about AR Wear. Tara Culp-Ressler, previously quoted on this blog as the bringer of much-needed evidence-based analysis on rape of intoxicated women, has already delved into what makes the AR concept unhelpful. I encourage you to read her article today.
You know what’s weird? I want this product to work. I want to be sympathetic, at least, to the makers of AR Wear. Their hearts appear to be in the right place, and they even acknowledge the limits of their products’ usefulness. Contrary to accusations frequently leveled at anti-rape-culture feminists, we don’t like being victims. We don’t want girls and women to feel helpless. We don’t want to send the message of “don’t bother doing anything at all to keep yourself safe.” We’re trying to be realistic. We’re trying to get our society to a place where we can start doing things that actually prevent rape, and in the meanwhile, to stop making rape victims feel like shit about letting their faces get too close to someone’s fist.
Are there some things that women can do that reduce their risk of victimization? In some cases, sure. I possibly prevented greater injury and trauma to myself when I was assaulted in 2006 because I had the presence of mind to scream “FIRE!” while my assailant had me by the pubic bone. Some women might successfully fend off stranger assailants with pepper spray, Tasers, or martial arts. If they do, good! So glad they had effective tools at their disposal! I’ve just enumerated tactics that are only applicable to the “stranger jumps out of the bushes” scenario, and most rapists are people whom their victims know and trust. Most of the “safety precaution advice” we’re given for avoiding rape are only applicable to a small percentage of attacks, and even in the cases where they might work, I don’t want survivors to be shamed for not fighting back hard enough or not being careful enough. If you go out for a nighttime jog and forget your pepper spray, I don’t want you to be told you should have done more to protect yourself. If you freeze up when you’re accosted by someone with ill intent (and many violent crime victims do exactly that) rather than scream bloody murder and struggle, I don’t want you to be shamed for not standing up for yourself. It would be so, so nice if we could separate what we tell people as safety advice before a crime has taken place from what we tell them after they’ve been victimized, but the “personal safety” approach to rape prevention generally leads to victim-silencing.
All that, and the safety advice we get is overwhelmingly unrealistic and ineffective.
The idea behind AR Wear is that, while nothing can keep us safe in all circumstances, there are some situations in which a woman can be successfully protected from rape if her private parts are encased in an impenetrable cage. For example, if she’s unconscious and/or intoxicated, a rapist can’t get into her pants while she’s out cold. He can still do obscene things to her that don’t involve vaginal or anal penetration, but her panties will stay firmly on, and that somewhat restricts the amount of damage that can be done. She won’t get pregnant, for example. That’s better than nothing at all. Maybe just a little.
As much as I’d like to praise this business for at least trying to give women something that actually works in defending ourselves, their pitch on IndieGogo is still full of problematic content, which I will now call out.
1. As others have already remarked, their marketing is very white-washed. The models are all thin, able-bodied, white, conventionally attractive cis women. Let’s not ignore the fact that black and Native women experience far more rape than whites. Let’s not walk past the standard of acting like fresh-faced white ladies are the only ones worth protecting, or that pretty, thin girls are the only ones rapists target. (For example, those shorts don’t look wearable on someone of my size and shape, and I’m not that big. They look murderously uncomfortable for anyone whose stomach isn’t flat. And the company expects us to sleep in those things? Fuck that noise.) Let’s not ignore the violence on trans* women who haven’t had bottom surgery. Let’s not assume those with non-normative bodies are invisible to rapists.
2. “We developed this product so that women and girls could have more power to control the outcome of a sexual assault.” No. This is not the language to use for their product. I thought the appeal of this clothing line was that the woman didn’t have to be alert or vigilant to be protected. “Control the outcome” implies that she might choose to remove her panties and allow the rapist to penetrate her. If she agrees to remove her panties during an assault, it’s not because she’s consenting, it’s because the rapist is using force, pain and threats to coerce her into removing barriers. That’s not “being in control of the situation,” that’s choosing battles. The idea should be to make a completed rape impossible.
3. “No product alone can solve the problem of violence against women. Nevertheless, 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. We believe that this undeniable message can help to prevent a significant number of rapes.” This language is so wrong it kind of ruins all their attempts at appearing to be acting in good faith. No rapist lifts a woman’s skirt and mistakenly assumes she’s consenting because she’s wearing flimsy underwear. He knows she’s unwilling. He wants to violate an unwilling woman. The product should not “send a message” to the assailant, it should make him unable to do what he has decided to do. It shouldn’t be the “message” that prevents a significant number of rapes, it should be the cut-resistant webbing and locking mechanism. There are plenty of people among us who believe a woman is basically asking for it if she isn’t wearing panties. Let’s not give them aid or comfort.
4. The product itself creates more of an illusion of safety than real safety. These garments will not be as efficacious as the company seems to think. This set of shortcomings is not just disappointing, it is actually harmful. Many women will be unable to use AR Wear due to its expense, lack of body accommodation, and discomfort. Others will have it, but not wear it every day. Some will be assaulted while wearing it, and their rapists will use additional violence to make them remove it. The gap between promise and reality will leave victims exposed to additional scorn and shame from that “I’ve never been raped because I’m smarter than you” contingent of women*. More from their pitch: “We wanted to offer some peace of mind in situations that cause feelings of apprehension, such as going out on a blind date, taking an evening run, ‘clubbing’, traveling in unfamiliar countries, and any other activity that might make one anxious about the possibility of an assault.” This is about sense of security. While anxiety and apprehension don’t make us any safer, an anti-rape product should be focused on actually protecting our bodies, not making us feel like we’re safe. The prevalence of chastity-belt underwear will be one more thing used against women who “don’t do enough” to protect themselves.
*Can you tell I can’t stand those women? You know, the ones who look imperiously down their noses at rape survivors and anti-victim-blaming feminists and insist that they have never been raped because they don’t let it happen? This is where the endless barrage of #safetytipsforladies has led us; it’s created a false sense of security for those who’ve been lucky. They aren’t really any safer than the rest of us, they just tell themselves it won’t happen to them because they’re so much brighter and more vigilant. I’ve got no time for those jerks. They can all hit themselves in the collective face with the world’s biggest hammer.
Anyway. There may be a small percentage of women who are effectively protected by wearing AR Wear, but that benefit is far outweighed by this company’s contributions to victim-blaming. An incremental improvement isn’t really an improvement if it makes things harder for everyone else.