Are we back in the middle ages, or is this the start of something new?
Sam Taylor, South Africa
June 25, 2005
"No, I wouldn't fancy walking around with a contraption—not unlike a Venus fly trap—wedged between my legs!" I thought sarcastically after reading about the new anti-rape device that is set to be manufactured in SA. My anger surprised me. Why would all my female colleagues and I react so vehemently to a product that is essentially designed to try and stem the tide of sexual assault against women in SA?
This patented device has been carefully designed in collaboration with engineers, gynaecologists, psychologists and urologists. It may look like a tampon and be inserted in the same fashion—but that is where the similarities end. It is actually hollow and will attach itself with microscopic hooks to a rapist's penis during penetration. It is impossible to remove the device without medical help, which will give clinics and hospitals the opportunity to alert the police. Furthermore, the rapist cannot remove the device himself. In fact, he will be unable to urinate while it is still attached.
According to the inventor of the device, Sonette Ehlers, who has worked for the South African Institute for Medical Research, she felt there was a need for this product because "we have to do something to protect ourselves. While this will not prevent rape, it will assist in identifying attackers and securing convictions."
But, in a country where last year alone there were 52 733 reported rapes, where was the gratitude, or sighs of relief from the women in my office? Why were there only echoes of frustration and fear? Initially, I thought it could be explained away by all the obvious arguments. This device won't prevent the rapist's attack, and only works once penetration has taken place. It would also have to be worn daily. For most of us, rape is a dark thought that we try to suppress so that we can function from day to day. But, once you introduce this device into your life, it becomes a constant and invasive reminder for as long as we choose to wear it. I have read conflicting messages on discussion forums: some women have said with conviction that they will make it part of their daily routine—others are not so keen and wonder what the psychological impact would be. Do you only wear it on the day you feel a little on edge? What if you forget—will you be able to function without a paralysing fear that the day you leave it at home is the day your luck runs out? What about mothers with daughters? At what age do you let them start wearing the device? What if they do not want to? How do you evaluate high-risk situations? Isn't every day a high-risk situation?
Although Ehlers is positive that the device will help to reduce the high incidence of rape in SA, many rape organisations have their reservations. Lisa Vetten of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) says: "It is like we are going back to the days where women were forced to wear chastity belts. It is a terrifying thought that women are being made to adapt to rape by wearing these devices." She goes on to comment that: "Women would have to wear this every minute of their lives on the off-chance that they would be raped."
But, where's there is a will there is a way: won't rapists resort to anal penetration if they fear their intended victim may be wearing the device? It is not a pleasant thought to consider, but it is a reality. Chanaz Mitchell, spokesperson for the National Network on Violence Against Women, has also suggested that a rapist, after encountering such a device, will take his aggression out even further on the woman. And of course, even with such a device on the market, women's rights organisations stress the fact that we still have to focus our energy on changing many men's mindsets as well as their treatment of women and girls.
Thinking back, I can't help but wonder if my initial anger and scepticism was directed at the fact that I feel like I don't truly have "teeth" where it counts—prevention, protection and choice. I asked myself: "If I choose to wear the device, does it signal in some small way that I am accepting the inevitable?"
My answer now? "No". But maybe the time has come for me to give myself other "teeth" where it counts. I have been researching self-defence devices that are available online in the USA. Lipstick pepper sprays, personal alarms that emit ear-splitting sound and flashing light, air tasers, stun guns, stun guns masquerading as cell phones—I have never even heard of half of these gadgets before, but now is as good a time as any to educate myself more on non-lethal self-defence products that are available. What's more, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that this device will also help to lower HIV infection, as well as prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies because semen is contained inside the device. This in itself is a preventive measure that numerous women will welcome.
What about helping our children to become proactive and empowered too? Introducing a comprehensive self-defence and safety course into schools for boys and girls would be invaluable.
Samuel Jackson wrote that "nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must first be overcome." Apart from all the possible objections I have highlighted, and many more that could be argued, every attempt to protect women from harm; every attempt to ensure our right to security, and every attempt to prevent inhuman treatment should be viewed as a step forward. We are not surrendering and we are not giving consent. We are fighting to take back what's ours.
Sam Taylor writes for the Agenda newsletter, South Africa, as well as other periodicals.
From Agenda, June 24, 2005.