Instead Of Telling Women To Buy ‘Anti-Rape Underwear,’ Here’s A Better Way To Prevent Sexual Assault


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CREDIT: Impact Bay Area

At the beginning of this month, a start-up company named AR Wear made quite a stir by marketing a line of “anti-rape underwear.” AR Wear launched a crowdfunding effort on IndieGoGo to raise enough money to make their product line — which involves several different types of underwear and shorts that are intended to be difficult for a sexual predator to remove — into a reality.

Although the company clearly has good intentions, their effort was widely criticized as an ineffective response to the very real problem of sexual violence. Nonetheless, AR Wear has already surpassed its $50,000 fundraising goal.

Lisa Scheff, who runs a nonprofit organization called Impact Bay Area that teaches self-defense classes, is frustrated that the anti-rape underwear campaign has gotten so much support over the past several weeks. “They raised 50,000 dollars for this product that won’t keep women safe!” she pointed out in an interview with ThinkProgress.

She does understand why so many people may have been eager to donate to AR Wear. People genuinely want to prevent violence against women, and this seems like a potential solution. After all, what’s the harm in trying out anti-rape underwear if it ends up working for some people? But according to Scheff, it’s just not that simple.

“There are so many reasons why it doesn’t work — it’s not affordable to everybody, you can’t be wearing it all the time, and what happens if you can’t get your underwear off in an emergency?” she pointed out. “And it doesn’t protect against violence. Rape isn’t about sex; it’s about violence. So what happens if someone can’t get your underwear off, gets angry, and potentially does something more dangerous? This is just a chance for us to stand up and say no, women don’t need underwear. We need to change this idea that women are powerless.”

That’s why Scheff’s own organization recently launched its own campaign on IndieGoGo as a direct response to AR Wear. They’re also asking supporters to help them raise $50,000 to prevent sexual assault — but not with underwear. The money will go toward Impact Bay Area, as well as its partner organization Impact Personal Safety of Southern California, to fund classes that teach women “effective boundary setting, personal safety, and physical self-defense skills.”

Impact Bay Area have been running these types of workshops for three decades. The program was developed after a woman with a black belt in karate was attacked and raped, and her colleagues wanted to figure out why she wasn’t able to use her martial arts skills to defend herself. They figured out that she wasn’t used to dealing with this type of hostile situation while she was flooded with adrenaline. When she was attacked in a real-life situation, outside of the studio, she totally froze. And she wasn’t prepared to fight off a verbal attack. Her rapist used language to “stun and disable her,” according to Scheff.

That’s an important point, because Impact Bay Area doesn’t just teach women to defend themselves with kicks and punches. In fact, there’s a big emphasis on what Scheff refers to as “effective boundary setting” and combating verbal attacks — because many rapists use force in that way, too.

“We know that men who prey on women frequently test boundaries as a way of victim-selecting. They will push and push and push,” Scheff noted. “If I say, ‘Hey, can I buy you a drink’ and this woman says no and I keep pushing, and she relents — well, here’s someone whose boundaries I can push. Here’s somebody who I can get to do what I want them to do. So we teach verbal boundary setting as one of the huge self-defense skills that women have and can use.”

When women take a class at Impact Bay Area, they work with both male and female instructors wearing special suits of body armor. The instructors simulate adrenaline-filled experiences and give women a chance to practice navigating them effectively. Sometimes they pretend to be an aggressive man in a bar, pushing the woman to go home with them. Sometimes they’re a stranger attacking the woman in public. Sometimes they’re a street harasser, yelling lewd things at the woman without her consent. And other times, they’re acting out scenarios between people who know each other, allowing women to practice setting boundaries with someone who may already be her romantic partner.

The students practice clearly communicating their desires once someone crosses the line that they’ve set for themselves — saying things like, “No, you need to leave me alone” or “I said no, so you need to go away” or “I don’t want this; you need to leave.” They practice calling for help and getting bystanders involved, saying, “Hey, this guy is harassing me, can someone call the police?” And in the last scenario, if a woman is being pressured by someone who she knows, Impact’s classes teach her that she should say, “If you do this, it is rape.”

That statement — telling an attacker that the lines aren’t blurred, and they are about to commit rape — can be a turning point. Scheff explained that people typically respond in one of two ways. Sometimes, they get angry that they’re being accused of being a rapist and get up and leave, and the entire situation is diffused. Other times, they escalate the physical force.

“We tell women at that point, this is not someone you know, because he is not behaving that way. So now you can treat him like a stranger and go full-force,” Scheff told ThinkProgress.

This type of boundary setting is some of the most impactful work that Scheff’s organization does. Although a self-defense class isn’t exactly a sex ed course, for many female students, it functions in somewhat of a similar way. It may be the first time that they learn how to recognize and defend their own physical boundaries — something that women aren’t typically empowered to do in a society that continually obscures female consent.

“We do hear stories from women who used the physical skills successfully. But what we hear all the time is, ‘I used my verbal boundary setting skills, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t taken the class, and if I didn’t know I had the physical skills the back it up. I was able to stop something that I know would have escalated to a physical assault,'” Scheff noted. “People are not walking around delivering elbows to the face. But all of a sudden, they’re comfortable setting healthy boundaries with everyone in their life — with friends, family, lovers, coworkers.”

So far, Impact Bay Area has only raised a fraction of the money that AR Wear has. But Scheff and her colleagues aren’t giving up. Impact Bay Area believes they’re equipping women with the real skills they need to confidently move in the world. That knowledge can help complement the best rape prevention strategy of all, which is obviously to teach people not to rape.

Scheff told one story about a woman in Boston who had undergone Impact training there. After going out on a date with a guy, she invited him back to her apartment, and they started getting physical. But he kept pushing her to go further, even though she kept telling him she didn’t want to. When he didn’t stop pressuring her, she told him what she learned to say in class. She told him that this was about to be rape. He got offended, got dressed, and left her apartment.

“We’re teaching women to recognize their own boundaries,” Scheff pointed out. “The underwear makes women more vulnerable — it doesn’t equip women with any of the skills that we know, from teaching our classes, that can stop something long before it ever even gets to a physical assault.”