Two weeks ago, a new nail polish that promised to detect date rape drugs took the media by storm. The product, developed by four male college students as a potential tool to address campus sexual assaults, sparked a passionate discussion about the most effective ways to tackle the issue. And although that conversation has since dissipated, the growing industry dedicated to anti-rape products has not.
“There’s this entire little cottage industry of anti-rape solutions,” Soraya Chemaly, a feminist writer and activist, told ThinkProgress. “It’s clearly an identifiable market that’s being pursued.”
Inside Higher Ed recently used the exact same phrase — “cottage industry” — to refer to the growing number of safety apps being targeted at young people. At the end of August, just in time for the beginning of the fall semester, the outlet reported that there are now dozens of smartphone tools for “worried college students” to download.
With so many new innovations, it may be difficult for the average American to wade through their options and figure out what’s actually useful. Do you need an anti-rape app at the ready? Is the solution to campus sexual violence on a smartphone?
Experts in the field say the answers are complicated.
The Commodification Of Sexual Assault
The first rule of thumb is to tread cautiously when it comes to what Chemaly calls the “commodification of sexual assault.”
All of the rape prevention activists who spoke with ThinkProgress expressed discomfort with the idea that the innovators in this field might be focused more on profiting than on ending rape. In their minds, resources to combat sexual assault shouldn’t be for sale.
“I don’t rule out the possibility that there could be an effective anti-rape effort that would take some sort of business model. That being said, it makes me really uncomfortable that there could be a tool that would only be accessible to some people depending on their ability to pay,” Alexandra Brodsky, one of the founders and current co-directors of Know Your IX, a survivor-led group working to address campus sexual assault, said.
It is sort of disturbing to me that there’s this whole industry popping up.
“It is sort of disturbing to me that there’s this whole industry popping up, and there are definitely some products that seem like they’re trying to exploit that,” Nancy Schwartzman, who developed an app called “Circle of 6u” to help colleges expand their sexual assault resources, added. “We’ve never been in it for the money.”
There’s also a question of where financial resources are best allocated. Student-led and grassroots efforts are already working on the ground to address campus violence. Online organizing campaigns are currently trying to focus attention on this issue. Victim advocate centers are struggling to get enough funding from colleges to keep on full-time staff members. Finding ways to effectively support the existing infrastructure may be more meaningful than pouring money into the next big smartphone app or roofie-detecting coaster.
“Instead of raising $100,000 on a Kickstarter for the next anti-rape tool, let’s put that money toward what it costs to process rape kits. Let’s identify serial rapists,” Chemaly said, pointing to the thousands of rape kits collecting dust because law enforcement departments don’t have the resources to process them. “Let’s start a Kickstarter for that!”
Addressing The Reality Of Rape
One of the biggest issues with anti-rape innovations is that they often misrepresent the reality of sexual violence. A very tiny percentage of assaults, for example, involve the use of date rape drugs. Most college rapes occur between people who already know each other, at parties and in dorm rooms, not after a stranger jumps out of the bushes and accosts a girl on campus.
“The tricky thing is that this work is really counter intuitive in a lot of ways, and that means that well meaning people can end up perpetuating myths about sexual violence in their attempt to stop the problem,” Brodksy pointed out. “I think often these apps are designed for a narrative of violence that just isn’t that prevalent. You have to ask, would this product have helped a student in the real world, as opposed to this sort of archetypal rape victim in a movie script?”
Would this product have helped a student in the real world, as opposed to this sort of archetypal rape victim in a movie script?
The people involved in efforts to develop new tools need to have done their homework, Brodsky says. They should either have conducted research into campus rape, consulted with survivors to get feedback about their proposal, or have personal experience themselves as a survivor of rape or an activist within the community.
Indeed, when developers take the time to learn more about how sexual assaults happen, their products end up looking a little different. For instance, Innovate Against Rape — a project housed in Carnegie Mellon University’s Integrated Innovation Institution, which encourages people to come up for creative solutions to social problems — recently created two apps to give students more resources to report issues they see at parties. The apps, “Night Owl” and “SPOT a Problem,” were developed after students did extensive research into campus sexual assaults.
“The people who you go to the party with are very important. So we’ve built our products around those bystanders,” Donna Sturgess, the Integrated Innovation Institute’s executive in residence, explained in an interview with ThinkProgress. “If you expect a woman, ahead of going to a party, to be doing things like putting pepper spray in her purse — all of those things actually don’t work when they’re in a social setting and out on the dance floor.”
The key is creating resources for larger social settings, as well as including useful data like the contact information for the local rape crisis center, rather than “Big Brother” tools that promise to protect vulnerable women against the big bad strangers who might rape them.
“Does this app feel like it’s the sort of patriarchal, paternalistic, police blue shield thing that says you need constant surveillance and protection? Or does the tool feel like something that’s empowering, something you want to use, something that respects your privacy, something that’s there to help you out?” Schwartzman said.
Can An App Challenge Rape Culture?
Anti-rape tools are often designed in a way that requires potential victims to be constantly vigilant — downloading apps, wearing special nail polish, and always thinking about ways to mitigate their risk of sexual assault. They’re criticized for feeding into rape culture by assuming that it’s women’s responsibility to take extra steps to prevent rape.
It’s vastly easier to affect the behavior of the good people than the bad.
Some advocates believe there’s value in those technologies anyway. Scott Berkowitz, the president of the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), is one of those people. “I think the way that debate has gone has been unfortunate, because all crime prevention puts the onus on someone other than the perpetrator. It’s vastly easier to affect the behavior of the good people than the bad,” Berkowitz said. “Even bystander intervention programs, the kind of programs everyone is moving toward right now, put the onus on other people — I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
This past spring, RAINN made headlines for a similar criticism: Lamenting the “unfortunate trend towards blaming ‘rape culture’ for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses,” which RAINN believes detracts from the emphasis on rapists’ conscious choice to commit a crime.
Others firmly disagree. “Every solution is going to have its downsides, and that doesn’t mean everything that’s criticized should be totally cast off,” Brodsky said. “But some of these tools, as we saw with the anti-rape nail polish, are only going to potentially help a tiny fraction of people — while also solidifying a really dangerous narrative of violence and of responsibility that is going to affect all people.”
And some groups think they’ve found a way to carefully navigate that space. Schwartzman — whose Circle of 6 app allows users to select a group of six friends to easily contact if they wind up in a situation they need help getting out of — says her app can help facilitate culture change by requiring friends to discuss the responsibilities that come with being in each other’s “circles.” That requires them to broach the topic of healthy sexual relationships with peers and practice how to be an effective bystander in social situations.
“It’s not just like, I need help and I’m going to get it because I have this mobile app,” she explained. “You have six people who you’ve had a pretty in depth conversation with about what it means to be accountable to each other — and those people might have six other people, and all of a sudden we’re looking at these concentric circles of caring and community.”
These type of tech innovations are actually engaged in challenging how we socialize.
Chemaly thinks that’s the key. “It’s not as focused on personal responsibility — these type of tech innovations are actually engaged in challenging how we socialize,” she said in reference to Circle of 6. “Nail polish doesn’t do that at all.”
Schwartzman and her colleagues also recently rolled out Circle of 6u, a version of the app that can be tailored specifically for universities to offer students hyper-localized resources. They’ve already partnered with Williams College and UCLA, and are in talks with additional administrations that may be interested in bringing the app to their school. With that new focus, Schwartzman says the new app shifts the responsibility away from students protecting themselves and toward universities working to protect their students.
Shifting The Narrative
Many of the advocates who spoke to ThinkProgress agreed that, while technological innovations might be part of the larger fight against sexual violence, they’re not a silver bullet to end rape.
“Sexual violence is a global systemic problem that is not going to be solved by pressing a button,” Brodsky said. “If we shifted our outlook so that communities were actively calling out perpetrators and supporting survivors, we could see real social change. That is much larger than an app.”
Others were more optimistic about technology’s potential. “We want people to think about this as a fixable problem. Our interest is making the conversation bigger and louder,” Donna Sturgess, who leads Innovate Against Rape, explained. “It’s a clarion call to say, stand up for this issue and help us create solutions.”
That’s not rape prevention, but rape avoidance.
This industry typically serves as the nexus where very different worldviews about rape prevention end up clashing sharply. Often, the activists on the ground oppose what they see as ineffective tools that don’t get to the heart of the deeper cultural problem. Meanwhile, the people who are excited about new innovations become frustrated that attempts to prevent sexual assault are being hampered by political correctness.
“It’s really hard for some people to understand why anyone, and especially feminists, would reject a new product like anti-rape nail polish — how could you reject something that could help stop rape?” Chemaly said. “But those people are thinking about their individual safety, their children’s safety, and not interested in all in attacking the systems that create the larger problem. That’s not rape prevention, but rape avoidance.”
As the recent coverage around the new nail polish demonstrates, broader society won’t be coming to an agreement on the matter anytime soon. But there are perhaps less contentious ways to work on improving the way that society approaches sexual violence. Innovations don’t necessarily have to focus on the prevention side. Efforts to ease the reporting process — something that survivors often say is traumatizing for them — could help encourage more people to file reports for incidences of sexual violence. For instance, a new reporting software program called Callisto, currently being developed with input from college rape survivors, seeks to give students more agency by allowing them to file an online report anonymously. It’s been widely praised so far.