By: C.N. Westendorf
A rape victim once told Sonnet Ehlers she wished she “had teeth down there.”
Ehler, a doctor in South Africa developed Rape–aXe in 2006, a condom-like device designed to be inserted inside the vagina like a tampon. The device painfully latches onto a penis with barb-like teeth, forcing immediate withdrawal and identifying the attacker by leaving a portion of the device still attached—which eventually needs to be surgically removed. Unable to find a sponsor for her wish to distribute 30,000 of them free at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa as a testing ground, Ehlers sold her home and car to do so. Ehlers hopes to soon have Rape-aXe available in South African drugstores for $2 per unit.
In South Africa, the rape capital of the world, it would be unfair to deny the heavily targeted female population any measures of protection, however desperate. But condoning the ‘condom-like’ device in the popular imagination without reservation presents a number of issues, particularly in the developed world where rape is perceived to be a rarity even though it remains far more commonplace. In Canada, the last time legislation was introduced to ‘increase victim willingness to report sexual assaults to the police’—the same legislation in Canada that made marital rape prosecutable as well as clarified that a person of a gender other than female could be raped—was in 1983. Almost three decades later, though the prevalence of sexual assault in Canada is difficult to quantify due to massive under-reporting, victim estimates still vary from one in four to nearly half of the female population.
Unlike the impenetrable hallows of criminal legislation and the slow rate of social change, Rape-aXe appears to offer a grassroots option. A female-controlled instrument has appeal, in theory, just like chastity belts did a couple of centuries ago. However, the inherent ideological assumption of a female-controlled ‘anti-rape’ device places the onus on a female victim to protect herself from ‘getting raped’ rather than on potential attackers to, well, not be attackers. Alongside the issue of Rape–aXe treating sexual assault as an inevitability from which a girl only need to protect herself (just imagine the possibilities-products that prevent menstrual leakage and rape in the same aisle of your local drugstore!) it’s not difficult to imagine a world where prey rather than predators would pay the price of an ‘anti-rape device.’
Hypothetically speaking, a man with genitalia impaled by a Rape-aXe device (though this is in theory what would ‘tag’ him as a rapist) is not proven to be a rapist any more than a woman who wears Rape-aXe is proven to not have engaged in consensual sex. On the one hand exists the possibility of Rape-aXe to be used as a tool of revenge and for false conviction, and on the other hand, Rape-aXe does nothing to negate the familiar cry of ‘she wanted it,’ whereby the opportunity is given to the criminal party to spin a tale wherein he was victimized and injured by the conniving of a woman scorned. The appendix to this tale is that a women is not only raped (because she was still penetrated for Rape-aXe to have appended to her attacker), but is then in addition vulnerable to being accused of criminal harm and premeditated intent due to injury to her attacker, depending on who a jury believes. Rates of criminal prosecution for rape from South Africa all the way to Canada indicate that this faith rests least often with the victim, historically speaking.
Rape victims are already commonly subject to such dubious speculations in terms of liability and proof of sexual consent as how drunk they were, what they were wearing and how hard they tried to fight off or get away from their attacker. Women are expected to do everything in their power and beyond to protect themselves from what is often treated as a force of nature rather than actions precipitated and committed by another individual, and in the aftermath usually required to shoulder not only the burden of proof, but the blame to boot. If women are given a tool that comes to be perceived as a silver bullet solution to rape worldwide, they will be fully expected to use it, penalized heavily when they don’t, and possibly even more so when they do.
There is also a glaringly obvious logistical issue, which is that while Rape–aXe may have the potential to shorten the duration and severity of an assault, anything that requires penetration to function as a barrier doesn’t ‘prevent’ rape at all. Anyone ‘saved’ by the use of Rape–aXe would still be subject to all of the emotional and at least some of the physical trauma involved in being attacked and sexually assaulted. Add an entire pandora’s box of additional issues and conceivable snares when it comes to the assault being recognized and successfully prosecuted, and there lies the potential for the entire experience to be even more harrowing for the individual. Not to mention the ongoing struggle against the social stigmas endemic in being victimized all the more difficult to combat.
While Rape-aXe may have something life-saving and vital to offer women in specialized at-risk communities, widescale distribution without sufficient scrutiny or any larger social and criminal reforms means accepting rape as an inevitability and wholeheartedly committing the responsibility for rape prevention to potential victims, while completely ignoring the forces at work that still legitimize rape culture. Rape-aXe evinces the same defeatist attitude of the ‘rape-insurance’ policies that sadly exist in some countries. If the situation weren’t so ghastly, it would almost be amusing that the actual directed use of Rape-aXe—using a piece of plastic to bolster an area of vulnerability—so mimics the futility of what Rape-aXe can do for potential victims, which is a band-aid solution to something that remains nothing less than a global epidemic. Fang-toothed plastic inserts don’t prevent rape. People prevent rape.
For more information on Rape-aXe: http://www.antirape.co.za/
For information on Rape in South Africa: http://journalism.berkeley.edu/projects/safrica/adapting/rape.html,
For information on violence against women and sexual assault in Canada: