Selling Safety: The Rise of Sexual Assault Prevention Products
Since the 1990s, studies have found that roughly 1 in 5 women will experience some form of sexual assault while in college. Recent results from campus climate surveys have bolstered these numbers. In the past several years, people have been trying to fight this epidemic through many strategies ranging from increased legislation to prevention training.
In addition, companies have recently begun offering other novel solutions. Some are manufacturing wearable gadgets that alert authorities and select emergency contacts when an attack is about to occur. A group of college students is developing a nail polish that changes colors when dipped into a drink that’s been laced with certain date-rape drugs. Entrepreneurs are producing an array of fashionable jewelry that emits a loud alarm when the user pushes a button.
Below, you will find a list of some of the sexual assault prevention products on the market and how they work, followed by an analysis, criticisms, and common misconceptions about sexual assault.
iBall Andi Uddaan: This is a cellular device with a built-in “SOS” button that sends an alert message and phone call to five emergency contacts chosen by the user, posts a Facebook status with a pre-written message asking for help and gives the user’s GPS location (only if connected to the Internet), and emits a loud siren sound to ward off potential attackers.
Athena: Manufactured by Roar for Good, this transformable accessory can be worn as necklace pendant or clip onto clothing, a belt, or purse. The Athena is a “coin-sized personal safety alarm” and comes with an app that allows the wearer to customize their preferences. The device has a button that can sound an alarm “louder than a freight train” while sending a text message with the user’s location to a list of emergency contacts chosen by the user. If the button is held for three seconds longer, the alarm stays silent, but messages are still sent as long as an Internet connection is established. A portion of the company’s proceeds goes to educational programs.
Safelet: A bracelet that sends out alerts with the wearer’s location to the police and emergency contacts (known as “Guardians”) selected by the wearer—this happens when two buttons are pressed simultaneously. Once activated, the device will also call the police and activate the wearer’s cellular microphone, transmitting the sounds coming from the microphone to the police. The wearer can add contacts and security preferences through the Safelet app. The Safelet device operates by using a “secure Bluetooth Low Energy connection.”
First Sign: A hair clip with “built-in gyroscope and accelerometer to detect head impacts indicative of physical assault.” When pressed, the clip turns on a microphone that calls the police while recording the incident. The First Sign clip also emits an audible message when pressed in order to “deter the attacker.” If pressed accidentally, the wearer can access the First Sign app on their phone within 15 seconds to deactivate the false alarm. The First Sign clip uses Bluetooth and an Internet connection must be established in order for the device to work.
Cuff: This is a smart device that can be inserted into the manufacturer’s line of jewelry/accessories (such as a sport band, metal necklaces and bracelets, leather bracelets, and key chains). The device uses a phone app that allows the wearer to set their emergency contacts, and when activated, the Cuff sends the user’s emergency contacts a message. The Cuff device can be paired with any of their jewelry line products to change the look. However, the wearer can’t be more than 20-30 feet from their phone for the device to fully work, and their phone must be connected to the Internet.
Undercover Colors: A nail polish line that detects date rape drugs such as Rohypnol, Ketamine, Ecstasy, and other “roofies” by changing colors when a finger is dipped into a drink to “discreetly” stir. This method can alert the wearer of a spiked drink before they consume it.
It might be reassuring to know that more than pepper spray, mace, rape whistles, and tasers can be used to protect victims before, during, and after an assault. However, the very idea that such a number of up-and-coming devices are necessary is concerning in itself. While the thought of having an aid in sexual assault prevention is undoubtedly a good one, the need for these items is telling of how much of an issue sexual assault has become.
Though prevention gadgets are steps in a good direction, they are not solutions to stopping the act that calls for their existence. And for all the good these products attempt to achieve, they come with a fair amount of criticism:
- Products such as the aforementioned and others put the burden of rape prevention on the potential victim, not the perpetrators. It is the victims who are going out of their way to obtain and use these products—and while it is a safe, smart thing to ensure one’s safety, perhaps education, accountability, prosecution, and practicing consensual sexual activity should take the forefront.
- These products may reinforce myths about what sexual assault looks like—for example, a woman who was drugged by a stranger in a bar or was attacked while walking alone at night. While these kind of attacks do happen, research suggests that the vast majority of sexual assaults at college are acquaintance assaults (this is also true for assaults that occur outside of college).
- Marketing these products to women leaves out male victims. According to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey that polled college students living on or near campus, “twenty percent of women and 5 percent of men reported being sexually assaulted either by physical force or while incapacitated.” This survey and many others reveal that both men and women experience sexual assault.
- These products are intended to be used before, during, or after a sexual assault has occurred—they do not guarantee that the act will be stopped, that the victim will be safe, or that the attacker will be caught.
- While date-rape drugs such as roofies are sometimes used to facilitate sexual assault, most often, alcohol is the number one date rape drug.
- Many of these devices also present some practical challenges: they assume the user already has a smartphone, and many of the devices require that a free mobile app be downloaded and connected to the product itself; for the fashion fashion/jewelry pieces, an accessory cover would be needed to better conceal the product; an Internet connection must also be established in order for the devices to correctly work.
Critics’ assertions that these devices misrepresent the nature of sexual assault and unfairly shift the burden to victims show that these devices cannot solve the problem without educational initiatives providing students the proper context.
Fortunately, many colleges, universities, and now high schools in select states require students to take sexual assault prevention programs or classes. With the well of information, definitions, statistics, and scenarios in these courses, the goal is to educate students about consent and sexual assault, leading to better decision-making and ultimately a safer environment.
These products can save lives, but they need to paired with the proper education and training. The goal is to prevent sexual assault, not just avoid it.