Call it Mace 2.0: A new class of technology is being marketed to women with the promise of preventing sexual assault.
From portable rape-drug testers disguised as coasters and napkins that detect spiked drinks, to “personal safety wearables” fashioned like bracelets, pendants and hair clips that alert family and friends to users’ locations and audio record evidence, the technologies advertise peace of mind, primarily to women. The gadgets are modern updates on rape whistles, cans of pepper spray, or keys gripped tightly between each finger – items women were once advised to carry for their own protection.
Some view the technologies as welcome help for women. On social media and the products’ websites, grateful testimonials stream in from worried parents buying the tools for daughters away at university.
“I have three teenage daughters, two of whom are in college. I’d like to put this in every dorm room on the planet," said Michael Marks, senior vice-president for sales at Philadelphia company ROAR For Good, which released Athena, a button that clasps to clothing and allows customers to send a location and text message to family and friends, or emits a 95-decibel alarm (launched in 2017, the product has sold out).
But as personal-safety tech proliferates, critics raise caution that this will not be the fix to the large-scale problem of sexual harassment, abuse and assault.
“It’s really appealing to imagine that there’s a product that we could buy for $10 that would end sexual violence. There is no quick answer," said Kira-Lynn Ferderber, an Ottawa educator whose work focuses on preventing this kind of harm.
Ferderber and other survivors’ advocates have criticized the products, stressing that sexual-assault prevention should focus first on perpetrators, then on bystanders to step up and help. The onus – and the price tag – shouldn’t fall on women, these critics argue.
“In generations past, you’d carry a rape whistle. The problem with a rape whistle is that it only helps if somebody cares, shows up when you blow the whistle and takes you seriously,” Ferderber said.
She and other vocal feminist critics, including author Jessica Valenti and columnist Lauren Bravo, argue that rape-prevention gadgets sit at odds with the realities of sexual violence. One blind spot of the new crop of technologies is that they fixate on “stranger danger,” even though most sexual assaults are perpetrated by men that women know, said Stacey Forrester, co-founder and education co-ordinator of Good Night Out Vancouver, an organization that trains staff at bars, restaurants, music venues and art spaces about preventing sexual violence.
“People are much more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone in their circle – a close friend or someone in their band or someone they’ve been on a few dates with or a co-worker,” said Forrester, adding that the new tools "don’t often reflect the specifics around sexual violence, and who’s committing it.”
Online marketing for the new technologies suggests the products can protect customers and keep them safe. The companies offer some caveats: “We do not just want to put a bandaid on the problem of violence against women,” reads a note on ROAR For Good’s website. A message on the online site for SipChip, a coin-sized tool that tests for date-rape drugs in drinks, reads, “We know SipChip doesn’t solve the complicated problem of sexual assault."
“We’re not declaring that we’re the cure-all,” said Barbara Cook, chief executive of N.C.-based Undercover Colors, the maker of SipChip, which launched last September but is currently only available in the United States.
Still, Cook has high hopes for her tiny roofie-detectors. “We want to get rid of drug-facilitated sexual assault," she said. "We all have very precious little social time. We want to be able to enjoy it in peace. This is a way to protect us from harm.”
Cook sees SipChip as a deterrent. She said she affixes the drug test to the back of her smart phone. When she goes out, she makes a habit of placing her phone face down on the bar, so her SipChip is visible. “My dream is that people will one day see that as … the ADT sign you have in front of your house that says, ‘We are protected,’” Cook said.
Sabah Oustou believes her tool, the £45 ($78) “Hero Personal Safety Bracelet,” extends responsibility past individual women and out to a broader swath of bystanders. Hero was released last year from the Amsterdam-based company Safelet and is now sold internationally. Users geotag their locations and select a network of friends and family to signal when they are in trouble; a built-in microphone can record sound during potentially threatening encounters. But users can also choose to accept help from an “extended guardian community” – strangers who sign up on Safelet to be alerted if someone is in trouble in their neighbourhood, serving as the eyes and ears. "We would like to facilitate a community of people there for one another, when needed,” Oustou said.
For Ferderber, prevention begins with strong sex education for men and women. At her workshops, the groups of young people she speaks to delve into relationships and respect.
“What I would say to somebody who’s looking to protect themselves is practice standing up for yourself, get a clear idea of what you want and what you don’t want and don’t be afraid of causing a scene," Ferderber said. "That all goes against lots of socialization.”
Forrester said Good Night Out Vancouver approaches sexual-violence prevention as a community issue, not a woman’s personal responsibility. The initiative offers staff at nightlife venues training on how to spot sexual harassment, intervene and de-escalate such incidents and properly handle disclosures. It also operates a street team downtown on the weekends between midnight and 4 a.m. The team of helpers hails people cabs, charges up their phones, hands out water and links those who feel they’ve been targeted with police.
“As long as we continue to treat this as an individual problem, the 600,000-plus sexual assaults every year in Canada are not going to go down,” Forrester said. “Our focus needs to be further upstream."