What the Company Marketing ‘Anti-Rape Underwear’ Gets Wrong About Rape
November 07, 2013
A company named AR Wear is making waves by marketing “a clothing line offering wearable protection for when things go wrong.” The line includes several different types of underwear and shorts that are intended to be difficult for a sexual predator to remove, and the founders explain that could help women feel safer when they’re “going out on a blind date, taking an evening run, ‘clubbing,’ traveling in unfamiliar countries, and any other activity that might make one anxious about the possibility of an assault.” AR Wear has currently raised about half of its $50,000 fundraising goal on the crowdfunding site IndieGoGo.
It’s fairly clear that AR Wear’s founders have the best of intentions. In a press release about the crowdfunding campaign, they explain that they want to help women reclaim control over what happens to their bodies. And on theirIndieGoGo site, they note that as long as sexual predators are still out there, it’s important to protect women from them.
Nonetheless, their effort has been widely criticized, derided as a new type of chastity belt for the “modern rape victim.” That’s not because people are opposed to preventing rape, of course — it’s because AR Wear seems to be missing a few crucial points about the reality of sexual assault. Here’s what the campaign gets wrong:
1. Rape isn’t an accident.
From the onset, the tagline of AR Wear’s campaign signals that this isn’t exactly the right framing for effectively tackling sexual assault. Marketing anti-rape underwear “for when things go wrong” suggests that sexual assault is an accident, or simply a night of partying gone sour. It subtly frames the incident in terms of the victim’s bad luck rather than in terms of the perpetrator’s decision to rape. In fact, sexual assault isn’t a slip-up; it’s a crime that a rapist has consciously committed.
“A woman or girl who is wearing one of our garments will be sending a clear message to her would-be assailant that she is NOT consenting. We believe that this undeniable message can help to prevent a significant number of rapes,” AR Wear notes. That’s not exactly right, either. Extensive research has shown that the people who commit rape aren’t simply confused about whether or not their victim consented. Rapists typically carefully select their victims and use a variety of tactics to manipulate them in order to accomplish their goal of sexual assault. In fact, especially when it comes to date rape, it’s often the victims who are confused about what constitutes consent, and that’s how the rapist gets away with it.
2. Rape doesn’t typically occur among strangers whom women encounter at clubs.
AR Wear’s product totally obscures the reality of date rape or intimate partner violence — which actually comprises the majority of sexual violence in this country. Of course, some women are the victims of random violent crimes. But most women aren’t raped by strangers who accost them while they’re jogging or out dancing. According to RAINN, nearly 75 percent of rape victims are assaulted by someone they know. Anti-rape underwear doesn’t seem so helpful for the women who grow to trust a partner before he ends up raping them.
AR Wear’s IndieGoGo campaign notes that the “work of changing society’s rape culture” still needs to move forward — but the myth that date rape is some kind of lesser version of sexual assault, or that it’s somehow less serious or less violent than stranger rape, actually contributes to unhealthy societal assumptions about sexual crimes.
3. White, pretty girls aren’t the only ones at risk of sexual assault.
AR Wear’s campaign doesn’t explicitly address race. But the founders of the clothing line still sent some clear messages about the type of women who need to be protected from the strangers lurking in the bushes waiting to rape them. Although there are a few stock photos of women of color at the beginning of the video, the vast majority of the women who appear — and every single woman who actually speaks — is a slim, pretty white woman. They all fit mainstream society’s conventional standards about what is considered to be beautiful and desirable.
That’s a subtle dynamic, but it furthers a dangerous myth about rape: The idea that it’s about sexual desire. In fact, rape doesn’t happen because men are wildly attracted to beautiful women, even though that’s been society’slongstanding approach to female sexuality. Rape is about power and entitlement. That’s why teaching women to cover up isn’t actually an effective rape prevention strategy.
Purity and whiteness have also typically been linked in our culture. Society has a troubled relationship with black women’s sexuality, and tends to portray women of color as inherently promiscuous. That ultimately means they’re assumed to be at less risk for sexual assault. Our deeply-ingrained rape culture typically eschews the idea that promiscuous women can beraped — since they must have “asked for it.”
4. It’s misleading to suggest there are simple steps women can take to guarantee they won’t be raped.
AR Wear’s founders acknowledge that their new line of underwear won’t put an end to all sexual assaults. “No product alone can solve the problem of violence against women,” they note. But putting forth this type of product in the first place suggests that there are small steps every woman can take to mitigate her risks. It’s understandable that many people are eager to help women feel safer. That’s arguably why so many well-intentioned public figures continue to tell women to drink less, hoping that advice will help protect them.
But every time we tell women that they should take another precaution to keep themselves safe — wear more clothing, stop drinking as much alcohol, watch their drink carefully, and don some anti-rape underwear — we’re furthering the fundamental premise upon which rapeculture rests. As Slate’s Amanda Hess notes, “Rape is a societal problem, not a self-help issue.” Even if women follow all the instructions that are given to them, that still won’t necessarily prevent them — or other women — from being victimized. It will simply end up laying the blame at their feet if they do fall victim to a sexual crime, since they’ll wonder what more they could have done to protect themselves.
5. We already know about some very effective strategies to prevent rape; we’re just not implementing them.
Of course, this isn’t to say we’re all powerless in the face of the global sexual assault epidemic. There are very real ways to tackle rape culture. Sexual assault prevention advocates believe that it starts with comprehensive sex education, to help educate kids about how to recognize when someone is violating their consent. And when kids age, the education campaigns should continue. College activists are attempting to implement more bystander intervention programsto teach students how to get involved when they see something that might turn into a sexual assault. Strong criminal justice policies that make it easier for victims to report crimes, and that actually hold the perpetrators accountable for those crimes, are another important area ripe for policy change.
It’s easier to develop products like anti-rape underwear than it is to take on theactual roots ofrape culture. It’s easier to raise awareness about sexual assault than it is to actually implement the right policies to prevent it. It’s easy to have good intentions. But it’s also largely unhelpful when it comes to advancing the real goal of creating a world that’s safe for women.