The 21st Century Rape Whistle: How to Think Critically About Tech for Women’s Safety

Originally published on Huffington Post on 11/3/2015.

Tech projects aimed at women’s safety are hot right now: a new one pops up every couple of weeks. It’s easy to get excited about them, because violence against women is a persistent problem, and tech holds the promise of a shiny, new, and groundbreaking solution.

But there’s a lot below the surface. I’ve had many conversations on the subject recently, and what I usually do is point people to Jessica Valenti’s article, “Why is it easier to invent anti-rape nail polish than to stop rapists?”. Then I started thinking, maybe what would be useful is a media-literacy style set of questions to help us think more critically about these projects.

Here are 6 questions to ask yourself the next time a product or app related to women’s safety hits your newsfeed:

1. Who is the target audience for this project?

It’s usually college-aged women. This audience is a good fit for this type of product, because there has been significant press around how rape culture affects this group. Rape culture means a culture where sexual violence is normalized, considered inevitable, and joked about (examples here). In rape culture, sexual assault is seen as inevitable, and the responsibility falls to individual women to prevent it from happening by taking self-defense classes, dressing modestly, not going out alone, watching their drink, and GPS tracking their walk home.

So what happens if an assault does occur? It’s her fault. Victim-blaming is easy: just point out how she failed to protect herself. It is really important to understand that there is no concept of “ending sexual assault” in a rape culture. Rape culture dictates that sexual assault is an inevitable part of life, and all you can do is make sure the next victim isn’t you.

Sub-question: Who is not the target audience for this project? Why not? Sexual assault affects every demographic and every community, some – like trans women of color – at much higher rates than others.

2. What is the purpose?

What specific problem is the project trying to solve? Apps like Circle of 6, Kitestring, and Companion, and wearables like safety jewelry have been released over the past few years, with the purposes of connecting women to friends, family, and authorities who can help in an emergency. They usually focus on sexual assault, often referring to the dangers of “walking home alone”, which strongly evokes the image of a stranger rapist in a dark alley (quite literally the least of our problems, since most sexual violence is between people who know each other. I should also mention here that only a tiny fraction of assaults are committed using date rape drugs. Yet these are the two most frequently conjured images in women’s safety tech marketing).

Sub-question: What does “prevention” mean? Preventing an individual assault in the moment is one thing. Primary prevention, aka getting to the root of the problem, is something entirely different.

3. Does the app or device refer to itself as a “21st century rape whistle”?

I’ve recently seen tech safety devices referred to as 21st century rape whistles, or some kind of high-tech mace.


But this tradition goes back even further. Did you know women in the early 1900s were stabbing their harassers with hatpins? Yep. That was 100 years ago. We are reinventing the hatpin.

Sub-questions: What does it mean that we keep coming up with new devices for women to protect themselves? How is this approach working out in terms of solving the problem?

4. How does the project frame the problem it’s trying to solve?

A frame is the context in your brain when you’re thinking about an issue. The three main frames I’ve seen used to talk about apps/devices are: as a women’s issue, an individual issue, and inevitable.

Women’s issue:
How many times have I mentioned the word “men” so far in this piece? Zero. That’s funny, because sexual assault is primarily a men’s issue. How is it possible that we spend so much time talking about women’s role in addressing sexual assault, and so little time talking about men’s? This is rape culture in action. While men are very much involved in perpetuating the problem, we see far fewer calls to men to help address it (and yes, there are many ways for men to be an active part of the solution).

A direct quote from Jessica Valenti’s article that I love:

As former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir said after a cabinet member suggested that women be given a curfew to curb a spate of sexual assaults: “But it’s the men who are attacking the women. If there’s to be a curfew, let the men stay home, not the women.”

Individual issue:
A product for personal use naturally leads us to imagine solutions on an individual level. What does the opposite frame look like? One example of a community/institutional approach is the powerful movement to hold college campus administrations accountable for complying with Title IX rules for addressing sexual assaults on campus. Because lots of schools, who have far more power and influence than any individual with a rape whistle, aren’t even meeting their baseline responsibilities. Check out the big name schools on the investigation list.

Treating a problem as inevitable only perpetuates it. Think about how persistently advertisers have insisted that men are incompetent as parents and confused by housework. It’s equally offensive to equate masculinity with the inability to control oneself around unwatched drinks and skirts that are too short.

Sub-questions: When you’re looking at the latest app/device, do you notice these or any other frames?

5. Who are the project’s main supporters?

Take a look at the “About Us” section of the project’s website. Are organizations working on violence prevention issues partnering on this project, partnering in development, or advising? Why or why not? Are there any quotes or testimonials from experts in the sexual assault prevention field?

Sub-question: What do you know about these experts? Joe Biden has gotten some great things done, but that doesn’t mean he always gets it. Just because someone is a big name doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a critical approach.

6. Who is talking about it?

Take a look at the press section. If you see lots of great press from tech and business news sources, but nothing from social justice/violence prevention/feminist outlets, ask yourself why. Do some googling and twitter searching. If the project is getting enthusiastic coverage from people who know very little about sexual assault prevention (think: your local news station, or national tech leaders) what does that mean?

Sub-question: What does it mean if you’re not finding anything negative, but the expert community is not saying a word?

Thinking critically does not mean dismissing

A hundred years ago, women used their hatpins for self-defense because they needed to. Today, a woman using a high-tech safety product is doing the same thing. Because she’s still unsafe. So I’m not going to say that the latest women’s safety tech device is useless. What I am going to say is “are we going to be doing the same thing in 2050?” We need to start asking ourselves why we’re stuck in this loop.

That means challenging the way we think about the problem. A focus on short-term, individual solutions keeps us locked in a narrow perception of what the problem is. These solutions do not challenge rape culture. They sustain it.

To quote Soraya Chemaly,

“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? 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.”

Other approaches to women’s safety

So how do we challenge rape culture and approach the problem in a different way? I’m not an expert, but the three things I see most often are:

  1. Hold rapists accountable
  2. Support survivors
  3. Focus on early education

Can tech play a role in any of these? For sure. Projects like Callisto, a survivor-focused college sexual assault reporting system, is taking steps towards holding rapists accountable, and social media plays a huge role in connecting and educating people around victim blaming. As far as early education, I don’t know of any tech solutions for things like teaching kids about consent.

There are lots of ways to think about the complexities of this problem, and I welcome your perspectives and resources.

The Problems With Bystander Intervention Messaging

The Problems With Bystander Intervention Messaging

Bystander intervention – the encouraging of bystanders to intervene before, during, or after an assault – has been embraced over the past ten years as a major step away from victim-blaming messaging, which focused on telling individuals how to modify their own behaviors around things like dress, drinking, and going out alone as a way of preventing sexual assault. But are these two strategies really that different? I’ve written about bystander intervention in a generally positive way before, but recent incidents and other activists’ writing on the subject have made me take a closer look at the problematic nature of this strategy.

Throughout 2014, bystander intervention messaging was in the spotlight in the U.S., with first the launch of the White House’s 1 is 2 Many campaign in April, followed by the Its On Us campaign launched in September, both aimed at preventing sexual assault on college campuses.

As an example, here is a recent PSA released by the Its On Us campaign:

This PSA shows a party scene in which an obviously-intoxicated woman is about to leave a party when a guy grabs her and says “oh no no, you’re not leaving already?” and starts trying to convince her to stay. Then the camera focuses on another guy sitting on a couch, watching the scene, and as he gets up to walk over to them, a voiceover says “This isn’t a PSA about a sexual assault. It’s about being the guy who stops it. ” That’s bystander intervention messaging in a nutshell: when we see something happening, it’s up to us as individuals to respond.

This messaging strategy invokes feelings of community responsibility, which at first I thought was an attempt to reframe the issue from an individual framework to a systemic framework, but it doesn’t actually do that. Bystander intervention messaging does little to illuminate systemic issues. It does not shed light on the pervasive rape culture or the institutions that fiercely protect individuals who choose to rape. As Lauren Chief Elk and Shaadi Devereaux state in their recent New Inquiry piece, “bystander intervention appears less as a weapon in the fight against sexual assault and more like an evolved form of victim blaming.”

Under its warm and fuzzy cloak of community responsibility, bystander intervention messaging keeps the focus steady on the individual level, the only difference being a shift in who those individuals are. If a sexual assault happens, an individual can still be blamed – and that individual we’re all pointing to is still not the actual person committing the assault. It feels a little like a classic “look over there!” sleight-of-hand situation.

This failure to reframe the problem as a systemic issue makes it seem like the community needs to step in because holding people accountable is an impossible goal. It’s not. Particularly when it comes to college campuses, where we know that serial rapists commit 9 out of 10 rapes.

Dozens of colleges and universities are currently under investigation for mishandling investigations and refusing to hold the perpetrators of sexual assault accountable. This is an institutional problem, not a community problem. Schools need to stop protecting rapists, and improve the way they handle sexual assault cases. The overall focus needs to shift from individuals – whether victims, perpetrators, or bystanders – to the institutions allowing the problem to continue.

The problems with bystander intervention go beyond a simple failure to reframe, due to layers of privilege involved. Lauren Chief Elk shared some deeper analysis on Twitter a year ago (and many times since then), including her personal experience intervening as a bystander:


When a woman of color challenged the behavior of white, wealthy athletes, she was the one attacked and monitored. This example illustrates how the mainstream messaging strategy of bystander intervention sells a version of heroism that sounds broadly accessible, but in reality is only socially and legally protected in certain circumstances.

There are related models that invoke community support and involvement without transferring the responsibility of assault prevention to community members. #YouOKSis started a lot of conversations about how to safely check in with someone in a street harassment situation to make sure they’re okay, but also to “make the harasser aware that somebody is watching, that somebody is paying attention, that someone is conscious”. The 2014 Feminist Public Works subway ad campaign in Philadelphia took a similar approach, as did the Bell Bajao campaign launched in India a few years ago, in which men were encouraged to interrupt domestic violence situations in a nonconfrontational way to simply communicate that the community is watching. It seems like there is some space for strategies like this to serve as a powerful form of community education and involvement, if the pressure for change remains focused on systemic issues. What do you think?

White House PSA on Bystander Intervention

White House PSA on Bystander Intervention

Last week, the White House launched a second video PSA as part of its 1 is 2 Many campaign against sexual assault. Like the prior PSA (starring athletes Eli Manning, Jeremy Lin, Jimmy Rollins, Evan Longoria, David Beckham, Joe Torre and Andy Katz), the new PSA also relies on star power to carry its message, this time with actors (Daniel Craig, Benicio del Toro, Steve Carell, Seth Meyers and Dulé Hill) in addition to Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

This year has seen quite a bit of action from the White House on sexual assault. On January 22, the White House Council on Women and Girls released a report titled “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action” which identified sexual assault on college campuses as “a particular problem.” The president then formed a task force specific to campus sexual assault, which released its recommendations on the same day this new PSA was launched. The current situation is certainly not great. As of May 1st, 55 schools are under investigation for the mishandling of sexual assault reports. Fixing these issues is going to require a two-pronged approach: school administrations need get their act together in terms of ensuring confidential reporting, legal services, and counseling; and they need to get cracking on prevention efforts.

The new White House video PSA is aimed at prevention, and interestingly, though the 1 is 2 Many website says “Watch our new PSA on campus sexual assault” the video itself doesn’t seem particularly targeted to college students. Additionally, its planned distribution raises some questions: the PSA will air in select Regal Entertainment Group and Cinemark movie theaters, over NCM Media Networks’ Lobby Entertainment Network (LEN), and in movie theaters on military installations and ships underway worldwide. I’m sure some of the movie theaters are near college campuses, but if this effort were really targeted to college students, I would expect something more along the lines of “this video will be incorporated into freshmen orientation programs.” If one looks just at where the PSA will be playing, the military is really what jumps out – not campuses. Oddly, though, the 1 is 2 Many website doesn’t mention the problem of military sexual assault anywhere, despite the fact that the mishandling of military sexual assault cases has been in the public eye pretty consistently throughout the past couple of years, due both to egregious incidents and the release of the documentary The Invisible War. It’s very strange to me that 1 is 2 Many and the media in general have been describing this PSA as focused on college students, when its message is clearly much broader.

The PSA video starts by stating that there is a “big problem” that’s “everywhere” including “college campuses, bars, parties, and even high schools”, and “it’s happening to our sisters, daughters, wives, and friends.” Then it defines the problem as “sexual assault” and throws in the call to action: “It has to stop. We have to stop it,” followed by the definitional portion of the PSA, and a hefty dose of morals: “If she doesn’t consent or can’t consent, it’s rape. It’s assault. It’s a crime. It’s wrong.” That established, the PSA moves into bystander intervention, with various celebrities saying “If I saw it happening…” “I’d do something about it”, “I’d speak up”, “I’d never blame her, I’d help her.” The PSA ends by saying what should motivate this intervention: “I don’t want to be a part of the problem. I want to be part of the solution” and stating that it’s about “respect” and “responsibility” (appealing to a sense of values).

This PSA is revolutionary in that it specifically turns the focus away from victim blaming, and shines a light on the idea of someone who “can’t consent” which is important, given recent cases like Steubenville. The choice to draw on celebrity power is a huge plus, since people definitely sit up and listen to actors and athletes. There’s a clear sense of pressure from role models, and an appeal to shared values, which is always a good move (and perhaps a particularly great way to address the military population).

This PSA does, however, have some shortcomings. For one, it starts by defining the problem as something “big” that is “everywhere.” PSAs on gender-based violence do this all the time, and while it seems like it makes sense to set out the problem as a big deal, it’s actually a self-defeating strategy. If the overall goal of your message is to empower individuals to create change, the last thing you want to do is make the problem seem impossibly huge. It awakens a doubt in the back of the mind: if it’s this big of a problem, and hasn’t changed so far, isn’t it inevitable? How can anything I do make a difference?

This PSA has also gotten pushback for the statement that “it’s happening to our sisters, daughters, wives, and friends.” This statement does two things: 1) it establishes/assumes that men need to think of women along the lines of a personal connection in order to see them as valuable and worthy of safety; and 2) it focuses only on female victims. Men are also the victims of sexual assault, but reports are much lower because men feel significantly greater pressure to remain silent about it. In the military, for example, men are thought to make up about 50% of sexual assault victims, but only 14% of reports. Hmm… with this in mind, it really feels like the focus on our “sisters, daughters, wives, and friends” is doing more harm than good, particularly given that this PSA is specifically being shown to military audiences.

I get that the PSA is trying to humanize victims and activate a sense of connection among viewers. While yes, I agree that a sense of personal connection shouldn’t be required to get people thinking about women as important, I do think that activating a sense of personal connection does get at the foundation of bystander intervention. People will step in to help their friends without thinking twice, but stepping in to help a stranger is a stretch. It isn’t automatic. It’s easy to start thinking things like: “This is none of my business. I don’t want to get involved. I don’t know what the whole story is here. Someone braver will probably step in. ” or “Nobody else is getting involved, so clearly this must not be a big deal” (in other words, the bystander effect). These are things we wouldn’t be thinking if the person potentially being assaulted was our friend/relative. The idea of the PSA is that everyone has responsibility for stopping sexual assault, which is a major shift from the victim-blaming messages we hear constantly about how women and girls are responsible for protecting themselves. This is a big change, and it’s not going to happen all at once.

That said, why can’t this campaign encourage bystander intervention among both men and women? Do we have to appeal to a gendered sense of “white knight” chivalry to encourage men to participate in shared responsibility for a community problem? A recent NPR article on bystander intervention does an amazing job of describing how both men and women can be part of the solution, even highlighting the actions of a college-age woman who successfully intervenes when a guy is harassing another woman at a party.

The last thing I want to say about the sisters/daughters/wives/friends construction is that there is a lot of silence around sexual assault experiences. A lot of stories don’t get shared, and so I think this part of the ad is also meant to be a wake-up call: yes, this probably has happened to your sister, your daughter, your wife, your friend. You just may not know about it. But hey, it also may have happened to your brother, your son, your husband, or your male friend. There are definitely ways this PSA could have worked to be more inclusive while still sending a strong message.

I really wish the video had gotten down to specifics in its final call to action. It sends a general “do something” message, which is inspiring, but not in a way that easily translates to action. What if each celebrity had instead said what they would do in a specific situation? Like “if I heard my friend tell a rape joke, I’d say it wasn’t funny” or “if I saw my friend leaving with a very drunk girl, I’d pull him aside and help her find a safe way home.” This would probably require a whole series of ads to accomplish, but modeling specific situations and responses is much more powerful than a general call to “step up and do something.” That said, this PSA is still a great first step towards creating a new social norm where it is unacceptable to ignore violence when we see it happening. If we want to accelerate the process, though, we need to start getting down to specifics, while paying attention to the full scope of the problem.

Lastly, I’m disappointed in the distribution of this message, given the fact that it’s coming from the White House. Having the message in movie theaters is great, but what about more frequently-used, mainstream media, like YouTube, Hulu, and Pandora? Doesn’t the White House have enough pull to make that happen? If this is going to be a broad message, then I want to see it everywhere. Where do you wish this message was being heard?