I saw this article on CNN and it intrigued me not because of the innovation, but because the situation in South Africa that’s caused this doctor to go to this extreme. Dr. Sonnet Ehlers is distributing Rape-aXe, female condoms with jagged rows of teeth-like structures that attaches on a man’s penis during penetration. Once the device hooks on a man, only a doctor can remove the device, which Dr. Ehlers hopes will motivate law enforcement officials to make arrests in rape cases.
“It hurts, he cannot pee and walk when it’s on,” she said. “If he tries to remove it, it will clasp even tighter… however, it doesn’t break the skin, and there’s no danger of fluid exposure.”
The doctor, who said she sold her home and car to star the project, said she’s hoping to distribute about 30,000 devices during the World Cup. After the trial run, Dr. Ehlers said the device will sell for about $2 each.
The article noted there was some criticism behind Dr. Ehlers’ device.
It’s also a form of “enslavement,” said Victoria Kajja, a fellow for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the east African country of Uganda. “The fears surrounding the victim, the act of wearing the condom in anticipation of being assaulted all represent enslavement that no woman should be subjected to.”
Kajja said the device constantly reminds women of their vulnerability.
“It not only presents the victim with a false sense of security, but psychological trauma,” she added. “It also does not help with the psychological problems that manifest after assaults.”
We can all sit and discuss the pros and cons of this device and how it empowers or enslaves women. We can all sit around and discuss if this will deter rapes or put women at greater risk for violence. But it doesn’t help the fact that one in four men in South Africa last year in a survey said they had raped someone, that three out of four men said they’ve raped more than once and one in three committed their first rape when they were in their teens (Source).
Rape and other forms of sexual violence is pervasive in both the Global North and the Global South. An April 2010 report by Amnesty International on violence against women in Cambodia and Nordic countries show that women are routinely denied justice and rarely see their attackers punished for their crimes.
In Nordic countries, for example, the use of violence or threats of violence determine the seriousness of rape rather than the violation of a woman’s sexual autonomy. The report Case Closed: Rape and Human Rights in the Nordic Countries, documents one case in Finland where a man forced a woman to have sexual intercourse in the disabled toilet of a car park by banging her head against the wall and twisting her arm behind her back. In the prosecutor’s opinion, this was not rape as the violence used was of slight degree. The man was convicted of coercion into sexual intercourse and sentenced to a conditional (suspended) seven-month prison term. In Cambodia, women do not trust the justice system. Costs associated with police processes deter women from pursuing a case. Victims are often asked to pay a bribe before police will start an investigation. Money is also usually required for medical expenses, transport and phone credit costs for police during the investigation. Breaking the Silence: Sexual Violence in Cambodia also documents how extra-judicial payments were negotiated as a “solution”. Typically police officers act as an arbiter between the families of the victim and perpetrator to secure a financial settlement on the condition that the victim withdraws the criminal complaint. The mediator receives part of this settlement.
In the U.S. one in six women and one in 33 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, according to the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN). In 2007, there were 248,300 victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault and every two minutes, someone is sexually assaulted, according to the organization. Even the ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan has left women vulnerable to being raped.
Devices like Rape-aXe come into existence because of the global rape culture we tolerate (for those who are clueless about rape culture, here’s a great blog post about it: Rape Culture 101). Whether we like it or not, we live in a world that condones violence towards women and children. We tolerate rape. When women are so fear stricken that they have to insert a foreign object into their vaginas to ward off rape, that’s rape culture, folks. When women have to turn to the capitalist market in the hopes of finding something to stop a man from raping her, that’s rape culture. When a country has 25 percent of men participating in a survey admitting to raping someone, that’s rape culture. Like the BBC article notes, when men participate in gang rape as a bonding mechanism, that’s rape culture.
While I understand Ms. Kajja’s criticism of this device, what else are these women supposed to do? Many women in South Africa, along with other countries, have been raped and face a good chance of being raped again. When you consider the fact that many law enforcement/government officials in various countries are participants and standards bearers of rape culture, many women feel desperate and alone in their struggle to fight off rape. This device for some women will be their only hope for a barrier against rape.
Approving or rejecting the use of devices like Rape-aXe mean nothing if we don’t address the root cause of why this and other drastic means of preventing rape are entering our markets. The use of Rape-aXe is irrelevant if we don’t address that pervasive rape culture that’s embedded in every aspect of our society.