Researchers out of MIT lead by Manisha Mohan have created something pretty incredible: “Intrepid,” a sticker that fights sexual assault. You wear it on your clothes — and if your clothing is forcibly disturbed, a sensor on the sticker notices and literally sends up an alarm. The researchers built their design based on input from sexual assault survivors, and the real-world functionality of the device could have a major impact on the prevention of sexual violence.
But I also think that it’s not as helpful in the fight against sexual assault as it might appear. The same, for that matter, is true of a wide variety of similar gadgets and gizmos — fobs, bracelets, smartphone apps — that have been invented in recent years. They have good intentions, these devices, and they’re often effective in certain situations. But their very existence points to a glaring problem in how our society looks at sexual assault — a problem that becomes even clearer when we simultaneously consider the lack of developmental efforts made focused on teaching people not to rape or assault others in the first place: Our culture largely still — still— considers it the responsibility of potential victims or survivors to prevent their own assaults before they happen.
Intrepid is pretty impressive. The sensor in it is smart; it starts by learning how you typically take off your clothes. If, however, your clothes are removed in a way that’s atypical from your usual routine, it sends a notification to your phone asking if you consent. If you don’t respond within 30 seconds, an alarm goes off; additionally, the system will notify your “safety circle” — up to five people whose contact information you’ve provided — gets your phone to start recording audio, and calls one of your contacts. If it’s a false alarm, you’ve got 20 seconds to turn the alarm off and abort the process.
I also appreciate that, although it’s widely been widely demonstrated by being stuck in a bra, Intrepid can be used for any kind of clothing — that is, it’s not a gendered device. (Here’s your reminder that, although women and gender nonconforming people are disproportionately affected by it, people of all genders can and do experience sexual harassment, assault, and rape.) Indeed, its function is to combat three different types of situations: Child sexual abuse, college campus assault, and abuse of elderly and disabled people
There is, however, a problem: Not all sexual assault is committed by force. The sensor can’t do anything about coerced sex, or about situations in which one person revokes consent after their clothes are already off but the other person decides to keep going anyway, or about the kinds of situations where you might not even know that what you experienced was sexual assault. It can’t do anything about any situations outside the scope of someone removing your clothes by force.
I’m angry that someone had to take the time to develop this in an attempt to solve the terrible problem in the first place — because what that indicates to me is that the way our culture sees it, the onus is on victims not to get raped, rather than on rapists not to rape.
For what it’s worth, the sensor does have a second mode that wearers can activate themselves by pressing a button, which mitigates some of these issues — but what if you’re in a situation where your clothes are already off or you otherwise no longer have access to the device? What if you’re not sure you need to activate it?
It’s an imperfect solution — although I am not angry about this. I think that’s important to note. I am not angry that this gadget, and others like it, exist. I’m not angry that the device has failings. I’m not angry that someone took the time to develop it in an attempt to help solve a terrible problem. I am not angry about any of those things, and I don’t blame the device either for existing or for not being able to address the huge and horrible variety of ways in which people can be assaulted.
I’m angry that someone had to take the time to develop this in an attempt to solve the terrible problem in the first place — because what that indicates to me is that the way our culture sees it, the onus is on victims not to get raped, rather than on rapists not to rape. And the fact that that’s the angle from which our society continually approaches sexual assault prevention is an issue.
I’m angry that it’s on victims to stop predators from choosing to victimize them, rather than on predators stopping themselves from choosing to victimize other people.
And it’s not just devices. Program after program has been developed to teach people — often women — how to avoid being raped or assaulted. These programs have had some degree of success, too; a study published in 2015 found that “a program that trained first-year female college students to avoid rape substantially lowered their risk of being sexually assaulted,” according to the New York Times. I’m not knocking these programs. Trust me, I know how important it is to be able to know how to protect yourself.
The issue is that nearly all of our efforts seem to be focused on teaching people about how to prevent their own assaults before they happen. But where are the programs that work to teach people not to rape in the first place? A study published in the journal Violence and Gender in December of 2014 found that one third of college men would “force a woman to [have] sexual intercourse,” but only 14 percent said they would “rape a woman” — that is, one third of college men do not know what rape is. They don’t know that “forcing someone to have sex” is rape. And they’re fine with committing rape as long as it’s not called rape.
Where are the programs that teach people what actually constitutes sexual assault and rape? Where are the programs that teach people about consent— what it is, what it isn’t, that it’s not a static thing, how people are allowed to change their minds and revoke consent at any point, how those revocations must necessarily be respected? Where are the programs that put the onus of preventing attacks on those who would choose to attack others — not the people they choose to attack? They are few and far between — and, thanks to the fact that schools in the United States still do not have sufficient sexual education programs, people often aren’t learning these incredibly important lessons early enough. Or, in some cases, at all.
Where are the programs that teach people what actually constitutes sexual assault and rape? Where are the programs that teach people about consent?
Improvements are happening. The Mentors in Violence Protection program in Massachusetts, for example, is happening. Some universities are starting to teach mandatory consent courses — that's happening, too. These are good things. But it’s not enough. We need more efforts like these. They can work in tandem with programs and devices geared towards self-defense — but we cannot expect sexual assault prevention to fall solely on the shoulders of victims and survivors.
We need to do better than that.