Sexual violence is a complex cocktail. Psychology, trauma, cultural conditioning, power dynamics, and a million other causal details come together to form a crisis for which, it seems, only a similarly complex social solution will do.
Forty years ago, social and political technology theorist Langdon Winner asked “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” in a landmark article for the MIT Press. Described decades later as “one of the most thoughtful attempts to undermine the notion that technologies are in themselves inherently neutral,” Winner uses the example of urban planner Robert Moses’ bridges, which were designed with low underpasses that would prevent buses—and therefore low-income New Yorkers—from accessing Long Island beach resorts.
But just as technology can be used to exacerbate (or even create) social problems, it has been used to solve problems and is poised to do so again—just consider how the invention of the printing press weakened the power of the clergy, or how the development of so-called cruelty-free (or “clean”) lab-grown meat stands to disrupt factory farming.
In recent years, technology has been proposed as a potential solution to everything from forced labor in the seafood industry to the racism black men face trying to hail a cab. The promise of a rape-free world made possible by technological innovation is so appealing that, in 2014, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault convened a “data jam” of inventors, technology experts, policy makers, and survivors to “brainstorm new ways to address the alarming rates of sexual assault on college campuses.”
And the idea that technology might also work to cure—or at least curb—sexual violence is not modern or radical: It’s a notion with deep historical, and even conservative, roots. The National Rifle Association and its advocates, for instance, have long maintained that armed women are less vulnerable to rape, despite the fact that one study found women are 100 times more likely to be killed by a man with a gun than to use one for self-defense. Nevertheless, it’s an idea that is deeply ingrained, and even cherished, in some streams of American culture: that technology, rather than social change, is the solution to rape.
Critics of these “anti-rape” devices argue that they make potential victims responsible for stopping crimes against them. In a world where rape survivors are too often asked to explain why they were wearing the “wrong” clothes or drinking alcohol at the time of their assault, it’s easy to imagine survivors being asked why they weren’t wearing a panic button ring or electrified underwear or a vending machine transformer dress.
“The idea of preventing sexual violence with technology alone is fraught from the beginning,” says Rena Bivens, an assistant professor at Carleton University. “There is this idea that if you just put a technology into a social space with good intentions, that it will somehow magically make things better without also putting the same amount of energy and emphasis into social shifts.”
Indeed, some critics argue that the very idea of arming women with anti-sexual-violence technology is misguided because it doesn’t address the root problem: the acceptance of sexual violence in society and, more broadly, rape culture. They say social change is the only real solution—not data or devices.
Some of these new technologies “prioritize the creation of that data over any attempt to empower women or to change the norms around sexual violence; they’re rape culture with a technological veneer,” wrote Karen Levy, an assistant professor in the department of information science at Cornell University, in a 2014 article for The Atlantic. “Focusing on data production drives us to think of sexual violence in black-and-white terms—a dangerous oversimplification of a far messier and more nuanced reality.”