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Personal alarms – protecting women or a dangerous shifting of responsibility?

Devices created with the aim of keeping women safe could also burden them, reports Stuart Houghton

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By Stuart Houghton on

Despite falling crime statistics, almost everyone has been in a situation that felt at least a little bit unsafe. You might be walking home alone at night or stuck in a job that puts you face to face with angry customers. You might be travelling, not so much off the beaten track as only vaguely entertaining the idea of a track. Now, a crowdfunded gadget claims to offer a solution – or at least part of one.

The Revolar Instinct is a little slug of coloured plastic with a large central button, like a car key fob. It’s a personal safety device – an attack alarm, by another name. Unlike your typical alarm, the Instinct pairs with your phone and silently sends different alerts depending on how you click it. A single click is a “I got home safe” check-in, two clicks is a “yellow alert” and three clicks will message five friends and ask them to send the police to your GPS location.

It can also trigger a fake incoming call. Handy, if you need an instant excuse to escape an awkward Tinder date, a “character” on the night bus or even just a boring conversation. Oh, and it is also a step counter because you probably only own two or three other gadgets that can do that.

The Instinct is one of a number of new products offering personal protection against sexual assault or harassment. Recently, we have seen cups, drinking straws and nail varnish that change colour when exposed to GHB or Rohypnol and even allegedly “rape-proof” lockable underwear that blares out a siren when cut or torn.

These things are selling but, for many women, it’s not just the lockable knickers that ring alarm bells. If a product claims to prevent assault, isn’t that just another burden? A thing that you could be blamed for not doing, along with all the other things?

Negative reactions to personal safety tech are common with people accusing manufacturers and promoters of victim-blaming and ignoring the real causes of physical assault. A significant problem, as Daisy Buchanan points out is that rape or sexual assault  isn't usually committed by a stranger attacking on the street. More education about consent is likely to lead to a larger reduction in assaults than any gadget – carrying a keyfob or a tricked-out drinking straw for protection might seem like common sense but “common sense” is open to interpretation.

I spoke with Sarah Green from the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), an organisation that campaigns to end all forms of violence against women, in the context of women's inequality and human rights. Does EVAW have a position on a product like Instinct? "It's never good or bad," says Green. "Self-defence has always been a part of the women's movement and there has actually been a recent wave of interest in that. That is sometimes considered in terms of 'why should women need to learn martial arts?' but isn't really that. The women's self-defence movement was always about more subtle things around the way you walk and your entitlement to be on the street as much as anyone else.

Sexual assault isn't usually committed by a stranger. More education about consent is likely to lead to a larger reduction in assaults than any gadget

"When we have done attitudinal research into people's perceptions of violence against women, we found some interesting contrasts, which tend to break down on values or political lines rather than on gender. You will commonly find people who think women's safety is about common sense and common sense says you shouldn't be out late at night and so on."

For Revolar's part, the Instinct was created by two of the company's co-founders, both of whom have experienced violence or abduction in their families.

“The idea for Revolar was born after my sister was assaulted,” Revolar CEO Jacqueline Ros told Forbes in 2016. “I couldn’t help but ask myself, what if? There was no time for her to use her phone, but what if there had been a button she could have pressed to send for help?”

Her co-founder Andrea Perdomo's grandmother was kidnapped and held for eight months by Colombian guerillas. The pair seem motivated by a genuine desire to make a product that could help someone escape a violent or threatening situation and Revolar recently partnered with the US National Domestic Violence Hotline.

"You get feminist approaches to violence and harassment but you also get non-feminist approaches," says Sarah Green. "We wouldn't endorse or slam a product because it would depend entirely on how a product is marketed or framed."

A product like the Instinct, says Green, could be presented as something that will complement the ideas around empowerment and the right to be in any space. It becomes something that gives a boost of confidence or a sense of reassurance rather than something that you are required to carry to be considered responsible.

"Or," adds Green, "it could be exploitative and say 'this thing is £49.99 and if you don't buy it then whatever happens is even more your fault'."

You could even choose to view the Instinct as comparable to placing signs in women's toilets in bars that say something like “if you are feeling threatened, ask to speak to a particular member of staff or use this code phrase”. A tool, nothing more. Something that you can choose to ignore or use to complement whatever version of common sense you subscribe to.

@stuarthoughton

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