Every year, reports of sexual violence rise. We’re hearing about increased instances of rape on our buses and trains, university and college campuses, in our streets and in our homes. Charity Rape Crisis estimates that over 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped every year. It provokes furious debate, and no-one can quite agree over how to stop it. Some of us, myself included, believe that the way forward involves consent classes, raising awareness of the fact that most rapists are known to their victims, and focusing on preventing rapes without forcing women to shoulder the responsibility for preventing their attack. Then we have the German designer who is selling anti-rape knickers for £87 each, complete with a combination lock to secure them, and a 130-decibel alarm that will sound if the pants are torn or cut.
That’s right. For almost £100, we can protect ourselves by literally locking up our genitals, as though we live in the Middle Ages and our options are “preserve your purity or be drowned in the village well”. The advertisement for the underwear adds” “Only recently, a father in Kleve could barely prevent an attempted rape of his daughter. Brand new on the market of deterrence: underpants with a number lock.” It’s emotionally manipulative – put like that, what Dad wouldn’t buy the pants for his daughter? Never mind the fact that making a father responsible for sexually safeguarding his child is deeply creepy, or that it plays into the wearisome “good guy” idea that women need to be considered as mothers and daughters if they’re not going to be viewed as sex objects.
The thing about rape is that it’s alarmingly easy to argue that protective underwear might make all the difference, until it’s your housemate, or your sister, or you
I could go on (and if you see me in my local pub, I undoubtedly will) but I think that rage and anger are only useful up to a point. What’s interesting, and worthy of discussion, is the fact that rape culture is so universally misunderstood that this underwear is being offered as a “solution”. A similar pair of pants was on sale in Australia in 2013 – which means that in three years, we’ve not made much progress in understanding and preventing rape. Three years in which thousands, maybe millions, of vulnerable people have been violated, and there’s still a sizeable group of people out there who believe that a rapist is most likely to attack by jumping out of a bush, dressed as the Hamburglar. Why aren’t we learning? Why isn’t the message getting through?
Over the weekend, a post about the pants went viral on the Lad Bible Facebook page – a site that, if I’m honest, I’m usually quick to avoid. But seeing the comments underneath the story can give us an idea of the misconceptions around rape that exist, and where they come from. Someone commented “a rapist knows it’s wrong but does it anyway, same way a murderer knows it’s wrong to murder someone but does it anyway”. It’s such a convenient analogy to make, and reveals so much about how so many people fail to see that when men rape women, it isn’t a crime that happens in isolation, but the result of years of sexism, entitlement and objectification. However, it’s heartening to see that there is a sizeable number of comments calling for better education around consent and respect. This makes me think that there’s hope, and space for change.
The thing about rape is that it’s alarmingly easy to argue that protective underwear might make all the difference, until it’s your housemate, or your sister, or you. It’s a crime of unimaginable horror, but sadly it isn’t unimaginable for many of us, and we know that the only thing the attacks had in common is that they had nothing to do with what we were wearing. It shouldn’t be up to women to take responsibility for avoiding rape. However, I do think we have an obligation to talk about it as much as we’re able, to educate and explain and challenge the pervasive myths volubly and confidently. The existence of these knickers will engender shame, making victims believe they failed themselves by failing to prevent an attack. Shame makes us shut up. I’m sure the underwear is well intentioned, but it won’t help us fight rape – but we can fight it by challenging the culture that causes it, as loudly as we dare.