“Please be careful when you’re walking around on campus this week,” my husband said, looking up from his computer. He had just read Rolling Stone’s now infamous article about rape and sexual violence across the University of Virginia’s campus, and I was headed to Charlottesville the next day. I rolled my eyes, just like I did when he said almost the same thing after Hannah Graham went missing a month earlier. I told him if he was that worried, he could always see where I was on Find My Friends; an iPhone application that turns your phone into a kind of voluntary ankle bracelet, allowing you to share your current location with select friends. I had grudgingly agreed to use this app a few months prior when he pointed out that, for my dissertation, I was going all over Washington, D.C. interviewing strangers in cafes and restaurants I had never been to before.
At UVA the next day, I saw a group of students protesting and talking into news cameras and one of their signs caught my attention: “We live in a society that teaches: Don’t Get Raped instead of Don’t Rape”. First, the sad truth of the sign hit me. Its simply stated message rang true and I felt the slow heat of anger start building in my chest. But my second reaction was the one that really irritated me, why hadn’t I thought of that before? My mind raced around to the points in my biography when I had the opportunity to make this connection, but didn’t…
When I arrived on campus at my all-women’s college, on the first day of orientation we were handed blue plastic whistles (which we would forever call “rape whistles”). We were instructed to attach the whistles to the ubiquitous lanyards we all wore around our necks (until we got too cool for them) and to use them only in case of emergency. The campus police officer who was running the session then gave us all a chance to blow the whistles to “get it out of our systems” so that we could be sure to use them appropriately from then on. We joked about this among ourselves, about how over-protective it was to issue whistles to women on an all-women’s campus in a town with one of the lowest crime rates in Massachusetts in order to protect ourselves. At the time, we took the whistle warning in stride and got on with the more important business of registering for classes and making new friends.
While I was at school I also took an optional Rape Aggression Defense (or R.A.D for short) course that was a multi-week self-defense class that culminated in a nerve-wracking attack simulation. During this simulation, we we donned gloves, head protection, and knee pads, and were instructed to pantomime getting money out of an ATM, or being pinned underneath someone, and one of our instructors (wearing something like this) acted as the “aggressor” and attempted to restrain us. Our assailant’s face was obscured, and while I was reasonably sure it was one of our instructors, I couldn’t identify the behemoth lumbering toward me, pinning my arms to my sides and trying to wrestle me to the ground, and it scared me. We were instructed to use the techniques we had learned (and full force) against our imaginary assailant, and depending on our performance, we either received certification or not (this being Wellesley…we all received our certifications).
After this class, I felt strong. My adrenaline was pumping after my palm made contact with the attacker’s face mask and I stomped on its foot, running full speed out of the room and to safety. As I high-fived my fellow classmates afterwards, my voice was hoarse from screaming “No! Stop!” with a volume that had surprised me. We had all made light of it, joking about how silly it seemed, but during the simulations I was terrified, and afterwards I felt triumphant. This workshop reminded me of my physical vulnerability to strangers in public places, and also to friends and partners. We learned how to defend ourselves against an attacker who came at us from behind, taking us unawares, but also how to get out from underneath someone who had us pinned beneath them.
Was my feminist consciousness awakened to the outrage I should have felt that there were 3 assault survivors in my class of 10? Did I leave with a better critical awareness of male entitlement and cultural constructions of female vulnerability? Absolutely not. This was not the point of the class. But I did learn how to break a stranglehold around my neck.
Back at UVA, I continued my walk around campus and my thoughts continued to jump around, thinking about all the times I had received the message that I was the last (and often only) line of defense against sexual violence directed at me, and my thoughts finally settled on the phone in my pocket. As I continued my walk toward the library, I thought of the pulsing blue dot that was slowly making its own way across a map of Charlottesville. In Washington, if my partner was worried about me, he could open this map and see my serene little dot, gliding along its path around campus.
I now had another weapon at my disposal that didn’t require mouth guards and weeks of training…my smart phone. Services like Kitestring,bSafe, and Watch Over Me, offer to call or text a list of emergency contacts if a timer runs out, the phone is shaken, or a panic button is pushed. As a student of sociology & technology, I’m fascinated by the existence and variety of personal safety apps. Do women actually use them? Or do nervous students, parents and partners insist on them being downloaded only to languish on that 3rd home screen along with that running app you thought you’d use everyday? Do these applications make women safer? Or do they only make women feel safer as they take the risks that every single one of their male classmates take without a second thought? Or are they socializing women and men into accepting that it is every individual woman’s burden to keep herself safe from sexual violence?
The names and publicity for these services alone are enough to raise a feminist eyebrow – Kitestring’s founder says that he created the app “to keep my girlfriend safe” – bSafe’s motto is “the end of worry” and offers a “fake call” feature to “get you out of bad dates”. But, feminists like Donna Haraway and Sadie Plant celebrated the merging of biology and technology to herald women’s liberation and social progress. Are these defensive technologies the kind of technologies they meant? These thinkers imagined women using digital technologies to achieve social progress, to play with their identities and enable everyone to achieve social progress together – but what of defensive tech?
Judy Wajcman reminds us that there is a mutually shaping relationship between technology and gender, “in which technology is both a source and a consequence of gender relations. In other words, gender relations can be thought of as materialized in technology, and masculinity and femininity in turn acquire their meaning and character through their enrollment and embeddedness in working machines”. It’s possible that in their advertising, these applications inscribe their users’ vulnerability, and need for protection, and de-emphasize the way most sexual violence happens, not outside at the hands of a stranger, but at the hands of someone you know. While at the same time, in practice they may enable women to take more risks in order to participate more equally within public spaces.
It’s shameful that so many women feel they need an app like this to feel safe in public space. But what are we supposed to do about it? Download the app and see it as an act of resistance against the risk of walking alone at night? Or don’t and protest the technologies that reinforce women’s vulnerability? I don’t have the answers, but if you want to know how to break a stranglehold, let me know.