(Posted by Claire Light)
One of the most distressing things about growing up and getting older is that you run into more and more controversies the rights and wrongs of which you can’t decide at a glance. Is it that the world is getting more morally ambiguous, or am I just getting more tentative?
I saw on News of the Weird last week that South Africa, sometimes known as “the rape capital of the world” (1.69 million women a year are raped there, by the South African Law Commission’s estimate) has been thrown into a tizzy recently by a new anti-rape device, known as a “rat trap”. The rat trap is placed inside the vagina and designed to wrap around a rapist’s penis, hooking into the … er … protuberance in such a way that it could not be removed without medical intervention.
I’m really ambivalent about this one.
An anti-rape advocate claims that this “man-hating” device “misunderstands the nature of rape and violence against women in this society. It is vengeful, horrible, and disgusting.” She also compares it to a chastity belt and calls it “medieval”. Another one says “It is a terrifying thought that women are being made to adapt to rape.” And a rape victim who was stabbed during her rape points out that “This will increase the danger to women, who are already in great danger during a rape.”
The inventor, Sonette Ehlers, counters with ““We have to do something to protect ourselves. While this will not prevent rape, it will help identify attackers and secure convictions.”
The argument about this endangering women more hits hard. Not just because a rapist already rat-entrapped can still beat, stab or shoot his victim (after all, the other weapons women commonly use, such as mace, pepper spray, taserguns or pistols, are designed to disable the attacker, not tag him.) It’s mainly ineffective because 75% of rapes in South Africa are gang-rapes, so the victim can, and probably will, still be gang raped, only now by a gang of really pissed off rapists. Additionally, once the word gets out, won’t rapists just check for traps first, before going in? Presumably, the things are easily enough removed from the woman. They may very quickly become ineffective, serving only to anger rapists who check first.
In addition, the other main purpose of this device is to identify rapists afterwards. But that only works if we can assume that vengeful, disturbed women won’t use this device to entrap men. We can’t assume that 100% of the time, can we? In fact, this just complicates the his-word-against-hers issue of date rape, where a rapist can claim that the rape was consensual, and a disturbed woman can claim that consensual sex was a rape. How can you tell? This device ensures nothing on that front.
In fact, the most effective objection to this device that I can see is that, as a deterrent and as an identifier, it simply won’t work.
Having decided that, though, I’m still suffering over the ethical considerations.
Talking about it being terrifying that women have to adapt to rape … uh, hello? When was the last time that speaker walked through a bad part of town by herself at night? All women the world over are already adapted to rape. We know where not to go, we know not to go out by ourselves at night, we know to go out in groups, we know how to hold our keys in our hands, etc. etc. etc. This is not a further adaptation. This smells a lot more like fighting back.
The “medieval”, chastity belt argument also feels wrong. The problem with chastity belts isn’t that they exist, nor even that they used to be used primarily or exclusively for women. The problem was that they were imposed upon women by others, as a method of controlling their sexuality. Nowadays, there are almost more chastity belts made for men than for women, to be used in consensual dominance play. The point with chastity belts, as with rape, is always, always, consent. The form of sex is not the issue; the consent of all participants is. It feels to me that the rage this device has inspired in these anti-rape activists has more to do with the images the form of the device calls up, and less to do with the actual issues the device raises. But I’m open to being proven (or argued) wrong.
Saying that the device misunderstands the nature of rape (it is a crime of violence, not of sex) is, I think, also not entirely right. But this is more ambiguous to me. This device is a weapon, designed to harm an attacker, like a can of mace or a tasergun, or a pistol. It is, however, passive. It isn’t designed to disable an attacker — any kind of attacker — but rather to sexually disable and tag a rapist specifically. In this way, I think it understands the nature of rape better than other weapons, which treat rape as a crime of violence on par with all other types of assault. Rape is different from other types of violence in that it uses sex, it uses gender in favor of the assailant and against the victim. Yes, women rape and men are raped, but the rat trap recognizes that rape is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, against women; that man-on-woman rape is a violence arising out of misogyny.
As such, the rat trap is unusually appropriate as a weapon against male rape of women. Only someone who actually penetrates a woman’s vagina is in danger from it (assuming, of course, that a woman doesn’t capture a man, tie him up, and simply wrap a rat trap around his penis). Yes, the rat trap can only be used against men, but assuming that most women aren’t going to attempt to entrap men with it, how can anyone have a problem with a rapist making his own bed and having to lie in it this way? And really, is pepper spraying a would-be rapist in the eyes or kneeing him hard in the groin really less “man hating”?
On the other hand, weapons that disable attackers, any kind of attacker, are there to prevent the crime from happening. The rat trap waits until the crime has already begun. Not only is the weapon passive, it encourages the victim to be passive. This reminds me of an episode of “Cops” I saw in the early nineties. The cops were pursuing a report of a woman screaming in a park: they arrrived, located the screaming, and then turned off their lights and waited for the assailant to come out. When asked why they didn’t just turn on the lights and siren, they said that that would scare the assailant away and then they couldn’t catch him. Their job, you see, was to catch a rapist, not to prevent a rape or protect a woman.
There is a profoundly disturbing view of humanity in all of this: one that finds it more important to identify and punish criminals than to prevent trauma and crime. It’s a despairing view, one that has given up and only wants to strike back. Is that essentially “man-hating”? I think so, but not in the sense of the word “man” that has it mean “male humans”. I think it’s “mankind-hating”.
What do you all think?