Rape Dilemma

(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?

25 thoughts on “Rape Dilemma

  1. Your argument that the trap only works after the crime has been committed, thus encouraging passivity, has one flaw: the assumption that it is the *only* weapon used. I don’t see that the installation of an artifical vagina dentata would necessarily prevent a women from screaming, running, or fighting an attacker off as she otherwise would. It strikes me more as a last-chance weapon, and a much better one than the traditional method of carrying a dagger to stab oneself and prevent a “fate worse than death” (not that too many modern women do that).

    I do agree with your earlier points, though. I’m not sure it would be effective. Also, you know, wearing any variant of that device that’s large enough to be effective sounds damned uncomfortable. What would really upset me would be to feel so endangered that I needed to wear a weapon that would discommode my daily life.

  2. Seems like it’d be awfully dangerous to use, doesn’t it? I mean, you’re already in a helpless position and you’ve just done something that’s going to really piss your attacker off . . .

  3. As what may be a welcome side note, I’ve read repeatedly that there is little or no actual medieval evidence for use of chastity belts – apparently they were a Victorian fantasy that in modern times became a sex toy.

    Regarding the rat trap, I agree with David Moles. It’s too late to prevent the rape, and it is liable to just enrage the rapist.

  4. As what may be a welcome side note, I’ve read repeatedly that there is little or no actual medieval evidence for use of chastity belts – apparently they were a Victorian fantasy that in modern times became a sex toy.

    Regarding the rat trap, I agree with David Moles. It’s too late to prevent the rape, and it is liable to just enrage the rapist.

  5. The fact that there would even be a market for such a device is truly depressing.

    There are so many reasons why this is a bad idea. I think the best reason aginst this device is that to use it the woman would have to subject herself to the very act she’s wanting to prevent. Not exactly a big selling point if you ask me…

  6. Most likly the result would be revenge from the rapist either then and there or later when he hunts her down.
    I don’t even want to think what would happen with the use of that in a country where the criminal could sue for damages or the woman could be charged with some kind of assult/battery for premeditating to cause injury.

  7. This is not unlike a cyborg adaption KW Jeter described in Dr. Adder 30 years ago (written 30 years ago, published here in the 80s, I think).

    I’d like to see something more like the anti-rape weapon Neal Stephenson introduced in Snow Crash. Another weapon internal to the woman’s vagina, this one inserted a needle into the penis and injected a knockout drug, allowing the woman to escape her situation, assuming she was only being attacked by a single person. After the attacker is unconcious, the woman is of course free to mark him however she wants.

    Those who believe this rat-trap kind of thing would only enrage the attacker into beating the rape victim might be underestimating the shock such a weapon might deliver to the male body, though I would agree that if the man was holding a weapon the odds that the woman would be badly wounded would go up.

  8. Yes, but by the time this is employed, the woman in question is already badly wounded. I can certainly see the allure of adding some incremental risk of harm to the victim in return for the opportunity to get some power over the situation — and possibly the allure of vengeance in the process.

    I guess I’m not seeing the moral dilemma. Yes, this is barbaric and disturbing, but it’s intended for a barbaric and disturbing situation. I think we’re bothered more by the idea that rape can be prevalent enough that this becomes a rational option — that is, it pokes through the hazy lack of comprehension that most people tend to have about the suffering of others. Whether that’s male cluelessness about the fear of rape, the well-off about hunger, or developed nations about economic deprivation, the shoe fits the same. Millions of women raped a year is a statistic. A woman who wears this device is an individual, and a story, and is harder to lose in the haze.

    BTW, on that topic, you’re kidding yourself if you think chastity belts were a myth. Current research indicates that they weren’t used often, and when they were it was quite common for the woman in question to get around it. But they did exist, they were available, and hence were a very real threat that could be used against women. A woman living in a society where her husband could belt her is harmed even if she is never forced to wear one.

    And that’s the source, I think, of the rational objections to this technology. It’s not a technological problem. The issue with chastity belts were societies that used sex rules to control women. The issue with rape is societies that condone it. The solution to both is social change, not mechanical.

  9. A few more cheerful statistics:

    There are 22 million women in South Africa, so if the distribution were even (which it surely is not), that comes out to a 1.96% annual chance of being raped. After thirty years spent in South Africa, average odds of having been raped once are about 45%. Naturally, since some women are effectively near zero risk, then other women’s risks are much higher.

    Thirty years chosen because the average lifespan of a South African woman is 43 years; men live on average about three months longer. Part of this is due to the 21% HIV infection rate, which also might influence one’s opinion of how a rational woman might respond to the threat of rape.

  10. Rapists have been wanting blow jobs, and women have been equipped with teeth, since long before the “rat trap” was invented. I can only presume that bites have not occurred very often because frightened rape victims are afraid that whatever they do would not be sufficiently disabling to protect them from vicious revenge. And the same would apply to the “rat trap”.

    A passive anti-rape device would only be effective if you leave it in pretty much all the time, so what happens if you forget to remove it before consensual sex?

    I canot, however, feel any sympathy for the rapist who gets caught by one of these things, any more than I can for the burglar who gets shot by a householder.

    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.

    If they catch the rapist, though, they’re protecting future potential victims. There is a moral dilemma here, and it turns on at what point they step in and how capable they are of controlling the situation.

    Have you seen the Jack Nicholson film The Pledge? At the risk of a plot spoiler, it depicts a very similar dilemma.

  11. I know one case where the woman indeed bit the bastard, and it was enough to make him limp off, wailing.

    I’ve myself fought one so he was left with a broken nose, very big balls and assorted scratches and bruises. I got away relatively unharmed. Of course, if he had a weapon, if there was more than one, chances would have been very bad, but I think a determined woman can at least try to fight a single, unarmed rapist off and maybe succeed, as in my case. Personally, I wouldn’t use a rat trap.

  12. 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.

    Actually, as a woman living alone in a big city, I walk through dark parks and “bad” areas all the time. I don’t carry my keys in my hands. If I’m going to be raped, statistically speaking, I’m far more likely to be raped in a social setting by someone I know RAINN gives the percentage of female rape victims who know their assaulter at approximately 70%). I don’t go into parking garages (the other statistically higher site for an assault)–I don’t have a car. And if the statistics aren’t going to make me fear my friends and acquaintances (the more likely rapists), I’m hardly going to let the myth of the stranger-danger keep me from doing what I need to the rest of the time. I refuse to live in fear.

    In South Africa, the trends may be different. But Mary Robertson’s overview of the situation suggests that despite the frighteningly high numbers of rapes occuring, these patterns aren’t that different:

    Contrary to popular belief, the majority of rapists are known to the victim. In these situations, the survivor may blame herself for somehow encouraging the assault. Frequently, the victim’s own sense of shame and stigma is exacerbated by the judgemental reactions of others.

    What all this suggests about the rat trap’s utility I leave to others to decide.

  13. A deterrent might function, itself, as a means of prevention, if not a perfect one. But this particular deterrent does strike me as potentially very bad for the victim who actually does get attacked.

    Actually, it reminds me of a more sinister variant of the Lojack situation. Lojack works better as a means of catching car thieves, and therefore deterring them through its existence, than as a means of actually getting your car back in one piece if it’s stolen. So putting it in your car is in a sense an altruistic act; since it costs money, the ideal situation is to have other people using it and not you. Some interesting game theory there…

  14. Gabriele, I think that very much depends on the woman’s strength and physical training, compared to the rapist’s. Some women can do what you did. Most can’t. Some men couldn’t either. I’m male, but I wouldn’t attempt to fight off a physical assailant who was more than about five years old.

  15. On the mental attitude, too, Simon. I’m not that strong, but I was willing to hurt that bastard real bad if necessary, and I wasn’t afraid to get hurt myself – heck, rape would have been worse than any other injury.

    Many women have been and probably still are brought up to be nice and passive. I think it’s that attitude that prevents them from getting nasty and active in such a situation. Fortunately, my father told me that there are situations where physical violence is the only way out. And he taught me to fight dirty, lol.

    And if the assailant had been a boxing champion, my chances would indeed have been bad.

  16. I too have questions about the effectiveness, but not the ethics. I suspect a lot of the vapors commentators are getting about this device is that it affects the rapist’s penis. If it were a device that sprayed a rapist with marking dye, or hit him in the eyes with pepper spray, nobody would care. But you don’t mess with TEH COCK and expect people to shrug it off.

  17. Whatever. I think rape happens more between people who know each other.

    I think this device would help pick out the rapist. But imagine the fear you live in, in order to feel like inserting this device… just in case. And at that point, rape is just one of the humiliations you would be going through. This device would solve nothing.

    For example, my husband did rape me. Passive and sobbing didn’t seem to matter in our so-called loving relationship. Fortunately, I am now divorced. Sex was something I was willing to give…but not one week after the birth of our child.

  18. A handgun would be much more effective. Unfortunately, South Africa has made it nearly impossible for a private citizen to own a handgun, much less carry one for self protection.

  19. What is going to keep the rapist from taking it out of the vagina and turning the device inside out and placing it on his penis and then use it on the woman. In addition men could purchase it, turn them inside out, and use the device as a barbaric condem on rape victims. This device could too easily be used on women.

  20. Don’t be silly, the device can not be turned inside out.
    Why are we even debating this. I’ve read the risks I’d still use it.
    As for a rapist getting angry and hurting you, well, he’s hurting you by raping and chances are he hurt you getting you into that position in the first place.
    As for women being humiliated by the device let us decide that for ourselves, no one forces us to use it. And isn’t that really negating most arguements against the product? That women have a choice wether to use it. I’ve read just as much as any one else making posts and all I can say is it’s personal preference. If you like the idea, use it. If you don’t then try not to spoil it for everyone else.

  21. There was a short story about this three or four decades ago. It was called LEPARD which stood for the Lincoln-Pruitt Anti-Rape Device. It was by Emily Prager in a book called a visit from the foot binder.

  22. I’ve spent the several years after leaving the military as a security consultant, and the above mentioned article (and the accompanying scary picture) was passed around our office. Personally, I think the “rat-trap” is being a touch misconstrued. Our laws in the US make this product a dangerous liability, however, as a tailored response to a widespread threat in South Africa, I’m all for it.

    You know, as much as society makes jokes about the sensitivity of a male crotch area (and no doubt, it is extremely sensitive) the argument made by several previous posters that this may actually make an assailant more dangerous is certainly valid. This is a vengeance method more than a deterrent, and revenge goes both ways. This is especially a concern when you consider that a male assailant is usually larger and stronger than his female victim, i.e., quite a bit of damage can be done by an enraged man in an extremely short amount of time. God forbid he has a partner.

    A handgun is certainly an option (and one I recommend to my female clients) as it is debilitating, marking as hospitals must report gunshot wounds and most people aren’t about to pull a slug out of themselves–not too many Dr. Maturins out there. Finally, it is an immediately recognizable lethal deterrent. Guns are power, and power creates options. A woman with a firearm can choose to escape or–and this may truly be the better choice–empty the cylinder/magazine and THEN call the police to collect the twitching body.

    I think the best possible deterrent to rape in the US would be to add it to the capital crimes schedule. The effects of a rape are long-reaching physical and emotional scarring. It is a crime of violence–and one of power–and can steal a life every bit as effectively as a murder. I fail to see how it is not punished as such.

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