When I was five years old my father began to sexually abuse me. This went on until I was ten, and then the daily physical battery and terror began. This life of endless brutality and invasion rearranged my chemistry, forced me out of my body, repressed my ability to think and made me terrified of love.
My father never told me why he did what he did. He never explained how he became a man capable of this kind of sadism and he died without apologizing.
In recent months, I have read the accounts of several men accused of sexual violence. Their words often focused on the pain and repercussions they had experienced after being accused rather than thinking of the pain of their victims or admitting what they had done and how they had worked on themselves to understand their own histories and behavior.
It then occurred to me that I had never heard a man make an honest, thorough, public accounting of his abuse. I had never heard a man openly apologize. I wondered what it would be like to hear an apology like this, what impact it might have on me and other survivors and how it might help end the scourge of violence altogether.
And so I decided to write the apology from my father that I always needed to hear; to find the words and the language, to outline the anatomy of an apology that could possibly set me free and act as a possible blueprint for other men seeking a pathway to atonement, accountability and reckoning.
As I wrote “The Apology” I felt as though I began to hear my father’s voice. He told me of his childhood, how he was adored rather than loved and how adoration forced him to live up to someone else’s idealized image of himself rather than being able to be his authentic, imperfect human self. He told me of the ways that patriarchy and toxic masculinity had forced him to push feelings of tenderness, vulnerability, tears, doubt, uncertainty and wonder underground, and how they later metastasized into another persona called “Shadow Man.”
This disassociated self was capable of sexually abusing a five-year-old girl and physically torturing and gaslighting her thereafter. He told me in ruthless detail everything he had done to me and why. He allowed himself to feel the pain, heartbreak and betrayal he had caused in me. He reflected deeply on his past in order to understand what had led him to these terrible actions. He explained his behavior rather than justifying it. And through his agonizing detailed admissions, he expressed deep sorrow, remorse, guilt and self-hatred. He took responsibility and he made amends.
In the book, my father also confessed to me that to apologize is to be a traitor to men. That there is an unwritten code of silence that is not to be broken without unraveling the whole story of patriarchy.
But he also told me that what he had done to me had poisoned his soul and consumed him in the next world. He was desperate to tell the truth, to make an apology so he could get free.
Until I wrote this book, both my father and I were caught for nearly 60 years in an ongoing vise of pain, rage, guilt and shame. We were consigned to a particular terrible time in our history. Me, defined as victim; him defined as perpetrator.
Because my father owned his actions and apologized in the book, my suffering was honored and made real. I experienced justice and respect. I heard the words I needed to hear that released the resentment, pain and hurt. I was able to have a deeper understanding of his history, wounds and motivation, and because of that the ongoing, haunting question of why was finally resolved. I was able fully let him go and move on.
Of course I wrote my father’s apology for him. But I must say it was a profoundly healing and liberating exercise. Because my father has lived inside me my whole life, I was able to move him in a new direction, from monolithic monster to apologist, from terrifying entity to broken, damaged little boy. In doing so, I gained agency and he lost his power over me.
In the process, I also discovered how central apologies are to the next stage of our human evolution. We must create pathways for men to do this critical work of atonement, and men must be brave now and willing to come forward — risking being called gender traitors — in order to free the suffering of their victims and themselves. The time of reckoning is here.
Eve Ensleris a Tony Award-winning playwright, performer and activist best known for “The Vagina Monologues.” Her critically acclaimed memoir “In the Body of the World” was published by Metropolitan Books in 2013. Her most recent book is “The Apology.”
“We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.”Hannah Arendt, We Refugees(1943)
Each year, millions of people are forcibly displaced at astonishing rates from places they have regarded as home in search of shelter, safety, and freedom. As per United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) records, an unprecedented 68.5 million people are forcibly displaced around the world. Despite the swelling numbers and the magnitude of their trauma, they have generally remained in the periphery, not just in terms of spatial location but in terms of public consciousness.Increasingly now, compelling visuals and testimonies of displaced communities from across the world have ignited an international outcry over the human cost of the migration crisis. This includes disturbing image of the lifeless body of a toddler washed ashore in Turkey while fleeing Syria in 2015 which was widely publicized with hashtags of ‘humanity washed ashore’.
Among displaced communities worldwide, possibly the most persecuted are those who are stateless, living on the margins of society, pushed to the ‘oblivion of rightlessness’and most vulnerable to exploitation. They are seized within the protracted cycles of displacement and precarity, where “today’s IDP is tomorrow’s refugee, tomorrow’s refugee is day after’s economic migrant.”And therefore, it will be insufficient to understand statelessness through the prism of state and law.This article critically explores the interaction between displacement and security from a feminist lens, in South Asia.
The Rohingya in the South and Southeast Asian region, living in precarious situations as ‘Asia’s new boat people’, are one of the world’s most persecuted stateless communities. In recent years, the mass exodus of over 4,00,000 Rohingya from Myanmar reignited an international debate in South and Southeast Asia on issues of displacement, statelessness and the rights of refugees. Almost a year has passed and the plight of the Rohingya remains largely unchanged as they languish in inhuman conditions in the ‘camps’ and replete with everyday indignities, threats, fear, erasure of personhood, and the sustained violence of marginalization that epitomize the half-life of statelessness.
Within Myanmar, ethnic and national identities have effectively merged and intersected with political disempowerment and economic impoverishment of vulnerable communities. These issues are nestled within the context of Myanmar, Bangladesh and India’s historical linkages, porous borders and shared pasts, which are increasingly overlooked as the borders of these interdependent states increasingly hostile and inhospitable.
In mainstream narratives in India, the Rohingya are often described as a ‘threat to security and national interests’, ‘Muslim Bangladeshi infiltrators’, ‘illegals’, ‘victims’, or are attributed responsibility for adversely affecting strategic bilateral relations with Myanmar. The turbulent history of the region, coupled with the post-9/11 regime of securitization and the increasing currency of the discourse of terrorism and concurrent rise of Islamophobia, have combined to make the plight of the Rohingya precarious in ways that are difficult to redress. Further, there are systematic efforts in the region to sanitize states by creating an ideal notion of citizenship narrowly defined by three attributes—Male, Monolithic and Majoritarian. In this context, there is a need to exhort sensitivity towards the complexity inherent in issues of displacement and statelessness by moving beyond the paradigm of ‘security’ and reimagining a new vocabulary rooted in values of human dignity, interdependence, dialogue, respect for diversity, and compassion. Therefore, in South Asia, how can we begin a process of ‘Restorying’ and redefining the conceptual vocabulary of security, and move outside the framework of state and law?
Prof. Shiv Visvanathan’s reflections on the limits of policy raise several pertinent questions. “Policy often destroys language, it objectifies the other person, it has no language for suffering or memory. When we say what is our policy, the moment of violence has already begun.”What are the experiences that lead people to feel stateless, homeless, disadvantaged? How do we rehumanize the ‘other’? Where do we listen for the silences in narratives? How do we bear witness to the symbols of everyday resistance and resilience of displaced communities? How can we shift away from characterizing forced migrants as silent victims and move towards privileging narratives of the displaced to combat their state of voicelessness and restore agency? What is our language for memory, longing, belonging, the body and suffering?
In this context, there is a need for states to explore creative avenues of engagement at the regional level for the protection of stateless populations.
[C]an there be a policy for hospitality, a policy to be kind? … The pertinence and the impossibility of the question suggest for us, of course, the need for a dialogic approach to the issue of care and hospitality. New rules can be built only on such dialogic awareness that will tell us of the need for continuous conversation within the country and internationally; among shelter-seekers, shelter-givers, and the institutions of care and justice, including public and community bodies.
This invites an iconoclastic recovery of the ideas of security — of what it means to be secure, what it means to be human, and above all, whether citizenship can frame the canvas of humanity.
Dr. Meenakshi Gopinath is an educationist, political scientist and writer. She is Founder and Director of WISCOMP and has served as the Principal of Lady Shri Ram College For Women, University of Delhi for 26 years.
Shilpi Shabdita is currently Program Associate, WISCOMP and holds a Masters’ degree in International Peace Studies from University of Notre Dame, USA.
Diksha Poddar is working as a Consultant with WISCOMP. Currently, she is pursuing her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Paula Banerjee, “Editorial”, Forced Migration and Displacement Peace Prints South Asian Journal of Peacebuilding(New Delhi: Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace), Vol. 4, No. 1 (2012).
Hannah Arendt, The Origin of Totalitarianism(New York: Schocken Books, 2004), 353-5.
Rita Manchanda at a Panel Discussion in New Delhi on 7 September 2018. See, Shilpi Shabdita & Diksha Poddar, People on the Run, people on the Move: Displacement, Security and Gender in South Asia(New Delhi: WISCOMP, 2018), 15-16.
Ranabir Samaddar at a Panel Discussion in New Delhi on 7 September 2018. See, Shilpi Shabdita & Diksha Poddar,People on the Run, people on the Move: Displacement, Security and Gender in South Asia(New Delhi: WISCOMP, 2018), 13-14.
Madhura Chakraborty et al., The Rohingya in South Asia: People Without a State, ed. Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury and Ranabir Samaddar (New York: Routledge, 2018), 110.
Paula Banerjee at a Panel Discussion in New Delhi on 7 September 2018. See, Shilpi Shabdita & Diksha Poddar, People on the Run, people on the Move: Displacement, Security and Gender in South Asia(New Delhi: WISCOMP, 2018), 18-19.
Ranabir Samaddar at a Panel Discussion in New Delhi on 7 September 2018. See, Shilpi Shabdita & Diksha Poddar, People on the Run, people on the Move: Displacement, Security and Gender in South Asia(New Delhi: WISCOMP, 2018), 13-14.
Opening Remarks by Prof. Shiv Visvanathan at a WISCOMP Roundtable titled (Re)Storying Kashmir: Exploring Possibilities for Constructive Partnershipsin New Delhi on 25 October 2017.
R. Samaddar (ed.), Refugees and the State: Practices of Asylum and care in India, 1947-2000(New Delhi: Sage, 2003), 60.
Written by Fiona Mackay, Louise Chappell, Krishna Menon, Natasha Dyer, Christina Neuwirth and Chantelle Mayo
Today is the final day of the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, the international campaign runs every year from 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, Human Rights Day. This year’s theme #HearMeToo has aimed at breaking the silence around gender-based violence (GBV), challenging the behaviours and power inequalities that underpin GBV, and transforming norms, practices and institutions to support gender equality and gender justice.
To be sure, there has been progress. The latest Social Institutions and Gender Index (SOGI) published last week by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) provides a mixed picture. On the one hand, globally, social acceptance of domestic violence has nearly halved, from 50% in 2012 to 27% today (although it sobering to realise that more than 1:4 people still perceive domestic violence to be acceptable). On the other hand, the report cautions that progress on women’s rights is lagging and stalling including around child marriage, sexual and reproductive rights, intimate partner violence, female genital mutilation, access to financial and productive resources (such as land), and civil rights. It is clear there is a still a considerable distance to be travelled.
The 16 Days Blogathon is a collaboration between genderED at University of Edinburgh, the Australian Human Rights Institute at University of New South Wales, and Ambedkar University Delhi. We have brought you a post a day addressing different aspects of gender-based violence. We have drawn together a range of academic researchers and students, practitioners from NGOs and international organisations, and activists to amplify the 16 Days of Activism, and to highlight, share and campaign on a range of global and local issues.
What are the key themes that we can draw out from our 16 posts?
Important across all the blogs is the sheer scale of gender-based violence (GBV) across the world, and the many forms it takes. It is a fundamental part of all forms of violence, whether physical, political, psychological, institutional, racial or digital, meaning all violence must be considered in gendered terms.
While feminist movements have been working tirelessly for decades to raise awareness of the multiple forms of discrimination and violence women face, #MeToo and related movements have turned the tide toward believing women and encouraging them to speak out, renewing funding commitments and establishing or improving legal procedures towards tackling GBV & discrimination against women and children (e.g. Spotlight Initiative and ICC rulings).
At the same time, achieving gender equality and an end to GBV is a long way off. Indeed achievements to date are under threat as a result of a global pushback on women’s and human rights with conservative and populist movements ramping up efforts to blame or silence women and feminism, by targeting legal frameworks that discriminate against women’s sexual or reproductive rights for example (Indonesia); removing the issue of gender or women’s rights from agendas or reducing funding for women’s initiatives (USA); failing to recognise different forms of GBV and discrimination in policy and debates (Australia, Kenya) or by resisting awareness and acceptance of gender inequality and LGBTQ rights in schools (Peru, Colombia, Mexico, France, Poland, Canada, Australia) or recognising that LGBT persecution has been a part of conflict (NI).
The contemporary movement to expose, address and end GBV, recognises the myriad and intersecting ways that different identities (race, class, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, caste, etc) can combine to discriminate against women, and other marginalised identities, and make them vulnerable to violence, exclusion and abuse. It is also evident, that this is a global issue affecting women, men and children everywhere, for which we need global, coordinated action.
The importance of language is another key theme. #MeToo and social media has not only made it impossible for women’s stories to be ignored, it has harnessed decades, centuries even of feminist thought to provide a universal language for sexual and gender-based violence, that is being adapted, translated and applied in different contexts. It is emerging through campaigns (such as Pink Chaddi in India), women’s support groups (such as Breaking Silent Codes in Australia) and through artistic methods of processing experiences of GBV and translating them for academics and policymakers (with examples from Scotland and South Africa).
Today is the end of “16 Days” for another year, but the daily struggle for equality, security, freedom and gender justice continues.
Another chance to read: the 16 Days blogathon posts in a ‘nutshell’
By Fiona Mackay (University of Edinburgh), Louise Chappell (University of New South Wales) and Krishna Menon (Ambedkar University Delhi). Co-ordinators of the 16 Days Blogathon.
The introduction outlines the scale of GBV worldwide, the objective and structure of the blogathon, an explanation of the theme #HearMeToo and examples of successful local, national and international efforts. It cites initiatives such as the new EU-UN 500m Euro initiative, but also key statistic: almost 1/3rd of women globally have experienced physical/sexual violence from a partner.
By Laurel Weldon – Professor of Political Science at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver
Weldon summarises the global situation of feminist activism and women’s movements worldwide. Initially giving examples of the growth of feminist organising (women’s march, #metoo), she warns not only of the backlash to efforts to address gender equality (e.g. resistance campaigns to progressive school curricula recognising LGBTQ rights in Peru and USA removing word ‘gender’ from UN docs), but a decline in funding for women’s initiatives (20% worldwide).
She argues that this removes women’s ability to set the agenda in the struggle to stop violence against women.
By Anna Hush, PhD candidate at the University of South Wales. She is also director of End Rape on Campus Australia.
Hush opens with the statistic that 1 in 10 women experienced sexual assault while studying over the last two years in Australia, a quarter in a university setting.
Though sexual violence has been reported at universities since the 1970s, the Australian government has been slow to act, with no formal or federal university process for reporting complaints of sexual violence (unlike in the USA), meaning universities’ response is largely ad hoc or reactive. The End Rape on Campus project in Australia have spent 350 hours and 13 months reporting one case, to which they’ve received no response.
By Dixie Link-Gordon, Community Educator New South Wales Government
Link-Gordon sheds light on the plight of indigenous women – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia – related to GBV. Starting with a poem of solidarity, Dixie sets out the layers of oppression and silencing these women face respectively from authorities, families, churches and communities.
She highlights the work of Breaking Silent Codes, a unique project gathering indigenous women across Asia Pacific to discuss stories of sexual and domestic violence and support each other, develop resources, safe online spaces and build this movement of indigenous Australian women.
By Claire Houghton, Everyday Heroes Programme Coordinator at University of Edinburgh’s IMPACT project with key partners, including Scottish government.
Houghton describes the recent participation of children and young people in political spaces and processes addressing GBV in Scotland, exemplified by Everyday Heroes.
She honours the feminist movements that ensured the Scottish parliament’s commitment to this process, noting the usefulness of the creative, arts mediums used to engage young people therapeutically and positively.
She describes how stigma, silence and impunity still allows violence against women and children to persist. Even if reported, abuse and trauma can continue through proceedings, necessitating sustained dialogue and an intersectional approach to GBV and gender equality.
By Dr. Radhika Govinda, Lecturer in Sociology at UoE and UK Lead on UGC-UKIERI Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives research and teaching project.
Opening with the satirical ‘bad girl’ poster, Govinda describes the independent and sexually confident ‘bad girls’ of post-liberal India, empowered by new technologies and consumerist habits.
Defying gender norms everywhere, Govinda suggests these ‘bad girls’ represent a resurgence of Indian feminism, fighting a traditionalist media and high-profile rape and sexual violence cases.
She cites a number of bold and creative campaigns resisting patriarchal authority, such as curfews (Pinjra Tod), restrictions on dress code and drinking habits (Pink Chaddi underwear campaign) and ‘The List’, which accused more than 50 Indian professors of sexual assault on FB, as examples of ways modern Indian feminism is split along generational, caste class lines.
By Firmansyah Sarbini and Naila Rizqi Zakiah, Australian Human Rights Institute’s first Visiting Human Rights Defenders
Transwomen are the most vulnerable group in Indonesia. Polls show they are hated more than Jews and Communists (only second to ISIS) and are at risk across society, with academics, politicians and even government figures stating their support for legal discrimination of LGBT people in Indonesia.
Due to the visibility of their gender identity, out of LGBT people, transwomen are most at risk. Last year, a number of transwomen were murdered or victims of police violence, several by people who first befriended, dated and even had sex with them before killing them and taking their belongings.
Adeboye starts with the facts: 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced violence; domestic violence causes more deaths than in civil wars; there are 700m child brides, 200m FGM survivors etc.
He describes Spotlight, the largest ever investment made to end VAWG, 500m Euros, as essential to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals. By the first ¼ of 2019, they will have spent 65% of budget, funding projects to eliminate VAWG in 24 countries, reaching 170m people.
He breaks down thematic focus by continent (e.g ending femicide in Latin America, ending child marriage and FGM in Africa, addressing trafficking in Asia) and stresses goal for UN to collaborate between its agencies, donors, govts, academics, CSOs and private sector to end VAWG worldwide.
By Rosemary Kayess, Committee Member on UN Committee for rights of persons with disabilities and interim Director for Disability Innovation Institute, UNSW, Sydney
2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the first human rights treaty of the 21st century.
It makes clear that disability is just one aspect of being human, and shifts the perception that disability is a deficit or problem. Despite this, disabled people currently experience 3 times more violence than others, and marginalised women, such as Aboriginal women, even more so.
In Australia, 70% of women with disabilities have been victims of violent sex, with two thirds abused before turning 18. Neither Australia nor many other countries currently recognise disability gender violence as a specific category however, requiring a human rights based approach.
By Rosemary Grey, University of Sydney Doctoral Fellow, Sydney Law School and Sydney Southeast Asia Centre
In the 70th anniversary year of the Genocide Convention, Grey states that GBV and genocide often going ‘hand-in-hand’.
She cites gendered analysis of the Jewish, Rwandan and Yugoslavian genocides, showing that while men are often killed first because they’re seen as combatants, pregnant women are also killed to prevent them giving birth to a particular ethnic group or raped to give birth to another group.
The International Criminal Court has signed up to this definition. The Rwandan tribunal recognised sexual violence as a form of genocide and the recent Khmer Rouge Tribunal exposed that Vietnamese women and children were targeted because it was thought that ethnicity passes through mothers, showing genocide is not ‘gender-neutral’.
By Dr. Gabrielle Bardall, Gender Advisor at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems and Research Fellow at the Center for International Policy Studies, University of Ottawa.
After a decade of activism and research violence against women in politics (VAWP) has been recognised at the UN in 2018 as an international threat to democracy and human rights.
VAWP targets women in public spaces, at home and online. Over 80% of parliamentary women have experienced psychological violence, while over 58% have been attacked online, 3 times more than male counterparts. Zimbabwean women engaging in politics have been genitally mutilated, western parliamentarians sexually assaulted at work and female election workers bombed in Afghanistan.
But impunity for perpetrators of VAWP at national levels still stands. Laws protecting victims are systematically overlooked, legal frameworks remain murky, and VAWP is mostly unrecognised, even where it disrupts political processes, such as in recent Kenyan and Haitian elections.
By Prof Rukmini Sen, Professor at the School of Liberal Studies, Ambhedkhar University, Delhi.
LoSHA or ‘the List’ (as referred to in Day 6 by Radhika Govinda) was the catalyst for #MeToo in India. It provoked both support and resistance in feminist circles, with some calling for ‘due process’ to be respected and others raising concerns about silencing and over-reliance on the law.
Sen discusses the newly sparked debate amongst Indian feminists, detailing why legal definitions of sexual violence are limited. She argues for more dialogue between students, faculty and administration beyond formal complaints of sexual violence, to deal with the complexity of ‘unwelcome experiences, transgressions, consent and control’.
By Natasha Dyer, researcher and communications specialist in international development
Xenophobia is not new, but related violence has erupted many times in the last decade in South Africa, with 70 reported dead, 100,000s displaced and dozens of rapes. In the UK, anti-immigrant rhetoric, racism and ‘hate crimes’ have been on the rise around Brexit.
The experiences of women, however, and their connection to GBV and discrimination remain largely unknown, despite South African women experiencing some of the highest rates of GBV in the world, and the power struggle inherent in anti-immigrant debates negatively impacting women and mirroring misogynistic discourses.
Creative approaches to addressing xenophobia may help provide some answers, by enabling new forms of expression, dialogue and processing of identity, belonging and rights.
By Dr. Sunita Toor,Principal Lecturer in Criminology (Sheffield Hallam University)
and women’s rights activist, leading Justice for Her initiative
Toor says fighting to end GBV is not impossible and calls on everyone to play their part. She works in India, the most violent place to be a woman in the world (Thomson Reuters poll, 2018), where the rapes reported (39,000 this year), do not reveal the true extent of the violence.
She describes her focus on working with police, training offers on GBV with empathetic, victim-centred, moral approaches, but says much more needs to be done.
By Christine Bell, Professor of Constitutional Law, Assistant Principal (Global Justice), Director, Political Settlements Research Programme, University of Edinburgh
LGBT communities are often particularly targeted in conflicts, with their sexuality being used as a reason for violence or to convince them to become ‘informers’ (as in Northern Irish ‘Troubles’)
Conflict literature has largely failed to address gendered violence against gay people, as have peace agreements, despite LGBT communities being critical to peace processes, by helping reforms, participating in political negotiations, or campaigning for peace based on equality and human rights.
Nowadays, more is known about LGBT communities’ experiences and roles in peace processes, thanks to academic and civil society reports, new online resources and laws. Regardless, a 2017 survey found N. Ireland to be the ‘worst place to be gay’ in Europe, meaning more needs to be done.
By Lesley Mcmillan, Professor of Criminology and Sociology, Glasgow Caledonian University and Deborah White, Associate Professor of Sociology, Trent University Ontario
This award-winning blog [https://writetoendvaw.com/2018/11/30/winners-of-the-2018-write-to-end-violence-against-women-awards/] examines the emergence of new ‘anti-rape’ technologies targeted at women. The authors warn that technology does not provide easy answers, and highlight the problems embodied in these technologies including unintended consequences and the misrepresentation of rape and sexual assault. They argue these technologies privatise and individualise the problem of sexual violence taking the polar opposite approach to global initiatives such as the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.
Professor Fiona Mackay is Director of genderED at University of Edinburgh
Professor Louise Chappell is Director of the Australian Human Rights Institution at the University of New South Wales
Professor Krishna Menon is Dean of the School of Human Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi, and co-leads the AUD-University of Edinburgh collaborative project Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives (funded by the UK-India Educational Research Initiative)
This blog post was originally posted on the Gender Politics at Edinburgh blog as part of genderED’s 2017 #16days blog project and is the winner of the 2018 Write to End Violence Against Women Award for the best blog post.
Sexual violence against women and girls remains a major social problem with as many as one in three (35%) women worldwide experiencing either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Despite major policy and law reforms, as well as initiatives such as those focussed on educational and self-defence programmes, states worldwide have been largely ineffective at tackling the prevalence of rape and sexual assault. In the context of this inefficacy, along with the widespread availability of social media platforms, we have started to witness the emergence of new technologies targeted at women for the purpose of preventing rape.
Struck by the increasing number and types of technologies – from anti-rape bras and tampons, to mobile phone apps to communicate distress or a concerning situation – we decided to research this phenomenon in greater depth. Over a period of more than two years, we used ‘Google alerts’ and ‘Google Scholar alerts’ to identify new and proposed anti-rape devices. During this time we were startled by the nature of the technologies being devised, and whilst not all are currently available for purchase – some are prototypes and others have been funded and manufactured but are not yet widely available – these devices, based largely on the commodification of women’s safety, seem to represent a significant, and concerning, growth area.
In the course of our research[i], we categorised the various, and in some instances, farcical, technologies as those designed for the physical protection of a woman’s body, those intended for communication with others, and those that combine the two. In terms of bodily devices, although too numerous to list here, examples include the Personal Space Dress that detects when someone is too close and uses special motors to expand its size to protect the wearer’s personal space; anti-rape underwear that can only be removed by the woman; colour-changing anti-rape nail polish that detects date rape drugs; the Rape-Axe condom worn internally by women and equipped with jagged teeth intended to dig into a rapist’s penis, affixing itself and requiring medical attention to be removed; and, the Anti-molestation jacket that, at the touch of a button, discharges 110 volts of electricity into anyone who is making unwanted advances.
For those communications-based anti-rape technologies, which are primarily intended for mobile phones, we see examples such as the “We Consent” suite of apps, where those considering engaging in sexual activity say their name, their partner’s name and an explicit ‘yes’ to sex. The app then records the statements, adds a time stamp and geo-code, encrypts the footage, and stores it off line. More common in this category is a range of apps that alert family, friends or the police if a woman feels she is in a situation that may be dangerous. For instance, the Circle of 6 app uses text messaging and GPS to let a woman notify up to six contacts of her whereabouts if she feels unsafe. Apps such as bSafeallow others to track an individual’s journey in real time using GPS to ‘virtually’ walk her home. It also includes an SOS feature, and begins video recording if the alarm is deployed to collect evidence of a possible crime.
Some anti-rape technologies combine bodily and communications features. For example, the Personal Guardian, designed to be attached to a bra strap or belt, is activated when two buttons are pressed simultaneously. The device connects to a woman’s smartphone which contacts a monitoring station where staff listen for screams or signs of a struggle, using GPS to identify location, contact police or relatives as necessary. Other wearables include the Athena Pendant, the Guardian Angel and the Revolar Instinct. The latter, marketed as a ‘fashionable device’ with a step counter, is designed to prevent sexual assaults by sending out help alerts and includes a ‘ring me’ feature which allows users to ring their own phone and excuse themselves from uncomfortable situations, or “bad dates”. A more recent addition, the Intrepid, is a wearable bra sticker that can allegedly detect forcible grabbing or touch upon which it sends a distress signal to the user’s family and friends using Bluetooth and a mobile phone.
Once we had identified these technologies we examined more closely the nature of the claims made about their assumed role in the prevention of sexual assault. Whilst some developers and promoters seemed aware that their products were just one potential solution to a much more complex problem, overwhelmingly the language characterising these devices was about their ability to end violence against women. Despite grand promises, we argue that there are a number of problems with these technologies.
Firstly, there is potential for product failure and unintended consequences. For example, for the communications tools to be effective, a woman must be holding her telephone, must have it charged, must be in range of a signal, and must be able to engage the app. For those technologies designed to protect the body, many have the capacity to injure the wearer (e.g. sharp devices worn internally, electric voltage clothing, anti-rape pants that may not be able to be removed should medical attention be required). It is also likely that in a time of stress when someone may be under attack, they may not be able to deploy two buttons at once or find a device on their bra. There is also the possibility of an assailant being further angered by a woman’s attempt to use such devices, particularly if he is injured by one, for which there could be serious repercussions. Additionally, and worryingly, these technologies could become the tool of the coercive controller, as they offer potential for the increased surveillance of women. Devices that offer remote monitoring of someone’s location or a ‘follow me’ or ‘I’m here’ feature, for instance, could allow stalkers or abusers to identify locations as well as regular routines. Women could also be coerced or forced to remove the anti-rape underwear, or to give consent to the “We Consent” app.
Our second concern is the misplaced responsibilisation for sexual violence. In essence, these technologies place responsibility on everyone except perpetrators. Foremost, they focus on women taking routine measures for their own sexual assault prevention, and even in some cases for collecting their own evidence for the criminal justice system. In many ways this is nothing new, women have always been encouraged to consider where they walk, what they wear, how much they drink, but this responsibilisation is now enhanced by having to wear or carry new devices to prevent being sexually assaulted. Women are frequently blamed for their victimisation[ii] and this could become more intense if questioned as to why they were not using a safety device, why they had not informed someone of their whereabouts using an app, or collected evidence of the assault. Not only do these devices responsibilise women, they also responsibilise friends, family and bystanders to prevent or intervene in sexual assaults.
Our third issue concerns what we see as the misrepresentation of rape and sexual assault embodied in these technologies. Many of these devices feed into the common, and erroneous, assumption of ‘stranger danger’ – the myth that rapists primarily jump out of bushes late at night[iii]. We know this type of sexual assault is very rare, and most women are raped by someone known to them, including partners, relatives, friends and colleagues[iv]. Those technologies based on the body, such as the anti-rape pants, reinforce the notion of rape as vaginal penetration, suggesting that if an attacker cannot remove a woman’s pants then she is safe. In reality rape takes many forms[v] including, for example, forced oral penetration, for which anti-rape pants would not offer much protection. There is also a heavy focus in the prevention discourse about drug-facilitated rape, with drugs such as Rohypnol and GHB used to justify technologies such as anti-rape nail varnish, however studies confirm only a very small number of rapes involve the covert use of such drugs[vi]. In the most part, alcohol is the rapist’s drug of choice[vii].
The final part of our analysis centres on the fear-mongering and marketing surrounding these products. The expanded use of these technologies has the potential to normalise sexual assault; the assumption that ritualistically putting on prevention jewellery or clothing, or using an app to track your whereabouts, suggest that a woman’s daily activities should incorporate efforts to prevent sexual violence. This naturalising of constant threat and vigilance is largely tied to the market. Whilst there are ‘social impact’ or ‘moral entrepreneurs’, often with good intentions, behind the development of these products, and some are non-profit organizations that put a portion of proceeds towards education programmes, many are sold for profit through Amazon, and some, like Guardian Angel, include monthly subscription fees. Tying rape prevention to the market is highly problematic, not least because even if they were shown to be effective at rape prevention, which we doubt, many women could not afford these devices or may not own mobile phones. Rape prevention effectively becomes the privilege of the wealthy.
These devices do not meet the discursive claims of their proponents in terms of solving sexual violence. Moreover, they are largely depoliticised and decontextualized, and are situated within, and highly compatible with, neo-liberal culture and capitalism. In essence they further privatise and individualise the problem of sexual violence taking the polar opposite approach to global initiatives such as the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. These products treat sexual violence as an individualised crime – and just as individualised efforts such as self-defence training for women have not eradicated sexual assault – selling women bodily and communication technologies to incorporate in their daily lives will not ultimately end the historic pattern of pervasive sexual violence.
Lesley McMillan is Professor of Criminology and Sociology at Glasgow Caledonian University. She is Associate Director of the Scottish Institute for Policing Research and academic lead for public protection research. Her research focusses primarily on sexual violence, with a particular interest in statutory and institutional responses including criminal justice, policing, and medico-legal intervention.
Deborah White is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Her research focuses on the institutional responses to sexual violence, particularly medico-legal interventions and the role and nature of forensic evidence and experts in criminal justice systems.
[i] White, D. & McMillan, L. (2017) Innovating the Problem Away? Exploring the Possibilities and Perils of Technologizing Sexual Assault Prevention, STS (In)Sensibilities, Annual Meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S), Boston, Massachusetts, 30th August – 2nd September
[ii] McMillan, L. & White, D. (2015) Silly Girls’ And ‘Nice Young Lads’: Vilification And Vindication In The Perceptions Of Medico-Legal Practitioners In Rape Cases, Feminist Criminology, 10:279-298
[iii] Du Mont, J. & Parnis, D. (1999). “Judging women: The pernicious effects of rape mythology”.Canadian Woman Studies, 19(1 & 2), 102-109
[iv] McMillan, L. (2013) Sexual victimisation: Disclosure, Responses and Impact, in Lombard, N. & McMillan, L. eds. Violence Against Women: Current Theory and Practice for Working with Domestic Abuse, Sexual Violence and Exploitation, Research Highlights in Social Work Series, Jessica Kingsley
[v] White, D. & Rees, G. (2014). “Self-defense or undermining the self: Exploring the possibilities and limitations of an anti-rape technology”. Violence Against Women, 20(3), 360-368.
[vi] Krebs, C.P., Lindquist, C.H., Warner, T.D., Fisher, B.S. & Martin, S.L. The Campus Sexaul Assault (CSA) Study Final Report, NIJ Grant No. 2004-WG-BX-0010, Washington: National Institute of Justice
[vii] Horvath, M and Brown, J., (2007) ‘Alcohol as Drug of Choice; is Drug-assisted Rape a Misnomer?’, Psychology, Crime and Law, 13(5): 417-429.
Recently I visited the ‘Homomonument’ memorial in Amsterdam which commemorates the many gay and lesbian people persecuted by the Nazis. Estimates of those killed in Nazi concentration camps range from 5000 to 15000. In most countries this dimension of the holocaust went unacknowledged, and gay men were even rearrested sometimes on the basis of Nazi evidence. It was only in 2002 that Germany apologised and pardoned those convicted in that period, but only in 2017 did it pardon gay men convicted under Nazi era laws more generally. Standing at the monument served as a reminder also that in times of conflict, LGBT communities are often targeted in violent attacks in particular ways. Furthermore, awareness is now increasing that peace processes and post-conflict environments, almost without exception, fail to address LGBT security or consider what peace would look like for LGBT people.
During these 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, it is worth highlighting how persecution of LGBT people is often bound up with conflict violence in a myriad of ways and LGBT communities often make distinctive and important contributions to peace processes. In the early 1990s, during the conflict in Northern Ireland, I conducted some interviews with gay men and lesbian women, on police harassment for human rights research project (McVeigh, ‘Harassment – Its Part of Life Here’, 1992), which was to feed into police reforms as part of the eventual peace process. ‘Homosexuality’ had remained illegal in Northern Ireland long after 1967, when it was legalised in the rest of the United Kingdom, in part due to the conservative social culture, and in part because of the unwillingness for the UK government to legislate for Northern Ireland even when it directly held power there. It was not until 1981 when a European Court of Human Rights case brought by a gay man, forced a change in the law (The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act). This was the law under which the poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was convicted in 1895 – coincidentally Wilde grew up in Northern Ireland – and whose provisions still apply to make abortion illegal in Northern Ireland. A similar case before the ECHR against the Republic of Ireland in 1988, saw a law change South of the border.
The interviews made clear that, in addition to the difficulties, and often violent consequences that came with being a gay person in a very conservative society, were the specific threats that emanated from ‘the troubles’ (as Northern Ireland’s conflict was euphemistically called). People’s sexuality was routinely used against them. For example, in instances of police harassment, sexuality was often focused on as a ‘vulnerability’, and in particular with regard to people from Catholic/Nationalist/Republican communities, to be used to push people to become ‘informers’. Informing was in itself a lethal activity given that informers were routinely killed by the IRA. The ‘hypermasculinised’ culture of the troubles, coupled with a conservative social climate, meant that socialising as a gay person was very difficult, although the few spaces that did exist often transcended Northern Ireland’s other class and religious divisions. When a book was published with anonymous contributions on those from a Protestant background who did not ‘fit’ in the traditional ‘Unionist’ box allocated them, some of the most interesting accounts were from gay men (Hyndman ‘Further Afield’ 1992). They told of lives lived in complex navigation around Northern Ireland’s sectarian divisions, its violent religious ‘interfaces’, and its rigidly and violently policed gender boundaries. A long story could be told of the complex relationships of both Unionism/Loyalism and Nationalism/Republicanism with ‘homosexuality’ but remains to be written.
In the contemporary academic conflict literature, gender violence against gay people is rarely discussed, although this is beginning to change. Yet it is a feature of many identity conflicts, where concepts of ‘ethno-national belonging’ often include concepts of ‘the purity of the nation’ in ways that are used to police gender boundaries and reinforce violent attitudes not just towards women but also towards LGBT people. Many more conflicts than that in Northern Ireland have produced ‘hypermasculinised’ dimensions to conflict which has been visited on LGBT communities.
Also rare, is the addressing of any of these issues in peace processes and agreements. In a research project – the Political Settlement Research Programme (www.politicalsettlements.org), based at the University of Edinburgh, we have collected a very broad set of peace agreements, from pre-negotiation agreements through comprehensive agreements, through to implementation agreements and coded them for the issues addressed. This database is fully publicly available and searchable (www.peaceagreements.org). Between 1990 and 2015 out of over 1500 peace agreements, only nine referred in any way to sexual orientation. Six of these references are positive in the sense of providing rights, and three were negative – reinforcing prohibitions on same sex marriage for example or making ‘homosexuality’ illegal. In 2016 the Colombian peace agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government was ground breaking in the way it addressed LGBT rights and concerns. However, this agreement was narrowly rejected in a popular referendum, in part due to the opposition of religious groups who resisted what they saw as a ‘gender ideology’ in which LGBT rights were implicated. In the months that followed, tweaks to the agreement were made, until a new version was adopted some months later and, among other changes, the LGBT commitments and language were significantly reduced. Despite a well-established ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda underwritten by UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which mandates that peace agreements adopt a ‘gender perspective’, there has been little or no discussion of how a gender perspective should understand and include LGBT communities and perspectives.
Yet LGBT communities and individuals are often critical to the search for peace. Working behind the scenes in the Northern Irish peace process, it was clear to me that gay people were very significant in party structures and at the heart of the political negotiations. Some found room within their party to be out, others did not. How much was this contribution networked and understood as a ‘gender /gap perspective’ on the peace process? Not much. But there was sometimes a form of silent acknowledgement of the contribution of key gay individuals to the moderation of views within key political parties, although rarely causing a structural shift in party positions or attitudes.
Within civil society, LGBT communities were a key constituency pushing for a just peace based on equality and human rights. LGBT groups played a significant role in the peace process on their own, and as part of broad-based equality alliances that were responsible for many of the human rights and equality provisions of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement (although the ‘single equality Act’ promised in the peace process was never finalised). In the years after the Agreement, there were some breakthroughs – a major report aimed to give Lesbian and Bi-sexual women a voice in equality debates, and broke new boundaries by being launched in Stormont, the seat of the new Northern Irish Assembly, with cross party support (‘A Mighty Silence’ Marie Quiery 2002). There is today some more space for being gay than when I was growing up, and a range of organisations now fill the spaces created by the brave but often lone spokespersons of eras before. But progress is frustratingly slow, and life as a young LGBTI person remains challenging (a report whose release was for a time blocked by the DUP Education minister, showed that 2:3 pupils did not feel welcome in Northern Ireland’s schools). A survey of LGBT rights and experiences across Europe in 2017 found that Northern Ireland was ‘the worst place to be gay’.
While there were some equality gains from the peace process, the peace process and resultant power-sharing mechanisms, also helped bring about regressive outcomes on LGBT rights. Under power-sharing, and backed up by a socially conservative Attorney General for Northern Ireland, many progressive measures were routinely blocked or challenged. Same sex adoption was resisted, with the (new) Attorney General also stretching the limits of his role to intervene, in line apparently with his own religious views, against same sex adoption in the European Court of Human Rights. Same sex marriage remains prohibited, even though legalised in the rest of the UK and in Ireland. The Democratic Unionist Party (currently crucial to the current UK government remaining in power) has a track record of regressive policies including trying to ban blood donations from gay men .
A report ‘Reimaging Inclusive Security in Peace Processes: LGB&T Perspectives’, authored by Fidelma Ashe of University of Ulster, and shortly to be produced by the Political Settlement Research Programme (www.politicalsettlements.org), interestingly returns to the issue of LGBT security. Based on research in Northern Ireland, this report reveals a situation where LGBT communities still feel insecure. Even new generations are affected by some of the historic distrust of institutions such as police, with respect to past actions. It is clear that security has not been defined and implemented with LGBT experiences in mind. The report contains useful recommendations for how the security of LGBT communities could be addressed in future peace negotiations. The report will be available in mid-December at www.politicalsettlements.org.
Christine Bell Professor of Constitutional Law Assistant Principal (Global Justice) Director, Political Settlements Research Programme University of Edinburgh