Wearable tech is battling sexual assault – but is it really solving the problem?

Is new safety tech the answer to street assaults or just papering over the issue?
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Intrepid is a stick-on wearable designed to detect and prevent sexual assault. Once attached to a piece of clothing and connected to a phone via Bluetooth, the device's accompanying app has the capacity to call or text up to five chosen contacts in case of an emergency.

Manisha Mohan, a 25-year-old scientist, developed the idea in conjunction with MIT Media Lab. Having observed and been subject to sexual abuse in public settings in her home country of India, when Mohan moved to the US she was "startled" by a similar issue on college campuses. This report reveals reported assaults on campuses in the US have risen by 200%.

As well as releasing a distress signal in order to prevent an assault in real time, Mohan wanted to make a device that would also automatically detect distress.

"During our research we found that abuse among the elderly and disabled is not just ignored but also never reaches legal systems for justice," Mohan told us. "The active mode is designed for scenarios when the victim is incapacitated or not in a position to fight against the assaulter, in the case of children, elderly and disabled people."

Why now?

Athena is another clip-on safety device that can send out a distress message. Since a successful crowdfunding campaign, in which Athena was pre-ordered in every US state and in over 50 countries around the world, the device has gone into mass production and is currently in pilot programs at universities across Philadelphia.

Read this: The best personal safety wearables you can actually buy

Anthony Gold, co-founder and COO of ROAR for Good, created the device with his business partner Yasmine Mustafa who had met numerous women who had experienced assault whilst backpacking across South America.

Why does Gold think this tech has been created now? "As technology gets smaller and smarter there's more we can do to make it more reliable and usable," he explained. "That's why we're seeing so many innovative ideas and products coming to the market now. But we need even more. This space of wearable safety is one in which we need many more ideas and creative solutions."

On campus

Wearable tech is battling sexual assault – but is it really solving the problem?

According to a 2015 study, in the UK, 1 in 3 women are sexually abused at universities. It's no surprise, then, that many of the devices often referred to as 'personal rape alarms' or 'anti-rape devices' are conceptualised and adopted on college campuses.

Athena and Intrepid are just two examples. Another, the Personal Guardian was created by a Strathclyde University student in 2015 and several Student Unions, including Cambridge and Sheffield, either sell or give out personal attack alarms.

Mohan surveyed 338 sexual assault survivors in order to develop the design, functionality and cultural sensitivity of Intrepid. "Answers around perception were interesting," she says. "Most people recognized sexual abuse as a community issue but not a personal one."

Supporting myths?

We didn't want to make a product that would simply be a band aid on the issue of assaults

"Technological advancements may provide important opportunities to enhance women's safety, for example by allowing women to alert emergency services when threatened," says Dr Gayle Brewer, a sexual behaviour psychologist from the University of Liverpool. "It is, however, important to ensure that interventions are developed to reduce incidence of harassment and assault rather than focus on responses to such behaviour alone."

Indeed, criticisms of these technologies are that they focus too much on individual behaviour and equip or ready potential victims rather than root out or challenge perpetrators and the causes of sexual violence. Another area of contention is that these alarms reinforce myths about sexual violence; mostly that they're perpetrated by a stranger and that they can be prevented by using, or in this case, wearing, an alarm.

Rape Crisis England & Wales include the following as one of the twelve myths of sexual violence: 'Women are most likely to be raped after dark by a stranger'. The article also states that around 10% of rapes are committed by strangers and around 90% by known men: friends, colleagues, clients, neighbours, family members, partners or exes.

Making real impact

Wearable tech is battling sexual assault – but is it really solving the problem?

Anthony Gold admits that as much as he envisions combining social solutions with technology to build a society that is safe for everyone, Athena and other devices of its kind are inadequate as the solitary answer.

"If the focus is on simply developing solutions that can deter assaults but don't get to the root causes of violence, then yes, we won't be making much of a difference," he says. "It's like developing automobile anti-theft solutions that don't really cut down on the number of thefts but simply divert a thief from a protected car to an unprotected one. We didn't want to make a product that would simply be a band aid on the issue of assaults."

That's why, Gold says, for each Athena sold, part of the proceeds are invested into organisations that are teaching kids about empathy, respect, and healthy relationships. The programs which ROAR for Good selects, he says, are ones that are shown to reduce violence in adulthood.

"The only thing that will truly impact rape culture is when people (mostly men) stop raping. To do that, we need holistic solutions that address the trends toward objectification, violence, enslavement, and reduced empathy."

Manisha Mohan believes products such as Intrepid will 'set the stage' for such debates, as well as raise awareness. And in the future, as wearables become more prevalent in all aspects of life, the growing ethics of this technology, and the new bodies created to govern and regulate it, will engage with the moral conundrums of such solutions. "We hope that one day," she says, "we don't have to make something like this."


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Gareth is a freelance tech, food (and sex) journalist. 

He writes about tech & food for Metro, The Telegraph, Wareable, The Independent & Great British Food magazine.

His favourite kind of food is British heritage (so, er, just British) and his favourite tipple is sake. His spirit animal is Sonic the Hedgehog.


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