Suppose you’re a woman walking down a lonely street in the dead of night. All of a sudden, a man jumps out of the bushes, shoves a knife in your face, and demands that you submit to him. And then throws you down, gets on top of you and begins thrusting away.
Would you, at that moment, wish you had teeth inside your vagina so that you could amputate his penis and leave him thrashing in agony on the ground? Wouldn’t it be the perfect punishment?
Apparently, the same thought occurred to a South African doctor (also described as a medical technician; I don't know which is correct but let's give her the benefit of the doubt and call her a doctor) named Sonnet (or Sonette; I've come across both spellings) Ehlers, who happened, she says, to have heard a rape victim sobbing that she wished she “had teeth down there.” Sometime later, Dr Ehlers says she saw a man in agony due to his foreskin being caught in his pants zipper, and, putting two and two together, came up with something she calls Rape-aXe.
On the face of it, it’s every potential rapist’s nightmare come true: a device resembling a female condom, placed inside the vagina by means of an applicator, with serrated teeth meant to catch on a rapist’s penis. (The description of the device on Dr Ehlers’ website mentions specifically that it only engages the skin of the shaft of the penis – this is significant for reasons I’ll go into later in this article.) The Rape-aXe can then, again according to Ehlers’ claims, only be removed in a hospital emergency room, presumably with a policeman standing by with handcuffs.
I said, as you’ll note, that on the face of it this is every potential rapist’s nightmare come true. As soon as one looks into it with any attention, though, it seems more of a nightmare for the potential rape victim than the perpetrator. Let’s see how.
First of all is the obvious point that this Rape-aXe ceases to work if the woman isn’t wearing it at the time of attack. No rapist is going to, you know, allow her to insert and position it before beginning his crime. Therefore, in order to be protected by it (for whatever that protection is worth; not much, as I’ll talk about) the woman would have to wear it at all times except when she’s having consensual sex. Is this even possible?
There are two potential responses to this point: first, that the Rape-aXe is meant to be used only when venturing into potentially “dangerous” situations; and, secondly, that the uncertainty of whether the victim is using it will serve as a deterrent. Both these responses are fallacious.
Let’s take the “dangerous” situation first, which Dr Ehlers addresses on her site (she recommends using it when “...you may be in a compromising situation, such as going on a blind date, or having to use public transport late at night”). As far as I’m aware, most rapes worldwide happen in circumstances where the woman can be got at when she’s alone, and where the perpetrator will have the time and privacy to carry out his crime without fear of interruption. Also, a large proportion of rapes are committed by friends or relatives, rather than strangers (even Dr Ehlers’ own site says 69% of rapes are committed by people who aren’t strangers); in other words one is at least as much at risk in one’s own home or in a friend’s home than in the archetypal dark street at the dead of night I talked about earlier. Or, and this is not uncommon in India, a woman can be kidnapped, put in the rapists’ vehicle, and raped as they drive around town – frequently for the duration of the night.
All this means that when a woman might think she’s in a “safe” situation, she’s nothing of the sort; and, when she’s in a “dangerous” situation, she might actually be safer than at other times since she’s far more likely to be on her guard and less vulnerable.
Then, there’s the idea of “uncertainty causing deterrence”. As far as general crime trends go, uncertainty hasn’t stopped any kind of crime – it’s merely made criminals try and neutralise the uncertainty factor. Let’s say the attacker with the knife I mentioned holds it in the woman’s face and says, "If you're wearing one of those things, take it out right now or I'll cut you up so bad your own lover won't want to ever look at you again." What will the woman’s reaction be? To take it out, right? Really, what other alternative does she have? Well, according to Dr Ehlers, she
“...would then have a free hand at which point you either grab his testis or twist them (sic) or poke your fingers into his eyes and get away from the scene. Rape-aXe will buy you time.”
It somehow strikes me that Dr Ehlers (who says she hasn’t been raped) hasn’t put herself in a situation where she has to choose between being cut up and complying with orders. Also, her entire invention is based on the idea that the victim is faced with a single rapist. A significant proportion of rapes, including rapes in southern Africa, are committed by gangs, and it strikes me that her advice is a good way of getting oneself turned into a smear on the ground.
Or, let’s take one of those facts about rape that just about everyone, including Dr Ehlers herself, agrees with: that it isn’t about sex, it’s about power. The least important part of the rape is the fact of the rapist’s penis entering the victim’s vagina. It’s the actual and total domination that the rapist exerts over his victim that matters, not the penetration itself. Therefore, it doesn’t really necessarily signify that rape will involve penile penetration of the vagina. It can be anything including forced anal or oral intercourse, or merely partial penetration of the vagina – not nearly enough to let the Rape-aXe engage its target – or penetration of any of the above with other objects. I wonder how effective Dr Ehlers’ invention will be against a baton or a beer bottle. Not very, I don’t think.
Nor does the Rape-aXe offer any protection at all against a far more important danger faced by a woman in the so-called “dangerous” situation – against assault. This may include anything from being verbally abused and/or hit, to being slashed with a knife or (and again this is quite common in India, much used by jilted suitors) being splashed with sulphuric acid. As a matter of fact, I’d even say that in a situation where women are known or suspected to be wearing Rape-aXe or similar devices, the possibility of potentially substantially more damaging assault increases. The mindset goes something like this: “So you think you’ve won, bitch? Well, let’s see how you like this.” If Dr Ehlers’ claim in her website is to be taken at face value, and rape is a “hit and run offence”, well, assault is an even easier hit and run offence.
But let’s imagine that all of Dr Ehlers’ claims are correct, and see where that gets us. Let’s assume that the Rape-aXe works exactly as she claims it to, that it engages the penis shaft’s skin, and that it can’t be removed without the assistance of facilities available in a hospital emergency room only. What then?
We’ll consider a situation where a rapist has achieved his purpose and penetrated a woman vaginally, against her will, while she’s wearing a Rape-aXe, and deeply enough for the teeth on the instrument to engage him. I don’t know if this device can cope with condoms, but let’s say it can; let’s for the sake of argument claim that it will engage his penile skin whether he’s using a condom or not. Assuming, then, that his wearing of a condom or not doesn’t matter, even if he’s caught by the Rape-aXe, he’s actually already committed the rape, am I right? It’s not a rape-prevention device, it’s just a device to try and make the consequences more severe.
And what happens if he’s not wearing a condom? I’ll just point out that this instrument is a South African invention, and that southern Africa has one of the highest incidences of HIV in the world. So, the lady might have caught her rapist, but she might have caught something else besides. Of course, that’s true of any rape, but this instrument of vengeance can’t stop her from running the risk of getting HIV, which a can of pepper spray or some simple precautions like going about in groups well might. (I should mention that according to Dr Ehlers’ site, the Rape-aXe is supposed to prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases from the rapist to the victim, but she gives no data proving this contention. Nor does she mention what happens if the rapist is wearing a condom.)
Then, let’s take it from the rapist’s perspective. According to the site, he’s supposed to be hooked through the penile skin and therefore “tagged”. Well, let me tell you something as someone who’s actually – back as a kid, when I wasn’t yet circumcised – got his foreskin stuck in a zipper; it’s painful, but unlike a crushing injury (like a kick to the penis or testicles) is very, very far from incapacitating. All that the pain is likely to do is infuriate the rapist and likely end up with the woman getting the beating of her life, if not killed. It’s kind of interesting that Dr Ehlers seems to be aware of this problem – she mentions it in the FAQ (it’s, in fact, Question No 1) but her answer is anything but direct. All she does is repeat that the rapist is “tagged”; how is that supposed to stop the victim from getting her head beaten in? According to Dr Ehlers, the rapist won’t do anything further because he’ll be in “double trouble”. I doubt if an enraged rapist will stop to think of further consequences at that moment. It’s as though Dr Ehlers has never even seen anyone in a frenzy of anger. And if there’s more than one rapist, the chances of major violence increase to a complete certainty.
It’s interesting that in one of the pages on her site, Dr Ehlers talks at some length about rape as a weapon of war – and yet that rape is always one with multiple perpetrators. It’s not as though her invention would be helpful in that situation.
Dr Ehlers claims for her invention that it will prevent the rapist from urinating until it’s removed. I don’t really see how that works since according to her it’s basically a barbed latex sheath. It seems to me that the end of a latex sheath can be cut off without too much trouble, just like the end of a condom, which is also a latex sheath, can. But then I haven’t actually seen one of these contraptions for myself so I can’t really swear to that.
What I can say, though, is that even if we are to take Dr Ehlers’ assertion that the Rape-aXe can only be removed by a surgeon at face value, there’s no reason to accept her assertion that the rapist will end up being “tagged” and arrested. Where there’s a demand, it will be satisfied, and crooked surgeons aren’t exactly unknown. Any number of clinics will be on hand to quietly remove the Rape-aXe from anyone it’s attached to, if and when the time comes.
Then, we have the fact that something like this can actually be misused. In a world where we have people like Lorena Bobbitt, I can see instances where some women trap their boyfriends or colleagues into having sex with them, and then accuse them of rape. It’s not exactly a minor consideration, given that those are precisely the men who are liable to go to official hospitals to have the device removed.
In any case, the purpose of this invention isn’t to prevent rape; it’s basically Dr Ehlers’ route to fame if not fortune. A look at her website, and this becomes clear. Not only does she offer no statistics as to how many rapists have been brought to justice as a result of her invention, this is what she states as her “mission statement”:
“In this day and age there are communities where practices such as virginity testing, female genital mutilation, child marriages, arranged impregnations and then forced marriage are practiced. My mission is to highlight the plight of these women and give them the choice!”
Does this seem kind of highfalutin tripe to the average reader? How does “tagging” a rapist, even if that could work, affect in any way child marriages, “arranged impregnations” (whatever that might be) and forced marriage? But for Dr Ehlers,
“Rape-aXe is the beginning of my crusade towards curbing the scourge of violence against women and girls!”
At this point, I’d really want to see some statistics. How many rapists has Rape-aXe brought to book? A thousand? A hundred? One?
Actually, the answer seems to be zero, since
the device has never been marketed to the public and it remains unclear whether the product will ever be available for purchase.
In other words, we have a "crusade for women's empowerment", we have a website, we have a lot of publicity - and we do not have a marketed and testable product which is supposed to achieve any of the claims made for it.
Pardon me for not ranking Dr Ehlers' credibility too high.
With all the obvious criticism that can be directed at her invention, it’s curious that Dr Ehlers addresses only two, and these two are so infantile as to be practically straw-man arguments.
The first, in her own words? “I have been accused of all sorts, my all-time favourite though is that I am the inventor of a most medieval device… my response, quite frankly is that a medieval deed deserves a medieval consequence.”
Does this even mean anything? Rape is a crime that has been around as long as there have been humans (and is far from unknown among other animals either). Burglary and murder are crimes that have been around as long as there have been humans, too, and are to this day punished in certain nations by amputation or death. How is hooking a man’s penis skin a medieval punishment? Castration might have been more like it.
The other? “My second favourite criticism comes from Victoria Kaija, from the Center (sic) for Disease Control and Prevention, Uganda. She refers to my invention as a form of ‘enslavement’. Apparently wearing the device, according to Victoria, is a constant reminder, to women, of their vulnerability.”
This is like saying taking elementary precautions like wearing a seat belt while driving a car shouldn’t be done because it makes you feel vulnerable; obviously a ridiculous argument, and easy to strike down. It seems to me extremely unlikely that more cogent arguments have not been made, but if so, Dr Ehlers absolutely refuses to mention them.
Rape is a serious problem, and merits serious attempts at prevention. Gimmicky devices like this are not the solution, and are actually liable to exacerbate the problem.
But in the final analysis, ladies, tell me this: would you be psychologically comfortable walking around with a latex sheath inside your vagina, which you know to be lined with metal hooks? How does that idea make you feel?
Not all that good, I’ll bet.