The Problem With Safety Apps: On Accountability and Capitalism Within Rape Culture

By Taylor Steele

Why does the power to not harm others rest solely on those who would do harm to others? Every time I leave my house in this body, I’m at risk of becoming prey to a male gaze that may potentially turn to male violence. I attempt to reduce that risk, prevent that violence, by nixing the shorts and summer dresses, wearing little-to-no makeup, spending money I don’t have on Ubers to avoid late night walks home. Though, as a survivor of sexual assault and predation, I know assault has nothing to do with how I choose to display my body. These self-policing measures are simply ways to feign control or safety. So, what does it mean to be safe in the world in a targeted body in America — the rape culture distillery?

No one has an answer for that, yet. Or rather, we have the answer, and no one can hear it over the static of victim blaming, slut shaming, and misogyny. We saw it recently with Brock Turner, the 20 year-old rapist tellingly christened the “Stanford Swimmer.” When Brock’s father gave a character statement on his behalf, he called Brock’s crime “20 minutes of action.” An “action” he has apparently already paid for in his newfound discomfort and anxiety. As if the only life that was altered in those 20 minutes was that of the assailant. As if trauma ceases to exist past the moment in which the trauma was born. Survivors of assault aren't called “survivors” for a reason, which was reinforced by Brock’s victim’s statement in which she said: “[the assault is]  part of my identity, it has forever changed the way I carry myself, the way I live the rest of my life.

Instead of society/parents/media/universities doing the work to teach boys and men the dangers of toxic masculinity, many have attempted to counter these dangers with safety apps and devices. We have seen a rise in these over the past 3 years.

My first encounter with one of these tools was AR Wear’s Indiegogo campaign for their rape-prevention underwear, “A clothing line offering wearable protection for when things go wrong.” They are meant to be difficult to remove so as to hinder assailants, perhaps even dissuade them from assault altogether. Once again, placing the responsibility of safety on the potential victim. Just as troublesome as the thing itself, its slogan, “...when things go wrong” suggests accident or misstep, as if rape just happens, as if it’s an inevitable failing or something women should always be planning for.

Then there was the rape drug-detecting nail polish, Undercover Colors. I remember thinking how cool that was, nail polish that changes color upon contact with Rohypnol (the roofie drug) and a handful of other drugs — it must feel like having a secret superpower, catching the villain before the act. I never thought to ask, “then what?” You find out the guy you’re with drugged your drink, you don’t drink it, then what? Do you call the authorities? Simply get him kicked out of the bar/party? Give him a stern talking to? There are no immediate or discernible consequences for this person’s actions. More so, none of these options ensure anyone’s safety — beyond, perhaps, the person with the magical nail polish — or that he won’t try this again somewhere else, with someone else.

More popular nowadays, though, are mobile apps to keep track of one’s location, letting friends and family know where you are and when you arrive at your destination. This is, perhaps, the more seemingly innocuous of all the preventative measures we have access to, like playing Candy Crush or Pokémon Go, texting a friend or taking a selfie for Instagram; adding one more app to our home screens feels like nothing, regardless of the weight that app might carry.

I know this because I recently downloaded the app Companion, which, of the many safety apps I’ve had over the years, seems to be the most user-friendly of the lot. It's slogan, “never walk home alone” implies that walking home as a woman or otherwise marginalized and targeted body is an inherently dangerous act.

All of these apps are inherently flawed. They’re not weapons, though we’re meant to believe that if we wield them as such, we’ll keep ourselves protected. They also suggest that, if we don’t have them, we are at fault for whatever violences we encounter — victims always should’ve known better. The reality is, they’re not so much preventative as they are tools that can be used to help the victim after the fact of their assault. They collect receipts. They show proof of time and place, but, chances are, by the time authorities arrive at the scene, the assault will have already taken place.

But, even with this as proof, we’ve seen rapists get away with their crimes time and time again. We know the absurd amount of rapekits nationwide that go untested or destroyed.

And, let’s say, someone uses this app when they feel they’re being followed or are about to be attacked, and it gets the authorities there in time, prevents the attack — what prevents trauma from taking root in the almost-victim? What stops the warranted paranoia?

Since these apps can’t really save anyone, what good are they and who actually benefits from their existence? Who benefits from rape culture?

Undercover Colors was invented by 4 cis-het young men — the exact bodies I am afraid of becoming prey to. Sure, we can call them allies. Still, they are capitalists. AR Wear’s raised over $50,000, yet, their products are nowhere on the market. Though I don’t mean to imply that they're frauds. Who benefitted from that money? Who did they purchase materials from? Materials that ended up not being usable?

The most telling and disappointing research I’ve done on these apps show that there are those with both free and subscription versions. The premium apps give you more resources and services; calculate the amount a taxi might cost from your location, allow you to send pictures, live GPS tracking. How much is our safety worth? What about those who can't afford this “safety?” Meanwhile, our assailants get away (for) free. These apps developers are literally and blatantly capitalizing on rape culture, on women’s fears of being the next victim.

So, I’m interested in how we can reverse accountability. What if men (literally and figuratively) had to pay to ensure women’s safety at their own hands? What would that look like? Anti-assault boxers that are harder to take off when men are drunk? An app that tests their BAC, asks who they’re talking to, asks for her/their name, asks if they asked for consent, records whether she/they replied or not?

What about an app that makes sure men walk home alone?


Taylor Steele is a Bronx-born, Brooklyn-based writer and performer. Her work can be found at such esteemed publications as Apogee Journal, HEArt Journal, Rogue Agent, Blackberry Magazine, and many others. Her chapbook Dirty.Mouth.Kiss will be available Fall 2016 on Pizza Pi Press. Taylor is a content writer for The Body is Not an Apology, Drunken Boat Journal, and Philadelphia Printworks. She is an internationally ranked spoken word artist, but, more importantly, she is a triple-Taurus.

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