High-Tech Apparel That Promises Rape Protection: Innovative Or Risky?

What if, when threatened with sexual assault, a woman could delay the attack for a few minutes by keeping her undergarments firmly in place? Could it thwart the incident altogether? That’s the premise behind AR Wear, a fledgling line of underwear and shorts designed to stay locked in place on a woman’s body and, ostensibly, fend off a potential attacker.

At a glance, AR Wear products look like any other boy short underwear, bike short, or pair of track pants found on the market. But they function almost like a new age chastity belt (the crucial difference being, of course, that it’s the wearer’s choice to don the garment). The product can’t help but raise serious questions about the responsibilities designers assume when tackling social issues as systemic and contentious as sexual violence.

AR Wear’s founders–two longtime family friends who are not designers themselves–understand the contentious nature of their product and as such, are only going by their first names: Ruth and Yuvel. Neither is disclosing a last name here or in their Indiegogo campaign, “because this issue–the product–is a sensitive and emotional one that has raised emotions and various feedback, some [of which is] really offensive,” Ruth says.

Still, the duo believed this to be an idea worth pursuing. The concept for AR Wear hit Yuvel, who is a parent, about three years ago. “He read a news article one day about a rape that took place and the guy got the woman’s clothes off in 30 seconds,” Ruth says.

So Yuvel started reading up on the subject. “Some studies even told women, ‘You’re more of a target with a ponytail because there’s something to grab,’” Ruth says of the often confusing warnings aimed at females. “He came to the conclusion that he wanted to find something where you could passively resist.”

Here’s how AR Wear (which is still being prototyped) works: The clothing is made from average fabrics–cotton, lycra, and so forth–that includes a proprietary skeletal structure Yuvel developed with a team of designers. A non-elastic binding goes around the waist and thighs and can be locked in place with a button-sized dial that works like clock hands, with the time as the user’s code.

The creators claim the garments are also cut and tear resistant, thanks to reinforced panels of webbing that deflect blades. Yuvel is seeking a patent for the structure, so Ruth declined to describe the science or R&D behind the textile in greater detail. She did say that the science doesn’t make the clothing awkward to wear. “The model that was in them for a day or two found them to be surprisingly comfortable,” she says.

AR Wear is just the latest in the long and troubled history of self-defense products for women. Chastity belts weren’t exclusively used to put a lock on fidelity; reports suggest that even in the 1800s women working in factories wore them for protection. Around the turn of the 20th century, Edwardian hat pins were regarded as weapons for women in the upper echelon of society–so much so that courts in Berlin, Hamburg, and New York proposed making them illegal. The invention of Mace pepper spray in the 1980s made purse-sized cans of tear gas an option for women; later, it would be considered hazardous in the event the attacker used it on the victim. In 2005 a doctor in South Africa came out with the “Rape-X” spiked female condom designed to painfully hook onto a man’s skin. And just this spring, a team of engineering students in Chennai, India developed a bra that uses sensors to detect violent touch and provide electric shock to the attacker.

As we know, these inventions did not put an end to sexual violence–and neither will AR Wear. The founders acknowledge this on their site, and have clearly touted them as an option for feeling safer during specific activities like going for a run at night, traveling in a foreign country, or hitting the dance floor for a night out. They’re specialty garments, angled towards making you feel equally protected as the girl at the bar who knows Krav Maga.

Studies on how to prevent rape tend to be inconclusive and conflicting. The very report that the AR Wear team cites on its campaign page states that, “several active resistance strategies are effective for avoiding rape without increasing risk of physical injury,” only to go on to say that other researchers, “have expressed concern that women who physically fight back forcefully, in particular, in response to rape may sustain more physical injuries.” (the full 2007 report can be found here).

Unfortunately, the conversation around who’s to blame when rape happens is alive and well, even at The New York Times. Compound this with the statistics (that may or may not be accurate, given that not all victims report rape attacks): two-thirds of those assaulted know the rapist; only 11 percent of attackers carry weapons; 25 to 30 percent of attacks are committed by intimate partners. It’s a stupefying mess.

Ultimately, products like AR Wear–an altruistic project at its heart–can easily wind up in the crossfire. The product provokes questions such as, Will the woman wind up in more physical danger if the locked-in-place pants provoke the attacker to use a weapon? If a woman is threatened to take them off, has she given implied consent? And on, and on…

Which brings us back to the original quandary: Do we ditch a well-intentioned product that has zero evidence of its efficacy? Or, in the face of entrenched societal issues, do we continue to look for innovative–but risky–solutions?

Check out the campaign here.

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