South African doctor Sonnet Ehlers first came up with the idea for an anti-rape device when she treated a rape victim who said she wished she'd "had teeth down there." So Ehlers invented Rape-aXe—similar to a female condom, except lined with jagged teeth. An intruding penis can get inside just fine, but when it moves back outward, the teeth clamp on and rip into it, rendering the perpetrator incapacitated with pain. It's like the vaginal version of "do not back up; severe tire damage."
Rape-aXe stays attached to the penis afterward, and only digs in tighter if the user attempts removal. You can't pee with it on, so it must be removed by a doctor—thus identifying the rapist as such. I asked Ehlers if it really works, and she told me it had been tested with great results. "The guy was in excruciating pain and immobile," she said.
The product has not gone to market yet, but it's been a source of controversy on the internet for years. Some have criticized Rape-aXe for its violent nature; others have accused the device of being "medieval." For her part, Ehler retorts on Rape-aXe's website: "A medieval deed deserves a medieval consequence."
Anti-rape inventions have flourished for nearly as long as rape has been a thing. Just this month, a new device called Athena started accepting pre-orders. It's a piece of clip-on jewelry that "emits a loud alarm and sends text messages to loved ones with the wearer's location" when the wearer presses a button in the event of an attack.
Looking through the patents for anti-rape devices, it's clear this is fertile ground for innovation: One of the earlier ones, from 1979, was an internal device that would inject tranquilizer fluid into the unwelcome organ during penetration, rendering the rapist unconscious.
Then there was the Trap, patented in 1993—basically an insertable rubber pocket with plastic spears arranged in a circle at the front. Like Rape-aXe, it doesn't prevent initial penetration, but on the first pump outward, the Trap's sharp teeth pierce underneath the head of the penis and clamp on.
A South African doctor named Jaap Haumann dreamed up a "killer tampon," a hard plastic cylinder containing a spring blade that would simply slice off the tip of any intruding penis.
One particularly elaborate needle-based device would collect a tissue sample upon sensing a foreign object, before releasing an identifying dye onto the penis, as well as a tissue irritant. As a bonus feature, it has the ability to connect to an audio recorder that would capture the sounds of the assault and vibrate to let the user know the device has been activated. As thoughtful as some of these ideas were, none of them have been made.
Still, the very nature of these devices raises a host of concerns: If a device injures an already violence-prone rapist, will he lash out in retaliation against the woman, thus putting her in more danger than she would have been otherwise? Since most of the devices require penetration in order to be activated, how much are they really doing to prevent vaginal rape (besides the fact that they do nothing to stop oral or anal rape)? And how much should we invest in devices that treat rape as inevitable, rather than focusing our efforts on educating men not to rape women?
Awareness efforts targeted at men do seem to actually work: The year after Canada sponsored the "Don't Be That Guy" campaign, Vancouver's rape rate went down by 10 percent.
But devices like Rape-aXe were designed specifically for places where protection, rather than prevention, is urgent. South Africa, for example, has one of the highest rates of rape in the world, where it's estimated that more than 40 percent of South African women will be raped in their lifetimes. According to a 2009 Amnesty International report, one of four South African men have admitted to committing rape, half of whom have done so multiple times. Lesbians in South Africa live in constant fear of violence: "Corrective" rape, intended to cure lesbians of their sexual preferences and often resulting in HIV, severe injuries, or even death, is still a prevalent practice.
Plus, the perpetrator identification tools that some of these devices have are their own type of deterrent: If there were some way to force a rapist to seek medical attention for damage to his special area in a way that clearly identified him as having forced his way in where he wasn't invited, maybe the concrete existence of that evidence would make it just a little bit easier to report that rape. And maybe some of these perpetrators would actually begin to fear the consequences of their actions.
That said, these gadgets probably won't be available any time soon (with the exception of Athena, which is expected to go to market this fall). Despite the numerous patents for anti-rape devices, none of them have actually become available to the public. When I asked Ehlers about the status of Rape-aXe, she told me there was one last hurdle in the design to overcome, which a final round of investment will be needed to resolve. The product was announced in 2005 and hasn't gotten much closer to release since then.
That doesn't stop people from worrying about their potential problems: What happens when anti-rape devices really do go on the market? Are women supposed to wear them at all times? How often do the intravaginal devices need to be removed by the user? Are they comfortable? And what about the possibilities for abuse? Are they just a misandrist's twisted fantasy of a way to get revenge on men, or are they a practical solution to a real-world problem?
It's a good question. What if a person had a disproportionate amount of physical power over another, and used it to harm someone else via a sexual encounter? That would simply be unacceptable. We'd have to do everything within our power to make sure that doesn't happen. Right?
Follow Lola Blanc on Twitter.