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Companies are using fear to market lifestyle accessories to women

Companies are using fear to market lifestyle accessories to women


'Cute' anti-sexual assault tools trivialize a serious issue

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We apologize for our original headline; it's been updated. Please read Adi Robertson's editorial on the fear-based marketing of products to women. -Ed.

The JWT Singapore ad agency thinks women need a guardian angel to prevent sexual harassment and violence. Asked to create an educational campaign about date rape, the company developed a $120 halo-shaped pendant designed to give women a socially acceptable way to stop an interaction. Pressing the central button will trigger a call to the wearer’s phone, and in case of a "threat to her personal safety," holding it sends an emergency text message with location coordinates to a designated contact. "Some young women may not feel confident enough to tell a guy — especially one they know or think they may like, or is part of an extended social group — who’s starting to get drunk and too touchy to shove off," JWT chief creative officer Valerie Cheng told FastCo Exist. "And those are the situations that can spiral out of control pretty fast." It may be the most recent high-tech anti-sexual assault system, but it’s hardly the first. Among other options, AR Wear, a literal chastity belt made of uncuttable fabric, was funded on Indiegogo this spring.

JWT Singapore undoubtedly has its heart in the right place, and it's dedicating 10 percent of the proceeds to a group fighting sexual assault. Discreet fake call tools and emergency alert systems are existing ideas, though it’s unclear how helpful the Guardian Angel would be at deflecting harassment. A recent study suggests that men who are "too touchy" do it because they’re predators, not because they’re drunk. But everything beyond that? It’s wrapped in an ugly facade that symbolizes some of our worst ideas about women and sexual assault.

"Those are the situations that can spiral out of control pretty fast."

On the promotional site, the Guardian Angel is displayed against fluffy white clouds and worn by young girls in simple white outfits. The text is soft gray, as if anything too sharp might hurt our feminine eyes. Both it and AR Wear explain themselves in delicate euphemisms. The Guardian Angel will help you deal with "an uncomfortable situation." AR Wear is around for "when things go wrong." What’s shocking about these references is how immediately understandable they are. When something "goes wrong" for a man, it could be anything. But the moment you see FastCo Exist’s tweet about getting women "out of bad situations," you know exactly what they mean.

Talking about any kind of personal anti-harassment or anti-assault system is tricky. There’s a fine line between giving women useful tools and focusing so much on those tools that the larger societal problem gets ignored. You’re teaching people to get around a broken stair instead of fixing it — and, more often than not, blaming them if they fall. But there are ways to discuss self-defense, situational awareness, and technological solutions that are neither condescending nor aimed only at potential victims. DrinkSavvy focuses very specifically on detecting drugs, and its cups and straws are most useful if bars, caterers, and party hosts — not just individual women — buy them in bulk. The Predator Alert Tool for OKCupid and other sites notes red flags on user profiles, tipped off by their answers to survey questions or by warnings from other users. The Personal Space Dress makes a larger political statement about harassment.

Things like the Guardian Angel are different. They’re promoted not as tools but as highly gendered lifestyle products, to be purchased by women and put on day after day. They’re fashion. In the promotional video for AR Wear, a woman strikes a pose to check out her anti-rape underwear before sliding on her little black dress and doing her hair, all in one seamless process. Split ends. Deodorant streaks. Sexual assault. How terribly inconvenient.

I understand the reasoning. If you want people to use something, you should make it look like it will seamlessly integrate into, then improve, the rest of their life. I want a smartwatch to feel like a more useful version of what’s on my wrist now. I want checking a fitness tracker to feel like a natural part of my routine. But this reasoning is fundamentally, grossly, offensively unsuited to rape prevention. You are asking civilian women to wear body armor or an emergency alert system in order to go to a bar, restaurant, or party. If this is the place we are at — and we are, it seems, still at that place — then that is not something to be streamlined and minimized. It is something to be deeply concerned about.

And that’s what’s wrong with the Guardian Angel’s gauzy, stereotypical femininity: it ends up normalizing rape as an unremarkable, if unfortunate, part of the female experience. The soothing language — making women "feel less vulnerable" so they can "live their lives to the fullest" — smacks of the vagaries in tampon commercials. It’s something everyone knows about but nobody wants to hear about, and certainly nothing that we want to acknowledge is a shamefully common plague in our schools, our prisons, our armed forces, and almost every other social institution.

Something everyone knows about but nobody wants to hear about

Women have survival strategies not so different to the Guardian Angel. Many already tell a friend when and where they’re going on a date, in case they don’t come back. #YesAllWomen, a hashtag activism campaign that sprung up in the wake of Elliot Rodger’s misogynistic shooting spree, shows how a small subset of violent men create a hostile environment for all women. But these kinds of gender-specific products can end up treating men as invincible and women as inherently vulnerable, perpetuating ideas that hurt all of us. Men’s chances of being victims of homicide and overall violent crime, especially at the hands of strangers, are consistently reported as higher. Women’s killers and rapists, meanwhile, often aren’t people who can be warded off with easy technical solutions. They’re most frequently husbands and boyfriends.

Our awareness of the genuinely alarming, gender-specific dangers that women face — dangers that differ greatly by things like race and gender identity — also risks creating a climate where society simply expects one half of the population to be perpetually afraid, and blames them if they don’t see violence coming. There’s a difference between noting a problem and naturalizing it. In our cultural scripts, crimes against men can be explained by any number of individual factors. Crimes against women are explained by the fact that they are women, and therefore naturally victimizable. If men are threatened and defend themselves, they’re tough. If women do it, they’re lucky. The Guardian Angel is a pretty, technological token that underscores this connection. It is the aestheticization of female fear.

I don’t blame anybody who wants to use the Guardian Angel, and I’m sure there are people who will. It’s not a categorically bad or malicious idea, only one that gets filed away under the list of ominous protective talismans I don’t own. Roughly once a week, when I go running or take an early train or travel alone, I try to preempt fate by belligerently telling it that I know the score. So maybe today is the day the other shoe finally drops, I think. Maybe today is the day I die. And then, inevitably: everyone is going to wonder why I didn’t wear the damn necklace.