Biting back against rape

By Emily Fasold

One year after its introduction to the South African public, “Rape-aXe,” a spiked, tampon-like device designed to protect women against rape, continues to stir international controversy.

The device, invented by South African doctor Sonnete Ehlers, works by hooking onto a rapist’s penis upon penetration. Once “tagged,” assaulters must have the device surgically removed before they can urinate or move comfortably. Ideally, this allows authorities the opportunity to identify and prosecute them.

Rape-aXe does not pierce the skin or draw blood, which prevents the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, Ehlers says on the product’s website.

The idea was born approximately 40 years ago when a rape victim told Ehlers, “I wish that I had teeth down there,” CNN reported in 2010.

“Men have been using their bodies as weapons since the beginning of time,” Ehlers said. “It’s time for women to do the same.”

The Rape-aXe was originally designed to combat sexual violence in South Africa, a nation where 28 percent of men have admitted to committing rape and 16.9 percent of the adult population is HIV positive, Human Rights Watch reported.

“There is great support for this in South Africa because violent and incredibly dangerous sex crimes happen at such high rates that its necessity is unquestionable,” said Wendy Murphy, a professor of sexual violence at the New England School of Law in Boston.

The U.S. also has a high incidence of rape, but since it usually happens behind closed doors by an acquaintance or in the form of date rape, the media has not had serious discussions about Rape-aXe’s place in the U.S., Murphy said.

Critics of Rape-aXe consider it barbaric, and worry that it could encourage women to use it against innocent men and make rapists more violent.

Forensic gynecologist Theodore Harriton believes that Rape-aXe devices would be ineffective in preventing rape in the U.S. and that the device would place additional burdens on rape victims.

“I think it would cause more problems in the United States than it would solve,” Harriton said. “It certainly would encourage more violence, and rapists may file suit for their injuries.”

He said avoiding high-risk situations, such as blind dates and dark alleys, is a safer and more effective way for women to prevent rape.

In the U.S., approximately one in five women are sexually assaulted at least once during their lives, but less than 2 percent of the accused rapists serve jail time, according to Michi Fu, a psychology professor who specializes in sex abuse treatment at Alliant International University.

“The Rape-aXe could decrease our high vaginal rape rates because attackers would know the consequences in advance,”

Fu said. “But the problem is that it won’t stop them from engaging in forced oral and anal sex.”

While the U.S. does not currently have laws that ban the use and sale of Rape-aXe devices, they are not available in American stores and cannot be purchased online, Murphy said.

“All women should absolutely have access to this,” she said. “If a woman feels she needs an anti-rape condom to protect herself against rape, she’s constitutionally entitled to it.”

Murphy attributes Rape-aXe’s lack of marketing in the U.S. to cultural misunderstandings about the product and rape in general.

“Mainstream America doesn’t embrace anti-rape condoms because, unlike South Africa, we don’t have a collective understanding of how prevalent rape is,” she said. “And we are light-years behind where we should be.”