Ekaterina Romanovskaya froze. It was a warm and sunny day in late May 2000, and the 25-year-old interpreter had just dropped her 3-year-old daughter off at kindergarten in their hometown of Volograd, a city in southwestern Russia, when a man she had never seen before appeared behind her. “We need to talk about the little girl,” the stranger said. Romanovskaya glanced over her shoulder.
She didn’t recognize the man, and there was no obvious reason to run, but Romanovskaya sensed something amiss. Without saying a word, she started walking toward her parents’ apartment, her childhood home. It was a route she could walk blindfolded—perhaps she’d lose the unsettling stranger in the crowd.
When she reached the building, Romanovskaya took the stairs rather than the elevator. It was the kind of tiny decision women make a hundred times every day—instinctive, automatic. But today, decades later, Romanovskaya, now 45, says the decision saved her life.
Because when the same strange man who had so unnerved her on the street broke down the building door and cornered Romanovskaya in the stairs with a hunting knife, she had a chance to scream. “The only thing I had to fight for my life was my voice, so I cried out,” Romanovskaya says. “I called for help as loud as I could.”
Then the man turned the knife on her, and the wall beside her turned red.
“A fountain of blood emerged from my neck,” recalls Romanovskaya. “I reached up to stop the blood with my hands, but my body was totally unprotected. He tried to reach my heart with his knife three times, but my bones saved me: my ribs, my collarbone.” By the time a neighbor came into the stairwell and the attacker fled, Romanovskaya had nine critical stab wounds to her neck, chest, and torso.
Her yoga pants were the only thing that had stopped her internal organs from spilling out onto the floor.
Decades after the attack, in 2016, Romanovskaya, along with cofounders Nikita Marshansky and Leonid Bereshchansky, launched Nimb: a “smart ring” designed to act like a panic button and inform friends, family, and law enforcement if the wearer is in danger.
When the man attacked Romanovskaya in 2000, she had no cellphone to call for help. “I asked myself: What if I’d had a gun?” she says. “But I decided that a gun probably would have made the situation worse. I realized that the most important thing is to call for help.”
Romanovskaya’s invention, she hoped, would help save lives. There was obvious public demand for a device of its kind: On Kickstarter, Nimb (which means “halo” in Russian) quickly raised $160,000 in donations—well over its target goal of $50,000.
But not everyone was supportive. Formal investors balked at the idea—of the “more than 100” investors Romanovskaya estimates she approached, none wanted to get involved. Almost as bad, Romanovskaya says, was the unexpected backlash from the women she was trying to help. It got heated. “They told me, ‘Stop teaching men how to rape,’” Romanovskaya recalls. “But wasn’t it just the opposite? Wasn’t our aim to take the power away from [attackers], and put it back in women’s hands?”
There seems to be a technological solution for everything today, from predicting the weather to finding a date. But can technology solve violence against women, sexual violence? Recent attempts to answer that question have varied wildly, from the sincere to the absurd.
Early this year, an Indian engineer and entrepreneur named Shyam Chaurasia debuted an anti-sexual-violence lipstick gun, which looks like a regular cosmetic but sets off a loud bang and alerts police when activated. In August 2019, an invisible ink stamp meant to mark assailants who grope women on public transport sold out in Japan within an hour of its launch. In China, feminist activists have used blockchain technology to circumvent China’s notoriously censored internet and post information about a decades-old case in which a Peking University student, Gao Yan, committed suicide after she was allegedly sexually assaulted by a professor. And a few years ago in India, three engineers introduced underwear that would deliver up to 82 electric shocks when it detected “unwanted force.”
Some of the inventions seem promising. Others are outlandish, tongue-in-cheek, or even downright medieval. In 2010, Sonnet Ehlers, a former blood transfusion technician in South Africa, rose to international prominence when she announced plans to distribute the Rape-aXe, a barbed “anti-rape condom,” during the World Cup. Her plans went unfulfilled, though, due to a lack of donations. Worn inside a woman’s vagina like a tampon, the Rape-aXe couldn’t prevent rape—but it could punish the offender. In theory, the Rape-aXe’s inward-facing barbs would permit a rapist to penetrate his victim, but then it would clamp down on his penis (without breaking the skin) the moment he’d withdraw.
Once activated, the Rape-aXe could only be removed by a medical professional—giving hospital staff or the victim, Ehlers theorized, an opportunity to notify police. Ehlers says the device was inspired by her experience working with rape victims in South Africa, which has some of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world. Ehlers met women in townships who, they told her, inserted razor blades into sponges that they routinely wore inside their vaginas—just in case. Another survivor of traumatic rape told Ehlers: “If only I’d had teeth down there.”
The Rape-aXe raised comparisons to vagina dentata, the myth of women with toothed vaginas that appears in several different cultures worldwide, including Māori mythology, Shinto legend, and even Hindu theology. But despite the apparent demand for a punitive device like Rape-aXe in South Africa, where an average of 110 rapes are reported to police each day, according to South Africa’s official crime statistics for 2017-2018, the Rape-aXe was widely reviled in international media. Described by South African sexual violence expert Charlene Smith as “vengeful, horrible, and disgusting,” the Rape-aXe provoked a flash of global outrage and then quickly bit the dust.
Some anti-sexual-violence inventions are met with fury; others are met with laughs. In 2007, Japanese fashion designer Aya Tsukioka launched a line of clothing and accessories meant to deceive potential criminals: a handbag that looks like a manhole cover and therefore, if dropped on the street, might trick a mugger into thinking its owner had no purse to steal; a school backpack that unfolds to hide a child behind an apparent fire extinguisher box. But most attention was reserved for Tsukioka’s anti-rape dress: a normal-looking red skirt that could be unfurled to transform a woman into, of all things, a vending machine. A few years later, “revolutionary hairy leg hosiery”—tights that would make a woman look, from the waist down, like King Kong—became a viral sensation on Chinese social media.
It’s easy to dismiss technological solutions to social problems, and many people do. The solution to rape, critics say, cannot be to transform human women into vending machines, Chewbaccas, or mythological monsters.
“Although these inventions are eye-catching, well-intentioned, and draw attention to the fact that sexual attacks and harassment are endemic worldwide,” wrote journalist Homa Khaleeli in a Guardian op-ed. “They only highlight what we have always needed: legislation to protect women that is properly enforced, along with a change in the focus of rape prevention from the victims to the perpetrators.” In an essay for the Independent, writer Layla Haidrani agreed: “We should also be seeing more campaigns that aim to change social attitudes to sexual assault and higher rape conviction rates rather than, you know, crowd-funding gadgets.”
Sexual violence is a complex cocktail. Psychology, trauma, cultural conditioning, power dynamics, and a million other causal details come together to form a crisis for which, it seems, only a similarly complex social solution will do.
Forty years ago, social and political technology theorist Langdon Winner asked “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” in a landmark article for the MIT Press. Described decades later as “one of the most thoughtful attempts to undermine the notion that technologies are in themselves inherently neutral,” Winner uses the example of urban planner Robert Moses’ bridges, which were designed with low underpasses that would prevent buses—and therefore low-income New Yorkers—from accessing Long Island beach resorts.
But just as technology can be used to exacerbate (or even create) social problems, it has been used to solve problems and is poised to do so again—just consider how the invention of the printing press weakened the power of the clergy, or how the development of so-called cruelty-free (or “clean”) lab-grown meat stands to disrupt factory farming.
In recent years, technology has been proposed as a potential solution to everything from forced labor in the seafood industry to the racism black men face trying to hail a cab. The promise of a rape-free world made possible by technological innovation is so appealing that, in 2014, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault convened a “data jam” of inventors, technology experts, policy makers, and survivors to “brainstorm new ways to address the alarming rates of sexual assault on college campuses.”
And the idea that technology might also work to cure—or at least curb—sexual violence is not modern or radical: It’s a notion with deep historical, and even conservative, roots. The National Rifle Association and its advocates, for instance, have long maintained that armed women are less vulnerable to rape, despite the fact that one study found women are 100 times more likely to be killed by a man with a gun than to use one for self-defense. Nevertheless, it’s an idea that is deeply ingrained, and even cherished, in some streams of American culture: that technology, rather than social change, is the solution to rape.
Critics of these “anti-rape” devices argue that they make potential victims responsible for stopping crimes against them. In a world where rape survivors are too often asked to explain why they were wearing the “wrong” clothes or drinking alcohol at the time of their assault, it’s easy to imagine survivors being asked why they weren’t wearing a panic button ring or electrified underwear or a vending machine transformer dress.
“The idea of preventing sexual violence with technology alone is fraught from the beginning,” says Rena Bivens, an assistant professor at Carleton University. “There is this idea that if you just put a technology into a social space with good intentions, that it will somehow magically make things better without also putting the same amount of energy and emphasis into social shifts.”
Indeed, some critics argue that the very idea of arming women with anti-sexual-violence technology is misguided because it doesn’t address the root problem: the acceptance of sexual violence in society and, more broadly, rape culture. They say social change is the only real solution—not data or devices.
Some of these new technologies “prioritize the creation of that data over any attempt to empower women or to change the norms around sexual violence; they’re rape culture with a technological veneer,” wrote Karen Levy, an assistant professor in the department of information science at Cornell University, in a 2014 article for The Atlantic. “Focusing on data production drives us to think of sexual violence in black-and-white terms—a dangerous oversimplification of a far messier and more nuanced reality.”
The problem, others say, isn’t with the idea of sexual violence prevention technology itself—it’s that existing ideas are, in a word, boring. To this way of thinking, the very process of radically changing the way we think about sexual violence might permit developers to pursue more innovative solutions to the crisis.
“I brought technology developers and sexual violence experts into a room together to imagine a future that’s free of sexual violence,” Bivens says. “They had to create a design of a technology that would hold that society in place and keep it free of sexual violence. By freeing ourselves from assumptions about what society can look like, it raised the question: Why aren’t we thinking this way already? Why do we seem to be stuck?”
Even if a more innovative solution to sexual violence were to emerge, it would likely struggle to overcome the financial barriers that slowed devices like the Nimb and Rape-aXe. The social backlash to sexual violence prevention technologies hobbles these inventions out of the gate, experts say, but it’s often financial resistance that finally stops them in their tracks.
Many of these devices are designed, invented, or championed by women, and women-led companies are notoriously underfunded in science and technology. According to a February 2019 report by the US Patent and Trademark Office: “Gains in female participation in science and engineering occupations and entrepreneurship are not leading to broad increases in female patent inventors.” In the 1980s, the number of patents with at least one woman inventor was only about 7 percent. By 2016, the same report found that number had only climbed to 21 percent.
According to a report from the Senate Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee, women own 30 percent of small businesses but only received 4.4 percent of total dollars in small-business loans. In other words, for every $23 loaned, female entrepreneurs only receive $1. In the first half of 2019, only 2.9 percent of total venture investments went to female-led start-ups—a tiny improvement from 2.3 percent in 2018, according to a report from the National Venture Capital Association and PitchBook. In the United Kingdom, one report found that male entrepreneurs get 157 times more funding than their female counterparts.
“I think it’s quite obvious why most of these inventions aren’t getting funded,” says Vicki Saunders, founder of SheEO, a Toronto-based nonprofit focused on funding women entrepreneurs. “It’s because 97 percent of the people writing checks are not the people who have experienced this problem. There are a lot of systemic biases built into the system. We have really one model of what leadership looks like, and that’s very often not a woman.”
Saunders says that when SheEO funded Callisto, a nonprofit that creates technology to detect repeat sexual assailants on college campuses, founder Jess Ladd paid back the loan within only a year. It was amazing, and that’s what happens when women are the ones writing the checks,” Saunders says. “It’s a perfect example of why it’s important to have women deciding how to use their capital, as well as men.”
Many entrepreneurs say investors simply turn off during conversations about sexual violence. “Investors want to be involved in something that sounds very positive—very ‘hot,’ very ‘sexy,’” Romanovskaya says. “In fact, they use that word a lot: ‘sexy.’ This is not sexy. They didn’t want to be involved in a conversation with tough questions but no good answers.”
But in some fields, the lack of topical sex appeal has not stopped social impact investing from booming. According to the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance, over $30.7 trillion was invested worldwide in environmental, social, and governance causes in 2018—a 34 percent increase from 2016. The UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change estimated that total climate change-related investing totaled $681 billion in 2016.
So if climate change is an example of an unsexy crisis that investors are willing to fund, why aren’t sexual violence technologies able to attract the same degree of support? “From a purely market perspective, does the market exist? Of course it does—the rape and sexual assault statistics are very grim,” says Ruchika Tulshyan, angel investor and author of The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in The Workplace. “I think there is huge, tremendous opportunity to innovate along these lines.”
So if the appetite for investment and innovation is there, why are existing sexual violence solutions so uninspiring to investors? “There are two issues here: bias, and failure of imagination,” says Joy Anderson, the president and founder of Criterion Institute, a think tank that uses finance as an instrument of social change. “There is still this perception that women, and women’s issues, aren’t a viable market. But there is also the idea that gender inequality is inevitable. When people can’t imagine different futures, they don’t invest in them.”
At one speech to investors in Singapore, Anderson recalled, she challenged the audience to imagine a world with a 50 percent reduction in sexual violence. A man in the audience accused Anderson of being ‘a Pollyanna’—shorthand for a woman who is excessively optimistic or naïve.
“How come Elon Musk gets to say we’re going to live on Mars and attract millions of dollars of investment,” Anderson asked, “but when I say ‘imagine a world without gender based violence,’ I’m the one who is being unrealistic?”
Jillian Keenan is a contributing reporter with the Fuller Project, a journalism nonprofit that partners with leading media to report on global issues impacting women.