consent products
The products shouldn't be expected to upend the patriarchy, but they should't further entrench it either. (Illustration by Rinah Kang, Rhode Island School of Design)

The Problem with Consent Products

While some are well-intentioned, many of the products marketed to keep women safe fail to address what’s endangering them in the first place.

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consent products

While some are well-intentioned, many of the products marketed to keep women safe fail to address what’s endangering them in the first place.

In 2014, a group of four undergraduates gained national attention for their ongoing efforts to develop a roofie-detecting nail polish. The idea behind the product was to provide women with a tool that easily allowed them to see if their drink had been spiked. All that they had to do was dip their finger in the cup, and if the lacquer changed colors they would be alerted to the tampering and avoid being victimized.

While this product was certainly among the most notable of rape-preventing items — which have come to be known under the broader label of consent products — it was certainly not the first, nor the last, item marketed to help women protect themselves. In fact, these sorts of items have been around since the early 2000s, when a retired anesthetist developed a “killer tampon.”

The tampon’s creator claimed that the gadget contained a spring blade designed to cut off the tip of a man’s penis when activated. While admittedly outlandish — at least according to disgruntled women following its release — this oddity could be considered the predecessor to contemporary consent products. While dormant for some time, the market for these sorts of items resurfaced around 2012, especially as the issue of sexual assault on college campuses gained greater visibility.

Since then, all sorts of consent products have been created and marketed toward predominantly young women. There’s the “Guardian Angel” neckless/bracelet, which, when pressed, sends a fake call to the girl’s phone or texts a pre-set number; AR Wear, or Anti-Rape Wear, a company that creates bottoms resistant to pulling, tearing and cutting; and even date rape-preventative wristbands, which release an unpleasant scent meant to repel a possible assailant.

While some of these consent products may be well-intentioned, many read as ways to blatantly profit off the fear created by a sexist and violent rape culture. Even products clearly created with no motive other than the safety of women in mind have faced backlash from activists and groups fighting against rape culture.

In an interview with ThinkProgress, Tracey Vitchers, the board chair for Students Active for Ending Rape, elaborated on the pitfalls of these products. “Anything that can help reduce sexual violence from happening is, in some ways, a really good thing,” she said. “We need to think critically about why we keep placing the responsibility for preventing sexual assault on young women.”

In the same interview, Rebecca Nagle, one of the co-directors of an activist group called FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, similarly stated that encouraging the use of consent products only strengthened the societal constructs that attempt to justify rape culture.

“As a woman, I’m told not to go out alone at night, to watch my drink, to do all of these things. That way, rape isn’t just controlling me while I’m actually being assaulted  —  it controls me 24/7 because it limits my behavior,” Nagle said. “Solutions like these actually just recreate that. I don’t want to f—ing test my drink when I’m at the bar. That’s not the world I want to live in. The problem isn’t that women don’t know when there are roofies in their drink; the problem is people putting roofies in their drink in the first place.”

Despite greater awareness and the recent #MeToo movement, frequent sexual assault on college campuses continues to be an ongoing component of rape culture. According to The Office on Women’s Health, one in every five women on college campuses has experienced sexual assault. The high probability of being victimized puts this issue at the forefront of the minds of students and parents, increasing the marketability of consent products.

However, advocates continue to campaign against the use of consent products, because they serve to normalize victim-blaming through the “Why didn’t you?” defense. These arguments shift the blame from the rapist to the victim, as the legal system then chastises victims for not being prepared enough instead of protecting them from their attackers.

Over the years, people have ridiculed and parodied consent products to point out the fallacy of better preparing women to not be raped. Hairy leg tights were facetiously marketed by a blogger as designed to “deter perverts.” A limited line of consent underwear printed with messages such as “Only yes means yes” was released by a Canadian student and funded through Kickstarter. Her tagline read “Sick of having to say ‘no’ with your tiny woman’s mouth every time a bloke pushes his luck? Don’t worry, these handy consent pants can do it for you!”

Heightened awareness on the problematic nature of consent products has recently entered the consciousness of the general populous, leading people to call out the companies that market these items rather than praise them. A recent example of this greater consciousness was reflected in the backlash that Argentine company Tulipan received earlier this year, following the limited release of “consent condoms,” which require four hands to be taken out of the package.

While initially proponents applauded the company’s actions, the internet quickly recognized the product as a predatory marketing move designed to make the company appear more progressive, especially given that the condom was shown as a novelty item available only to selected individuals.

Though consent products have, in many ways, opened up the conversation around sexual assault, more often than not they serve to fuel an opportunistic “woke” market rather than helping or empowering victims. They are attractive because they offer a seemingly simple solution to a multifaceted and incredibly complex issue. By placing a Band-Aid over the serious issue of sexual assault and encouraging young college women to protect themselves, consent products only enable individuals to avoid uncomfortable conversations about rape culture.

The solution to disarming rape culture remains evasive, but in the meantime, there are other methods for protecting women from being attacked on college campuses and ways to support them if they are victimized.

Above all, it is important for women to know their rights. Although Title IX is more commonly known for equity in sports, it covers all aspects of gender equality, prohibiting discrimination against those who have suffered from sexual harassment or sexual violence. Know Your IX provides a full breakdown of how the amendment protects the rights of victims.

Believing survivors remains the crux of minimizing the damage caused by sexual assault. While research has shown that only 2 percent of survivors disclose their sexual assault to the police, doing so is the victim’s decision alone. If a survivor confides in you, be prepared to connect her or him to the appropriate and necessary resources.

Your role is to help according to a victim’s needs. If the survivor doesn’t want to seek outside support, don’t insist. At the end of the day, your priority should be to guide the individual toward healing, whatever that might look like for them.

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