Sunday, June 20, 2010

Quick Hit: South African doctor invents female condoms with 'teeth' to fight rape

So, a link to this news story just popped up in my Facebook news feed with the headline "South African doctor invents female condoms with 'teeth' to fight rape." The condom was invented by Dr. Sonnet Ehlers in South Africa in consultation with engineers, gynecologists, and psychologists:

The woman inserts the latex condom like a tampon. Jagged rows of teeth-like hooks line its inside and attach on a man's penis during penetration, Ehlers said.

Once it lodges, only a doctor can remove it -- a procedure Ehlers hopes will be done with authorities on standby to make an arrest.

While I want to view this as good news--a way to empower women, a story of women empowering women (it's far too rare to see a news story about a woman inventing a nifty gadget, in my opinion)--I have very strong reservations. The Rape-aXe (yes, that is its actual name) reinforces the damaging view that rape is a "women's issue" rather than a societal problem and seems likely to focus attention on individual incidents rather than the underlying social structures that lead to violence against women. Furthermore, I can see far too easily how it can be used in victim-blaming: "If she really didn't want to be raped, she should have worn a Rape-aXe. To protect herself." And let's not forget that 77% of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows--and isn't necessarily likely to view as a potential rapist, meaning women may not be wearing these when they could be most helpful.

So overall, I guess I'm glad this product should available sometime in the near future, especially since it prevents fluid exchange, providing women with protection from the more physical aspects of rape--pregnancy and STIs--but it's a tragic statement about the world we live in that it's going to find a market.

Update: There's also a really interesting and vibrant discussion happening at one of my favorite blogs, Shakesville.


  1. I can't make up my mind on this. On one hand, I second the frustration that this makes rape out to be a women's problem. But on the other hand, read this article ( that states, "It is a fact that a woman born in South Africa has a greater chance of being raped, than learning how to read." (That 77% statistic is from the US, though I'm sure "acquaintance rape" is also quite common in SA.) With odds like that, I'd find the tooth-condom pretty appealing. And the fluid-exchange protection is even more appealing in a nation with such high rates of HIV/AIDS infection.

    Clearly this is a cultural issue--men "believe that they are sexually entitled to women" so rapists don't feel that they are committing a crime. So in a way I'm glad that women are fighting back, but however much a rapist deserves to have something sharp stuck in his penis, fighting violence with more violence is...uncomfortable, and you're right, the fact that women may feel this is their only defense is tragc. Vagina dentata exists in folklore to represent men's fear of female sexuality, even to make them fear sex (including rape), but we want to promote equality and understanding, not fear!

    Also, there are a few obvious loopholes, if you will:
    1) It doesn't seem like a woman could wear the Rape-aXe during her period, so if she goes on a blind date or enters some sort of suspicious area (the inventor's suggestions for use of the condom) while on her period, which is approximately one-fourth of the time, she isn't protected.
    2) Couldn't an enlightened potential rapist remove the Rape-aXe before attempting rape?

  2. My issue with this is much of the physical and psychological damage inflicted on women during rape can happen before penetration. In addition, this doesn't protect against other types of rape (e.g. forced oral sex) and could promote a narrow definition. All it does as far as prevention is stop the man from continuing after it has already started.

    That said, it's a pretty genius way to make men turn themselves in, and it's a much better alternative than women putting razor blades in their vaginas as was mentioned by Ehlers. Apparently, the situation in South Africa is serious enough for something this extreme.

  3. Colleen and Leigha, you both raise interesting and insightful points that I hadn't considered. If you're interested, further discussion is happening at one of my favorite blogs, Shakesville.

  4. I'm interning at Teen Voices Magazine this summer, and saw this link through the magazine's Facebook group -- I was actually about to post it myself!

    I, too, can see pros and cons regarding the condom. On the one hand, it enables women to take control of a situation in which they feel sexually vulnerable, and does force perpetrators to turn themselves in.

    On the other hand, as Colleen mentions, fighting violence with violence is not always the best answer. The Vagina Dentata myth is prevalent in many cultures around the world -- as one can learn from Dave Suggs' Human Sexuality and Culture class -- and acts as a contributing factor to the cultural condemnation of women in the eyes of men.

    Furthermore, as Leigha says, the condom will not defend women against other, equally traumatic, forms of sexual assault.

    Monica, I can't wait to check out the blog you mentioned.