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Clothing: The Newest Weapon Against Assault

December 8, 2009

Image by Jonathan Wiggs/Boston Globe staff

All too often, victims of sexual assault are blamed for the very acts of violence perpetuated against them. Back in March, a survey in the UK found that one out of seven people find it acceptable to hit a woman wearing “sexy or revealing clothes in public.” Such attitudes are nothing more than victim-blaming, and they are inexcusable.

Rather than simply criticize those who unfairly blame women for attacks against them, however, a group of MIT researchers are developing clothing that may actually reduce violence against women. Adam Whiton, an MIT student, and Yolita Nugent, a clothing designer, are leading a research project to develop sensor-studded clothing for women that will record data about an attack in real time and store that information on a computer. Having such hard evidence about an attack may persuade more women to turn to the authorities in crisis situations, and this evidence may make it easier to prosecute and convict offenders.

This project is one of many initiatives launched as part of Yoda Patta‘s End Violence Against Women series, which she was inspired to spearhead after reading the accounts of violent attacks against women around the world. The Boston Globe explains Patta’s inspiration and the origins of this particular project:

The columns of Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times were among the reports that moved Patta, and she recruited him and his wife, writer Sheryl WuDunn, to kick off the program with a joint talk in October. Graduate student Adam Whiton, who is working on the sensory clothing with collaborator Yolita Nugent, an apparel designer, said the idea for their project sprang from a discussion on how much more vulnerable she felt walking alone at night than he did.

Clothing, they realized, was a factor. Running from a pursuer in high heels “is near impossible,’’ Whiton said.

They began brainstorming on how clothing could be made not only to leave women unhindered, but to aid them.

The clothing designed by Whiton and Nugent is brilliant and could very well be a key step in preventing (or at least prosecuting) violence against women. But as Globe correspondent Rich Barlow points out, “The clothing may never be a practical way to protect victims from abuse.” Certainly, to a point, Barlow is right. At this stage, the clothing is nothing more than a student research project, leaving women facing sexual assault in the same situation as always. Until this technology is incorporated into mass-produced, affordable clothing, it won’t have any real impact on violence against women.

Which begs the question — why isn’t this technology being incorporated into mass-produced, affordable clothing? Is it the cost and accessibility of the technology? Most likely, but that’s not a good enough reason. If this technology is tested and proven to work, it would be irresponsible to not push for its implementation on a wide scale. My hope is that this MIT project is the first step in launching the mass-production of similar clothing. It won’t happen overnight, naturally, but this is the sort of creativity and innovation that we need in stopping violence against women. This technology might really make a difference, and I would hate to see researchers and clothing designers give up on a larger incarnation of this project because they don’t view it as practical or feasible. It may not seem practical now, but it could be the solution we’ve been waiting for.

What are your thoughts? Will it ever be feasible to mass-produce sensor-studded clothing? And, if so, will it really be effective in appropriately preventing and punishing violence against women?

(h/t to Evan.)

  1. December 9, 2009 12:47 pm

    Victim blaming is wrong, but it is innovate new thinking like this that will help us to reduce sexual assaults everywhere. It is exciting to know that there are those willing to put the time and resources into issue like these. The Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault (RCASA) is an organization that provides support to vicitims of sexual assault. See what we’re doing to help our community at!

  2. December 10, 2009 8:25 am

    If this clothing were to become widely available, then what would happen when women who weren’t wearing it were raped? Given how prevalent victim-blaming is, I worry that it would become another excuse to claim that she really wanted it (or else she would’ve worn clothes to prevent it).

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      December 10, 2009 10:33 pm

      I think that’s a really valid concern, and one that I didn’t think of initially. Victim blaming won’t just go away, and it might very well increase if this type of clothing becomes mainstream. But, at the same time, for women who do wear sensor-studded clothing, this could be life-saving technology.

      So, I guess my question is, where do we draw the line? At what point do we conclude that the hypothetical cons outweigh the scientifically-proven pros of a given piece of technology? Do you think this is something that would ultimately harm women more than help?

      • December 11, 2009 8:57 am

        To be honest, I’m not sure if it will help or harm more. If enough women wore it that men would be uncertain whether a woman was wearing it or not, then it would likely have a reasonably wide spread deterrent effect.

  3. mary permalink
    December 13, 2009 8:17 pm

    Unfortunately, wouldn’t really help with the kind of attacks that take place while a woman is unconscious, drunk, or drugged. And the kind of acquaintance/date/spousal rape that isn’t accompanied by a lot of hitting, just by verbal pressure and threats.

    It’s an interesting creation, but just seems like kind of a derail, again seemingly focusing on stranger danger rather than rape by those close to you… and talking about how well clothing helps or hinders you when you’re running from an attacker (the high heels thing) is just like all those “thoughtful” emails that list off all the things women ought to do to “prevent” assault, like not wear their hair a certain way, not go outside at certain times, etc. I guess this involves different dynamics in different countries, but where I am in U.S., this kind of thing just seems like another “here is what women must do to protect themselves” thing rather than the much-needed “men need to STOP ASSAULTING.” Because even if you have evidence stating that someone grabbed you here, you then have to go to court and prove who it was, and that you didn’t abuse the technology to win the lawsuit, or whatever. Better to focus on getting this not to happen in the first place, which I doubt this technology can realistically do anytime soon.

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      December 13, 2009 8:31 pm

      Unfortunately, wouldn’t really help with the kind of attacks that take place while a woman is unconscious, drunk, or drugged.

      I have to respectfully disagree with you there — while it wouldn’t really help with preventing those attacks, it would help with solving and prosecuting, as the sensors would still record data about the attacker. And, obviously, prevention is best, but having concrete data about assaults that do make it to the authorities isn’t a bad thing, either.

      And yes, you are right that men (and women) do need to stop assaulting partners and strangers. The blame should always lie solely with the attacker in question. However, I don’t think that means that women shouldn’t protect themselves if they choose to. Is a drunk driver at fault in a car accident? Of course. But doesn’t it help to also wear a seat belt? I think so. Not the best analogy in the world, but I think you get my point — even if someone else is entirely to blame, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look out for yourself.


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