Apps that fight against sexual violence: empowering the potential victims or reinforcing the rape myth?

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On: October 4, 2021
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This commentary selects the whole type of anti-rape apps as the new media object, utilizing Kitchin’s theories on data and relevant literature on sexual violence prevention apps, to demonstrate these well- intentioned digital devices have instead reinforced the rape myths, rather than empowered the users. 

Data, Information and Knowledge 

Data function as the groundwork of a data-information-knowledge pyramid, that is to say, “data precedes information, which precedes knowledge, which precedes understanding and wisdom” (Adler and Weinberger qtd. in Kitchin 9). Likewise, Rosenberg also points out the rhetorical aspect of data, “which is given prior to argument” (qtd. in Gitelman 7). Given that the production of knowledge is closely correlative with dynamic power relations (Foucault and Sheridan 27), thus the data selected by the privileged and power holders can bring on biased information and knowledge that benefit themselves. In other words, data as the foundation of knowledge pyramid, also have the capacity to selectively frame various truths. 

Similarly, the other feature of data indicated by Kitchin is that it can also be framed from technical, ethical and political perspectives (12-15). Technically, the choices of different data to reflect the same phenomenon lead to different results and thus it brings out the importance of representativeness; ethically, though some data can be viewed as relatively harmless, others are considered as quite sensitive such as the users data of those anti-rape apps, not to mention that online data can be easily traded; politically, the reason why the courses of data being generated, processed, analyzed and utilized attract attention is because those reflect how the nation conceive certain social issue and how it would be regulated (Kitchin 12-15). 

Thus, data are situated within complex political networks, meanwhile data can also frame certain debates and in turn be framed by the cultivated social norms that are consequent on the prevailing ideologies. Likewise, Kitchin also points out that data can also be understood “as being socially constructed, as having materiality, as being ideologically loaded, as a commodity to be traded, as constituting a public good” (4). As such, it allows researchers to trace back to the software designers’ view on certain social problem’s cause and solution – in this case, the sexual violence – from analyzing the qualitative data collected from the apps’ affordances and features. It is precisely because the developers have accepted certain social norms about rape that they decided to offer certain app affordances. 

What social norms the current anti-rape apps reveal? 

Around 2013, tangible techniques dedicated for sexual violence prevention, such as wearable devices promoted as “anti-rape underwear”, have been introduced to the market (Harris). At the same time, apps designed against sexual violence, with encouragement from the national organization, such as the 2011 Apps Against Abuse campaign initiated by Obama administration, have occurred and circulated for around ten years until now (Henne et al.). However, according to Mason and Magnet, the consequences of such initiatives unfortunately reinforce the dominant ideology that it is the potential victims that should be responsible for the violence, rather than the potential perpetrators (111). As advocated by Goggin that apps should be considered and analyzed as “cultural platforms” (148), academic research on anti-rape applications has emerged since 2016 (Ellcessor qtd. in Bivens and Hasinoff 1051). Although proponents argue that those apps empower women “through the accessible and anonymous processing of data”, yet the limitations and the potential harmful consequences cannot be ignored (Henne et al.) 

Bivens and Hasinoff have conducted a research on mobile apps that are designed to prevent sexual violence (n=215) by quantitatively analyzing all their features (n=807), once again finding that “anti- rape app design generally reinforces and reflects pervasive rape myths, by both targeting potential victims and reinforcing stranger-danger” (1050). Specifically, 74% of the total features focus on “incident intervention prevention strategies”, such as offering emergency report hotline; and 87% of them are “victim-centric approaches”, such as using GPS to monitor the users and help them to avoid dangerous places (Bivens and Hasinoff 1059). The above affordances offered by the current anti-rape apps demonstrate that the designers have agreed with the prevailing rape myths first, and then chose to work on certain functions for the software. In this sense, although the data used by programmers in the process of developing apps do not strictly contain knowledge in forms of opinion or beliefs, they still constitute the production chain of ideologies that force victims to be accountable for their victimhood. Thus, it is clear that both the developers and apps reflect the social norms of dominant rape myths. 

How anti-rape apps fail their targeted users? 

Given that the existing anti-rape apps reinforce the prevalent rape myths of “rape is more likely committed by strangers” and “victims should be responsible for protecting themselves”, meanwhile taking into consideration that the more rape myths have been accepted, the more likely it is that sexual violence crimes will occur (Tharp et al. qtd. in Bivens and Hasinoff 1059), it can be argued that the invention and application of such anti-rape apps could inadvertently lead to sexual violence instead of solving it. Thus, these apps fail to empower the targeted groups. Moreover, their existence has even caused users concern about their data safety as the apps collect data by using “persistent cookies and geolocational tracking” and “even anonymized data can often be identifiable”; meanwhile the possible cyberattacks towards digital databases arouse concerns as well (Henne et al.). 

Besides, the usefulness of these apps is also questionable. Take app Circle of 6 as an example, which is even the winner of White House’s Apps Against Abuse Competition, yet its main feature is still a victim- centric approach of allowing users to call any six emergency contacts set up by them when they might be in danger. Unexpectedly, it is stated that this app cannot meet the actual demand of the users in real world after researching on use feelings of college women for two months (Blayney et al. 767). Thus, the anti-rape apps that have been researched either fundamentally have problematic perspectives on sexual violence – that is, misread the nature of sexual violence and reinforce rape myths – or cannot meet the real need. This is also the reason why this commentary chooses the whole type of anti-rape apps as the object rather than focusing on a particular one, since according to the literature all anti- rape apps share similar limitations and the promising examples of the ideal ones that truly address sexual violence cannot be found at the moment (Bivens and Hasinoff 1062). Thus, anti-rape apps designed with consideration of sexual violence prevention literature are needed in the future. 

Reference 

Blayney, Jessica A., et al. “Enlisting Friends to Reduce Sexual Victimization Risk: There’s an App for That… but Nobody Uses It.” Journal of American College Health, vol. 66, no. 8, 2018, pp. 767–73. Crossref, doi:10.1080/07448481.2018.1446439. 

Bivens, Rena, and Amy Adele Hasinoff. “Rape: Is There an App for That? An Empirical Analysis of the Features of Anti-Rape Apps.” Information, Communication & Society, vol. 21, no. 8, 2017, pp. 1050–67. Crossref, doi:10.1080/1369118x.2017.1309444. 

Foucault, Michel, and Alan Sheridan. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books, 1995.


Gitelman, Lisa. “Introduction.” Raw Data Is an Oxymoron, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Amsterdam University Press, 

2013, pp. 1–14.


Goggin, Gerard. “Ubiquitous Apps: Politics of Openness in Global Mobile Cultures.” Digital Creativity, vol. 22, no. 

3, 2011, pp. 148–59. Crossref, doi:10.1080/14626268.2011.603733. 

Harris, Bridget. “Anti-Rape Devices May Have Their Uses, but They Don’t Address the Ultimate Problem.” The Conversation, 29 Sept. 2019, theconversation.com/anti-rape-devices-may-have-their-uses-but-they-dont- address-the-ultimate-problem-123011. 

Henne, Kathryn, et al. “Apps against Sexual Violence Have Been Tried before. They Don’t Work.” The Conversation, 19 Mar. 2021, theconversation.com/apps-against-sexual-violence-have-been-tried-before-they- dont-work-157415. 

Kitchin, Rob. The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences. 1st ed., SAGE Publications Ltd, 2014. 

Mason, Corinne Lysandra, and Shoshana Magnet. “Surveillance Studies and Violence Against Women.” Surveillance & Society, vol. 10, no. 2, 2012, pp. 105–18. Crossref, doi:10.24908/ss.v10i2.4094. 

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