In Africa, your vagina can get spikes for $2. No longer just a revenge dream, this device — called Rape-aXe — was actually distributed for free last year at the World Cup in South Africa. A psychological weapon as well as a physical one, Rape-aXe evokes a terror that was a staple of ancient folklore among cultures as different as the Egyptians, Greeks, Indians, Chinese, Polynesians, and Native Americans: teeth down there!
Complete with sharkskin-like barbs that catch onto an invading penis, causing pain and preventing urination, and requiring specialized medical professionals to remove, the Rape-aXe is a real-world application of feminist theory. It's a practical response to the harsh environment in which women around the world conduct their daily lives. While it may not yet be available in the United States, the Rape-aXe is an example of a new, forceful, even primal, phase of the women's rights movement, worth examining as Portland observes its annual Take Back the Night rally.
Feminists are still — and rightly — concerned with demanding respect and equality from a male-dominated world: Even in an America we may think of as gender-equal, women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man doing the same job, and this is just one example of the ways in which women still struggle to attain equal footing and opportunities. But the invention (by a woman, South African doctor Sonnet Ehlers) of a device like the Rape-aXe signifies a major shift in the direction of women's empowerment — the taking, declaring, and wielding of direct power by women in overt physical opposition to male aggression. And it's a reminder of the myriad ways in which women can get their points across. In Ehlers's own words, "If men can use their bodies — their manhood, as a weapon of attack — well then it's time for women to do the same!" (See "Going On Offense," by Deirdre Fulton for a like-minded approach.)
Most women — including a goodly number of local feminism activists — have not yet begun to think in terms of using physical violence as a weapon. (The Rape-aXe, if removed properly, causes no permanent physical harm; in a strong parallel with rape itself, the most lasting effect is psychological.) But that doesn't mean women are backing down.
Women are the great adapters of the world — perhaps history's largest "minority." Expectations of girls and women are culturally complex. Sexy language, push-up bras, and virginal behavior coexist uneasily in popular culture, and navigating the professional and academic landscapes can be equally baffling. "Girls are supposed to be madonnas, and if not, they're whores," says Megan Hannan, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, Maine. The message may be confusing, but the result isn't: Women aren't in control.
Until, that is, they have to be. In the US, where national stats suggest that one in six women will be raped in her lifetime, a woman's place, while still vulnerable, is hard to compare to a place like South Africa, where as many as one in three women are raped every year, and more than one man in four admits to having raped someone. (Worsening these numbers is a widespread belief that sex with virgins cures AIDS — itself a disease ravaging the population.)