THE BLOG
09/08/2014 02:59 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2014

Change Culture, Not Cabs: Woman-Only Taxis and Commodifying Female Fear

Witthaya via Getty Images

SheTaxis (known as SheRides in New York City) is a newly-launched app that will help women-only passengers find women-only taxi drivers. If you are a woman, the creators argue, it makes sense to use this car service, because taking taxis and Ubers driven by men can be dangerous. There is a whole lot of money to be made helping women adapt to this problem.

This approach to "keeping women safe" is based on the sex segregation model of harassment and stranger rape avoidance at the heart of women-only subway cars in Japan and women-only train compartments in India. It's the car version of a million "don't get raped" products, the latest of which is drug-sensing nail polish that women can paint onto their fingertips and dip into drinks. Most solutions advocating segregation or self-defense are variations of "shrink it and pink it" consumer product and public space design. Even Women.Com, a new social network designed as a (safe) space for women only, takes this approach -- that women have to take themselves out of spaces shared by men or risk the consequences.

The reason many feminists don't embrace these products and services enthusiastically is that, while they help individual women avoid rape, none of them prevents rape or other violence that it is often related to. They don't reduce terror, but diffuse it. They don't dismantle myths (like the relative risk of stranger sexual assault versus acquaintance and intimate assault), they capitalize on them. They not only operate within parameters that accept the violence, but commodify it.

Products and services that "empower" women, from Rape Axe to electrified bras, are not feminist technologies in the sense that they do not challenge the systems that oppress women. Besides, what response, in those two cases in particular, do people think a rapist is going to have to having his penis shredded or being given an electric shock?

Nor do the stop violence; they just displace it. I like the idea of the taxi service because it offers a momentary respite. I hate it because that respite, useless to another woman, dissolves the minute a person exits the car. What if she can't afford the car? What if the car drops her off at home where her ex-boyfriend rapes her? What if her housemate does?

The very phrase "violence against women" avoids the word "men," although men and masculinity are a central fact of this violence. We don't, for example, commonly see headlines such as "male-perpetrated violence reaches epidemic levels." The phrase we use, violence against women, disembodies the person enacting the violence, and that's not helpful. "Violence against women" is an incomplete way of talking about the problem and products and services like this are the logical outcome of that approach.

This is the part of the conversation where the feminist says, "Most men are not raping and physically assaulting women," but an unconscionably high proportion of men, in fact, do. The largest international study of rape, involving more than 10,000 men, found one in four admitted to raping women and that their reason for raping was sexual entitlement: they thought it was their right. Almost half admitted to using physical violence. This is, as the World Heath Organization has been documenting and explaining for year, "a global health problem of epidemic proportions.

That explains how it is that ONE IN TEN GIRLS on earth are sexually assaulted or raped. Last week, a new UN report detailed this finding. Unicef's executive director, Anthony Lake, explains this happens "every day, everywhere" and "cuts across boundaries of age, geography, religion, ethnicity and income brackets."

It's a huge number: 125 million children. "Children" is inaccurate, too; It's girls. As with coverage of the recent Rotherham abuses, in which more than 1,400 underage girls were raped, sometimes brutally for years, and in which the authorities showed as much contempt for them as their rapists did, most reports refer to "child sexual abuse." While boys are victims and suffer tremendous, lifelong harm, the vast majority of those targeted for physical, sexual assault are girls and women and the vast majority of those perpetrating crimes are men -- this is true regardless of the sex of the victim. In the U.S., one in 77 men report being sexually assaulted (compared with one in five women, one in three in some areas), and 28% of men report being assaulted as boys.)

The international study of rape conducted last year "reaffirms that violence against women is preventable, not inevitable," explained James Lang, a program coordinator with Partners for Prevention. "Prevention is crucial because of the high prevalence of men's use of violence found across the study sites and it is achievable because the majority of the factors associated with men's use of violence can be changed."

Rape is, of course, only one dimension of pandemic threat that women have to be alert to, usually in their own homes. Globally, one in three women lives with intimate partner violence. In the United States, three women a day are killed by men they know. Every week, there are between 9-12 murder suicides in which women are 85% of those killed, and men 95% of those killing. There are 66,000 calls a day to domestic shelters from people, most of them women, asking for help escaping daily terrorism.

Raising awareness of this violence has complicated effects. First, solutions like these taxis can subtly and not-to-subtly spread fear in women as a class. It's more of the "be careful always" message girls grow up with. Second, when it is evident that predatory rapists target women who are, ultimately, interchangeable, then the idea of "good" and "bad" women, those who "deserve" and "don't deserve," "invite," or "don't invite," abuse falls away as an enabling cultural myths. That can be scary for a lot of people who rely on those myths to feel safe. Count on avoidance products and services to increase, not decrease. Third, visible violence -- like boys who film their rapes or men who bludgeon their wives in elevators -- is easy to understand and object to, but focusing on what it means is easier to ignore. The deeper, systemic issues fall by the wayside in favor of focusing on what victims can do to avoid the violence or how individual abusers should be dealt with.

If you consider the entertainment and porn industries, our economy already substantively benefits from enactments and depictions of male-perpetrated violence and eroticized masculine physical dominance. The flip side of those things is enactments, depictions and commercial exploitation of women's vulnerability, fear and pain. We wrap it all up in "free speech," and "What an innovative idea!" to make it politically palatable, pragmatic and seemingly painless. We put the onus on the victims to avoid violence, leaving the perpetrator to find someone else and the culture to enable him to.

SheTaxis' drivers will wear hot pink pashmina scarves. You know when a pink scarf becomes a culture-changing feminist rape and abuse prevention strategy fighting a culture of institutionally tolerated violence? When a member of the Gulabi Gang is wearing it. People may not be keen on their violence as a response, but there is no doubt that their grass-roots solution is dismantling a traditional system that makes women less vulnerable and discriminates against them as a class of people.

In order to effect meaningful change, and not just shift everything around so that different people get hurt, we have to focus on how we grow boys into men. As Zerlina Maxwell said, in what was to so many a scandalous and horrifying suggestion, we have to teach boys not to rape, and otherwise grow up to abuse children and women whom they ultimately feel they own. Breakthrough"s Ring The Bell initiative, Men Can Stop Rape's Healthy Masculinity Action Project, which work with boys ad men to change these cultures, are doing that. Segregating ourselves, while understandable, will never fix this problem and might significantly prolong it.