What 'Safety Pants' really mean for women

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German designer Sandra Seilz has been featuring on social media newsfeeds recently for her ingenious creation of the completely original product called, ‘Safety Pants.’ Pants, which as the name suggests keep women ‘safe’ from the threat of sexual assault as they go out jogging or simply walk around doing day to day activities in a pair of jeans or a skirt.

Made with tear resistant fabric and featuring a combination lock and a loud alarm system, Seilz argues that women can now wonder the streets alone without fearing unwarranted attacks by strangers. And with orders flooding in from the United States, Finland and Japan, clearly many members of the female population agree.

Although, that’s not to say ‘Safety Pants’ doesn’t have its critics. Several voices have been arguing that it removes the focus from ‘teaching’ men not to rape, and places the spotlight back onto telling women what to wear. But as Seilz speaks from her own experiences of being attacked by three men trying to take her pants off, she assures consumers that it is designed with safety first and foremost in mind.

Beyond the ethics of designing such a bold anti-rape garment however, a significant cultural symbolism can be seen embedded within the design. The suggestion that not only do we live in an extremely violent society, but that woman and man somehow intrinsically connect. That there is a continual playoff between what men think they own, and what women must in turn protect. In many ways, the most important part of these pants is not simply the padlock, but the fact we’ve received a key.

The Power Play 

There are undoubtedly two ways to look at the empowerment or lack thereof of women who wear these pants. On the one hand, we see a garment designed to lock a woman into her clothes, to hide her body in the most self-demining way possible and all at the hands of a man’s sexual power and influence. The male sex drive maintains ultimate control here and implicitly subjects the female form to the material objectification it so often intends.

But equally there is a different, empowering reading of the ‘padlock’ and ‘key’ design which actually favours the female form and the control she has over her body.  And whilst we are the foxes still being hunted, what becomes clear is this time, only we have the right to decide who enters our bodies and if they should be entered at all.

What victims of sexual violence often describe after the violation occurs is an increased sense of vulnerability, a knowledge that their own self autonomy has been destroyed and they are not capable of protecting themselves.

Rape victim Emma Hanrahan describes her experiences of helplessness first hand: “I was confused and all I knew was that I felt completely torn apart. I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I felt dirty, ashamed, embarrassed and was alone standing in the middle of the soccer field with no idea where to go.”

This feeling of complete vulnerability and passivity seems to be extremely excruciating for survivors of rape, the terrifying reality that they physically can’t protect themselves. Now with safety pants, they can. 

So is this take back of ownership worth the self-humiliation of being locked into our pants? Perhaps not, but at least now the ‘power play’ is a little less clear cut. The reality that only we have the right to make decisions about our body is carved into metal and locked into the social psyche.

Boys Will be Boys

On the other side of the argument there is of course the worrying commitment to teaching girls how to dress, and for telling boys that they play no part in taking responsibility. In light of Stephen Dixon’s comments on Sky News regarding the way women dress, and The Fawcett Society's survey suggesting that 30% of women think females are essentially to blame for assault or take partial responsibility, this is particularly worrying.

It shows the deep rooted misogyny that we still live in today. The astonishing fact that the notion of men being unable to control their sexual desire, is still lurking at the forefront of our minds. And that it somehow attracts greater credibility than the idea that sexual assault can and must be stopped.

There is also a strong suggestion that women must take the ingenuity and time to protect themselves, or they should expect to get raped. Like if you leave the house without an umbrella, you should expect to get wet. But is this really the same thing? Rain is a meteorological reaction amongst the cosmos and other things we can’t control, let alone understand. But we can understand why some men rape, we can understand how their mind works. Just as if we knew how to stop the rain, we wouldn’t expect people to still carry an umbrella. The main difference here is, we don’t know how to stop the rain. We do know how to stop sexual assault.  

This is where the comments made by Alison Phillips on This Morning are so relevant and thought provoking. In response to the notion of female victimhood, she said: “These surveys are not based on any fact or evidence, if what people wear was proven to increase the chances [of rape], then why are there not dozens of attacks on beaches where women are wearing bikinis?”

Why is victim blaming so important? We don’t teach murder victims how not to get murdered. We don’t tell potential murder victims to carry bread knives with them in case they get stabbed. And when they do unfortunately get murdered, the fact he or she was walking around a dark alley at night or wearing a skirt is and was completely irrelevant.

The perpetrator is a murderer and should be treated like one according to law. But the minute women become the most commonly targeted victim, the laws seem to change. Why? Why is it more appropriate for a women to be called a ‘slut’ ‘stupid’ and ‘inconsiderate’ then it is for a rapist to be called a rapist?

Punishing the Crime

Perhaps the most disturbing part of this lock and key symbolism is the notion of imprisonment that is thrust upon women who wear these pants. Yes we have a key, but we also have a padlock and it’s one we must wear in the most private of places. We are in many ways prisoners in our own bodies whilst rapists walk free behind us. Of course, this extreme form of injustice is nothing new and even in the 21st century, it still happens every day.

Let’s not forget the hanging of Reyhaneh Jabbari in Iran, who was sentenced to death by a Tehran court in 2009 for killing Morteza Abdolali Sarbandi, a former employee of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence who she said tried to sexually abuse her. The verdict was upheld by Iran’s Supreme Court despite a legal challenge and she was sentenced to death even though there numerous cries of human rights abuses.

And this is not the only example of female imprisonment for a crime they did not commit. In 2006, a British national was arrested in Dubai for having ‘sex outside marriage’ when she reported that she had been gang raped by two British men in a hotel. Even under Sharia Law a man cannot be condemned of rape without four other witness testimonies. It seems even if a women is a victim of a crime, she can still expect to be imprisoned in society and her own body. She can still expect to be subjected to a padlock and chains. Even though she has no control over the actions of the criminal, she is somehow still complicit in the crime.

Arguably, what we really need are pants that give off laser beams, or electric shock waves that stun the rapist until law enforcement arrives. At least the pain, humiliation, and imprisonment will be on the shoulders of those who deserve it. And when it comes to padlocks on pants, we all know where they really belong.

Ultimately, whilst ‘safety pants’ may be seen as a ‘preventative measure’ in some twisted way, they are not a cure. It all comes back down to education, what we teach and how we respect each other in the world. Whether you are a man or a women, or any other gender, you deserve human rights and you deserve justice. In addition, basing a culture of victim blaming on the right of male ‘sexual desire’ is not only unjust, but it’s factually incorrect.

As Jill Filipovic wrote in her article in the The Guardian “Rape is about power, not sex.” So excusing rapists from raped based on apparent genetic condition, is false and ignorant. Rape and sexual assault is pure evil and it is the blatant disregard for human life, not just a woman’s.

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