Harassment by design

Getting groped on the subway? New toys can help rebuff unwanted advances.

Published October 29, 2007 10:05PM (EDT)

The "Anti-Groping Appli," by games developer Takahashi, is becoming increasingly popular in Japan. Available as a free download for Web-enabled phones, the application flashes boldface messages on a phone's screen; the idea is that the user will stick the phone in her harasser's face as it displays messages like "Excuse me, did you just grope me?" "Groping is a crime," and "Shall we head to the police?"

How polite! Takahashi says the application is for use by women who "want to scare away perverts with minimum hassle and without attracting attention." I can see it now: a woman standing in a crowded subway car feels the all-too-familiar sensation of a hand on her butt. She rolls her eyes and pulls out her cellphone, balancing in high heels and juggling a cup of coffee and newspaper as she relays the (text) message without looking up from what she's reading. All in a day's work, ladies.

It's kind of refreshing to see support for the idea that women should react against harassment instead of ignoring it. Unfortunately, the makers of this groping deterrent also think it's undesirable to draw attention to your situation. The application assumes that harassment is a personal thing, and that it's best kept between you and the guy whose hand is on your ass.

Another related Japanese design innovation is a skirt that unfolds so that the wearer can disguise herself as a vending machine (it must be seen to be believed) as a way to hide from attackers. Fashion designer Aya Tsukioka has also made a purse that looks like a manhole cover; it can be thrown down on the ground (and thereby camouflaged, keeping its contents safe) in the case of an attempted robbery.

While it might be nice to have chameleon-like capabilities, turning yourself into a vending machine when faced with a threat is not exactly practical. Still, crazy as they are, these designs draw attention to the inconvenient fact that harassment is a real problem. Recent years have seen some more realistic responses -- like Holla Back, a project that documents street harassment (and advocates using your cellphone in a more active way than Takahashi does), and New York City's innovative RightRides, created to offer women free rides home late at night -- that confront the problem, rather than designing around it.

By Eryn Loeb

Eryn Loeb is a staff writer at Nextbook.


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