Commodifying women’s safety
Can mobile phone apps help to protect women from domestic and sexual violence? A recent study suggests that they might do more harm than good, as Nicole Westmarland explains.
At Durham University’s Centre for research into violence and abuse, one of our recent research projects looked at the use of ‘apps’ in relation to domestic and sexual violence (a link to the full report is at the end of this post). When we present this research or talk about it with students, it’s often the more ‘extreme’ rather than the more mundane, everyday examples that get the audience’s attention and the gasps of disbelief. The biggest gasps come when we talk about apps that have been developed specifically to track and harass women, most notably the ‘Track Your Wife’ app which has over 10,000 downloads and enables men to add a tracking device to their partner’s phone and track them in real time anywhere in the world. But, horrible as the existence of this app is, it is not the focus of my blog post or even the focus of our research. We were more concerned about apps that claimed to be helping to keep women safe.
An ‘app’ is a small, specialised software program, downloadable and installable onto mobile devices such as smartphones or tablet computers. This research consisted of a systematic app search plus 10 interviews with app developers and 17 with domestic and/or sexual violence practitioners.
We found that the most common app function was a panic alarm/danger alert – when coded by main function this accounted for nearly half the apps (49%). Some of these apps were basic ‘panic buttons’ which — similar to non electronic panic or rape alarms —emitted a very loud noise designed to attract attention and thereby scaring the potential offender away through fear of being caught (e.g. Attack Alarm, Scream Alarm, iPhone Panic Alarm). Most, however, offered additional functions. ‘Red Panic Button’ costs $2.99 (with the option to buy extras within the app), was developed by a UK based company, and has won an ‘app of the day’ award. It offers an SMS, email, Twitter, and/or Facebook panic message to be sent at the press of the Red Panic Button, which sends the user’s current location coordinates. It also offers an emergency dial function that can be customised. In its description it describes itself as an ‘Early Warning and Vulnerability Alert System’ and makes grand claims such as ‘The one call that can make a difference!’, ‘Get out of harm’s way with just one touch!’, ‘In an emergency, information means survival’, and even ‘Red Panic Button is your lifeline!’.
Practitioners from violence support services were largely critical of panic alarm/danger alert style apps, thinking that they did not really ‘add’ anything —a quick text to the same effect could easily be sent or information quickly searched for online. They were also concerned that apps may reinforce ‘victim blaming’ attitudes that excuse perpetrators’ actions.
We agreed with these criticisms. Apps like these require women to do what Liz Kelly calls ‘safety work’, by which she means we are expected to invest time, energy, and (sometimes) money into ‘keeping ourselves safe’. Some may also perpetuate ‘stranger danger’ myths that mask the prevalence of violence within ongoing relationships. Though these new apps are more sophisticated than ‘old style’ panic alarms, we argue that there is little evidence to support their bold claims. They are part of the commodification of women’s safety.
Read the full research findings at: https://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/sass/research/briefings/ResearchBriefing12-ProtectingWomensSafety.pdf