MIT Researcher Manisha Mohan Developed A Sticker To Detect Sexual Assault

Alisha Fernandes , 05 Mar 2018
Manisha Mohan, MIT Research Assistant
Manisha Mohan, MIT Research Assistant

At first, in the sea of people at the restaurant that I was meant to meet Manisha Mohan, I couldn’t even spot her. I thought my trek to town was going to be fruitless, but then as she hobbled over, thanks to one of her legs being in a cast, I felt like a prize fool.  There she was, the MIT research assistant who has most recently revolutionised the face of the fight against sexual misconduct and assault. Introducing Intrepid, a sticker-like wearable sensor that can detect sexual assault in real time and quickly alert nearby people as well as the victim’s friends and family to seek help. Sounds like magic, but is science and research through and through.


What sparked the idea to develop Intrepid?

I was born and raised in India, so I knew a lot about sexual assault in India and while I was still living here, I’ve also experienced sexual harassment in public as well as academic spaces So, I can totally relate to that emotion. But as I went to MIT and became a graduate student, I realised that there is another aspect to sexual abuse, where victims are unable to respond and they are not able to fight it. It could also be a case where the victim is incapacitated or unconscious, either physically, emotionally or by social hierarchy. This is especially true in case of a workplace, college campus assault or even child sexual abuse. I think that was the trigger. We realised that we needed to make something that was independent of the wearer’s current state and even if the victim were to be unconscious it should be able to detect, communicate and document assault and prevent it in real time.

How do you expect to prevent sexual assault?

So for the prevention part, we actually started looking at odorous molecules, which could actually inhibit sexual arousal and it acts as an aversion in real time. This is something we recently started studying with a key focus on the Indian perspective of assault and rape. Back in 2016, Maneka Gandhi declared that marital rape was not a thing. Imagine a woman who has to stay in a house, cannot report anything to the police because it’s not recognised by the law. She can’t fight against her husband and she is bound to him most of the time legally and financially, so the only way left to fight was to ensure that the husband wasn’t attracted to the woman, sexually. This is where the odorous molecules came in. People in America don’t understand the connection, but I always tell them that they won’t get it because this is a huge issue where I come from. Between the odours and the loud blaring sound, the aim is to put an end to assault.

So it’s sound and odours, is it?

Yes. The odour is not discussed that much because the initial media report which was given out by MIT was when we were still in the process of publication. So the odours were not mentioned on purpose because we were still in the process of testing it.

How does it work?

The system records how you take off your own clothes and records the pattern. If there is a discrepancy in this pattern, it waits for 30 seconds (in case it’s consensual sex) before it activates and a loud blaring sound is emitted along with the aforementioned odorous molecules. In addition to this, they also send a message to 5 trusted people. The way we decided on the time-frame is by taking a consensus from 340 people. If you don’t give your consent within the 30 second period, the system will assume that you are being assaulted while unconscious or incapacitated. The sticker can be pasted on the inside of your bra or any item of clothing.

Are there any ways for women to ensure their safety? Considering it happens so often and you get desensitized to it. How do you stop that or protect yourself?

The one thing we noticed in the studies was that repeat-offenders of sexual harassment are a huge issue. They are able to propagate and do this multiple times because women don’t confront them. Women tend to ignore it. It’s something so usual that we think its normal. But I think we need to check it there and then in the first place. If you stand up, you can ensure something like that doesn’t happen in the future and you can also ensure the safety of others. Because trends show that men who molest women in public transit end up committing 9 sexual offences before they up getting convicted.

Manisha Mohan, MIT Research Assistant
Manisha Mohan, MIT Research Assistant

What is the main takeaway from your TEDX talk that you gave recently in Mumbai?

The main takeaway is this: whenever you see an assault or you see or witness it, SPEAK UP. The idea behind the product and anything I say is just about giving voice to people. To ensure we break the silence. I know we’ve had a very successful#MeToo campaign which has gone global, but there are still countless more without a voice still. And if we don’t do it today, it’s going to be embedded in our culture and across countries for the next generation. That’s going to be a pain point. And I wouldn’t want my child to experience that.

What about the whole #MeToo campaign and The #TimesUp movement? Do you think that these massive campaigns have a downside?

I think campaigns like this bring awareness, which is great. If you see the trend so far, if one woman stands up against a molester or sexual offender, many others get the courage to as well. I think it helps women. I’d like to look at the positives for now. We can talk about the negative side, but that’s true for everything. Technology has so many positives, but then we have cybercrime and the dark web as well. Does that mean we stop using it? No, I don’t think so. We just have to use our intelligence and common sense to know what’s right and wrong.

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