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There’s Already a Chip in the Anti-Rape Nail Polish


When my eyes settled on an article by Hello Giggles that touted an amazing new invention—a nail polish that detects date rape drug—the sense of déjà vu was strong enough to make me nauseous. Once again, we see a tool that the very act of writing critically about gets one hailed as a certain kind of activist.

The unreasonable kind of activist.

The type Christina Hoff Sommers calls a “gender feminist”.

And yet, like some kind of feminist moth drawn to the gaslight of patriarchy I just can’t help myself.

In case you haven’t heard, an undergraduate team of biochemists, Ankesh Madan, Stephan Gray, Tasso Von Windheim, and Tyler Confrey-Maloney have created Undercover Colors. Their product is a prototype—a nail color designed to change color when it comes into contact with the date rape drugs Rohypnol and GHB.

And let me just say that it really is nice to see young men using their skills to help fight against sexual violence. In no way do I believe the young men have any thing but the very best of intentions. They genuinely seem like great dudes.

On their Facebook page they write:

“In effect, we want to shift the fear from the victims to the perpetrators,” they continued, “[to become] the first fashion company empowering women to prevent sexual assault.”

Actually, they aren’t the only fashion company with that goal. It’s been attempted by many. Some I love like A Beautiful Life’s spicy perfume concoction titled “No” where for every bottle sold ABL donates $10 to RAINN. Others, I find less enchanting, like the horrific anti-rape underwear of last year. Ladies and gentlemen, we have the technology.

As Jessica Valenti notes in The Guardian anti-rape devices are actually developed pretty regularly. She likens them to modern-day versions on the chastity belt. Writes Valenti, “prevention tips or products that focus on what women do or wear aren’t just ineffective, they leave room for victim-blaming when those steps aren’t taken”. Despite numerous iterations of anti-rape devices sexual violence persists, and the conversations on how to prevent sexual violence move in an unending loop. Some argue, quite rightly and often very convincingly, that anything done to stop any sexual violence is a good thing. Indeed Undercover Colors Facebook page is filled with people crowing this mantra.

However, my colleague Elizabeth Plank at Mic sums up the dilemma many have with an anti-rape tool perfectly on The Today Show, “I think it reflects the cultural reality where we actually put the blame on women–often when they are the victims of rape. We put the onus on them, to prevent rape, when we very well know that this is not an effective way of actually reducing sexual assault.”

And yet by all means laud young men for taking a stand against sexual violence. By all means should they proceed with the development of this nail polish.

It’s just that this is not the solution to the epidemic of sexual assaults on campus. At best it is a band-aid on a sucking chest wound. There are many reasons why. Imagine the logistics if you do dip your finger into a drink and find it drugged. As a friend on Facebook pointed out this raises more issues than it seems to solve: What can you do next? Do you know who drugged you? Is it safe to confront them? Can you call the cops and tell them? Does the nail polish keep you safe when you go to the parking lot to your car, or out on the street to hail a cab?

Nail polish doesn’t address the fact that the alcoholic drink the young woman is holding is actually the most common date rape drug. Alcohol facilitated sexual assault, according to RAINN, remains the most common drug used to compromise an individual’s ability to resist sexual assault, and undermine the victim’s credibility.

I also can’t help but notice that the “any little bit helps” argument is not evenly applied. When I organized Slut Walk, one of the common questions journalists, citizens, and trolls alike ask me is what exactly is this going to do for sexual violence? A tough question. It’s not likely I could correlate a Slut Walk event with a dramatic decrease in sexual violence in the city, but it does send the message that there’s a community of people who do not condone sexual violence. That there’s a mass of individuals who know that it’s “my body, my choice”. It’s one small way to begin to dismantle a system that considers rape inevitable. Possibly you can look at the nail polish the same way, although it does little to shift the power imbalance and entitlement that would lead someone to slip you a drug anyway.

And you can spare me the arguments about locking up your bicycle, your house, your car. Pass right on by with the analogy of walking around with money and iPods and jewelry hanging out of your pockets. Why? Because as a woman, my body is the risk factor. My body, my gender, makes me the target of sexual violence and it’s not a possession like a car or an iPhone. I am not able to tuck my woman-ness away in order to assure my safety. Women of color, who are disproportionate affected by sexual violence, can not tuck their ethnicity away. Transgender people, especially those who do not pass as cisgender, can not hide their identities in order to avoid being assaulted.

The assumptions made in an argument that compares bodies to lockable houses reveal what we demand of the marginalized—and it’s an argument that has typically controlled the way that women have access to public spaces. In order to not be victimized, women must behave appropriately. Don’t go out alone, let someone know where you are; don’t drink too much; don’t wear revealing clothing; carry pepper spray and your keys in between your fingers (keeping in mind defending yourself may land you in jail especially if you are a woman of color or trans woman); don’t lead him on, but don’t reject him too harshly and for god’s sake don’t go walking alone after dark. Ladies, live your life by a rape schedule and don’t think too hard about the fact that it’s only meant to protect you against strangers. The safety tips given to women reinforce a reality of sexual violence that goes well beyond rape. It’s about the control of women and their bodies, and the price for non-compliance is sexual assault.

As I often do when I hear about measures to prevent sexual assault, I reflect on my own rape and the way that I thought I was doing the right thing being out with someone who I trusted, and sleeping at his house because I had drank too much and had lost my keys. This leads me to wonder: what shade of polish defends against a friend who decides he is entitled to you body?


*edited to include contributions which occurred on a Facebook thread.


UPDATE: Via Erin Gloria Ryan on Jezebel:

If you thought it smelled a bit like acetone and bullshit, you were right. That innovative nail polish that promised to detect date rape drugs has been the subject of both praise and scrutiny over the last week, but this tidbit should change the tenor of the conversation a bit: an exasperated-sounding pharmaceutical expert claims that it won’t actually work.”

That’s right.

Ryan goes on to explain:

Animal New York’s “Backdoor Pharmacist” called the nail polish — and other such date rape drug detecting products like coasters, napkins, and straws — items that ‘exist in a fantasy world of stranger danger pill-packing predators and irresponsible victims.’ Way harsh, Tai.”

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  • Al says:

    First: Danielle, I’m so sorry about what happened to you.

    Second: Rape Culture is alive and well. I get that. And I want to be involved in Slut Walk, anti-violence movements, and all. But this anti-rape nail polish is something that I need to have to protect myself. I GET that we should fight the good fight and rally against violence against women and I will do so to the end of my days…but I’ll still never leave a drink alone in a bar/café/patio. Never. And until that good fight gets policy to change, I’ll protect myself in any way I can – even with nail polish.

    • DaniParadis says:

      Hello Alison,

      I’m not saying that people shouldn’t use the product and I’m not saying that people should leave their drinks unattended. I’m saying that there’s a lot more that needs to be done to address sexual violence and we keep seeing anti-rape devices created but they don’t solve the issue. Why don’t they? Well partly because they address a small percentage of assaults that happen. It seems that the majority of tips and tools employed are to prevent stranger rape. That’s good but there’s still the 80% of people sexually assaulted by someone they know.

      None of that means that I am saying ‘hay ladies just leave your drink alone because no one should assault you’. While I do think that no one should assault you, I also know that’s the world we live in. Still I’m going to be telling my nieces in addition to not leaving your drink alone recognize that alcohol is used in the same way as GHB by rapists to lower defenses, affect memory, and undermine credibility. It’s actually used far more often than slipping drugs into someone’s drink. I’m going to tell them that it’s common in college to have people ply you with alcohol–often so you’ll sleep with them and the state of sexual health education being what it is people don’t actually see a problem with that. I am going to tell them that peer pressure is real and it’s something they will come up against.

      Also, I will tell them that should the unthinkable happen it’s important to remember that rape doesn’t have to be the end of your life. It’s not your fault what happened, and it can be a long road to healing but there’s life and love after being the victim of a sexual assault.

  • Brad says:

    I’m a guy so I realize that my relationship with rape & sexual violence is very different than a woman’s. I don’t live under threat of rape nor do I worry about somebody spiking my drink or mistaking my affection for my permission. I get this. But what I don’t get is the backlash against this particular product. Obviously we need to focus more rape prevention efforts that target the potential rapists as opposed to always telling the potential victims that they can do things to be “safer.” But I completely reject the straw-man arguments that products such as this nail polish somehow perpetuate rape culture because they once again come at this from the victim side of the equation. Nobody is saying that this nail polish is the cure for rape. OK, I’m sure some wingnut out there is but nobody with a brain in their head is saying that. I personally know a guy who’s daughter tested positive for GHB after an evening out. Thankfully she hadn’t been sexually assaulted but has still been forever altered by the experience and the trauma that goes along with it. This pales in comparison to what you went through and what millions of other men and women go through who’ve been victimized by sexual violence and rape. But having a way to see if your drink has been spiked isn’t propagating rape culture. It isn’t victim blaming. It isn’t taking the onus off of society to deal with the problem – rapists – and not the aftermath (I’m not saying society as a whole has come to this realization yet but we seem to be headed in the right direction). This product has the potential to save lives and reduce harm – that’s all. This isn’t about telling potential victims to not wear provocative clothing or to do X or don’t do Y. Lumping this in with those other “educational” initiatives is dishonest and I think, misses the point. Does it raise important questions about what to do if your drink DOES test positive? Hell yes. But wouldn’t we rather be addressing those questions versus what to do in the morning when you wake up and something just isn’t right? This product doesn’t address rape or rape culture and is completely useless against 99.x% of sexual assaults (wild guess) but neither does it feed rape culture. And for that other 1%? All I know is I’d like my daughter (attending university and living on her own now) to have the option of wearing it.

  • Doug Spoonwood says:

    “My body, my gender, makes me the target of sexual violence and it’s not a possession like a car or an iPhone.”

    You’ve mentioned before that you have/had a male friend who got raped. Yet what you write indicates that you continue to think that your body, your gender is the predominant causative factor here. This makes no sense at all.

    I could go on and get into the issue of defining sexual violence and how certain definitions at the very least once made fully gender-neutral (which is by no means the easiest thing to do) end up implying the existence of male victims of sexual violence.

    As an example, since penetration of a vagina with a dildo without consent is a form of sexual violence, a penis being made to penetrate a fleshlight without consent is a form of sexual violence. More generally, being made to penetrate any object without consent whatsoever is a form of sexual violence. From that it follows that being made to penetrate something like a gomco clamp, or many of the other commonly used devices used on child’s penises are sexual violence. The prevalence of circumcision is extremely high in many places, especially the United States. And thus little more comes as needed to end up saying that your gender feminist position on sexual violence is more wrong than right. And then your opponents can, will, and do throw in the prison statistics about sexual violence.

    It does come as plausible that circumcision when performed on minors can and often do have effects on adult men (there does exist research to back this up), since all too often their culture never helped them to recognize them as traumatic at any point in time or to even recognize it as trauma. Then all too many of them get re-victimized by their culture telling them they were never victims in any sort of way. Thus, circumcision is also a men’s issue, in addition to being a boy’s issue.

    If you want to have a focus on female victims of sexual violence that is one thing. Even the most exclusionary people sometimes do help others.

    But if you think that sexual violence is a problem unique to females or even predominantly speaking a female issue, you are either wrong or engaging in speculation without having a sufficient basis for making the claim that sexual violence is predominately a female issue. If you and other gender feminists want to find a unique societal issue that predominately affects women, you simply need to look elsewhere.

    • DaniParadis says:

      The product is targeted for women, as are the majority of the anti-rape devices. I’ve never seen one targeted at men. Men aren’t taught to avoid being sexually assaulted as a general rule. Focusing on the issue as it was positioned (to prevent date rape of women) relies on a few cultural assumptions around femininity and polish. Could men wear the nail polish? Sure but that’s not going to help reduce sexual assault for them either.

      I don’t believe focusing one post and relating my experience actually being raped excludes all male victims as a whole. These devices are what exclude male and non-binary rape victims.

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