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.”
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.”