[Content note: sexual assault]
Four students at North Carolina State University have developed a nail polish that can detect the presence of certain drugs used to facilitate sexual assault and change color in response. The team said:
All of us have been close to someone who has been through the terrible experience, and we began to focus on preventive solutions, especially those that could be integrated into products that women already use….Our goal is to invent technologies that empower women to protect themselves from this heinous and quietly pervasive crime.
The students have created a startup, Undercover Colors, to produce the nail polish. The company’s tagline reads, “The first fashion company empowering women to prevent sexual assault.”
I do want to say, before anything else, that I think it’s commendable for an all-male team of engineering students to choose this issue as their focus. Although I, like many others, am extremely critical of the expectation that women (and only women, even though they are not the only rape victims) buy products and seriously restrict their own lives in order to “prevent” sexual assault, the Undercover Colors team is not ignorant of the importance of true rape prevention work. In a recent Facebook post, they linked to the pages of RAINN and Men Can Stop Rape as examples of other organizations that are doing such work and need support.
I also want to say that it is vitally important not to blame or ridicule women who choose to buy such products. (The company’s Facebook page has been deluged with posts by them.) There are terrible bargains that we sometimes make to be able to stay sane in the world we live in. I posted recently on Facebook that I wish it weren’t so hot so I could wear clothes that cover up more of my body, because it makes me feel more comfortable about being outside alone. Whenever I talk about this people remind me (kindly or condescendingly, it varies) that sexual harassment has nothing to do with what I’m wearing.
Right, it doesn’t. But sometimes, being covered up makes me (irrationally) feel safer. And sometimes, I need to leave the house without having a panic attack. Sometimes, saving the world isn’t at the top of my to-do list; getting outside and going to the drugstore or the gym is.
But I am not happy about Undercover Colors even though I know I should be thankful for it. The first thing I thought of when I saw this is just the ridiculousness of it. Not in that it’s a frivolous product, but in that it isn’t. That rape is so commonplace and expected that people think they can make a lucrative startup to sell products to “prevent” it. That it is easier to create this technological innovation than it is to alter human behavior and expectations. That at the rate things are going, there will forever be a market for such products because others will keep inventing drugs that can circumvent them. Anti-rape nail polish. Anti-rape underwear. Anti-rape condoms. Anti-rape drinking straws. Anti-rape belts. Anti-rape tights. Anti-rape jackets. Anti-rape whistles. Anti-rape necklaces. Anti-rape tampons. Anti-rape iPhone apps. Anti-rape this. Anti-rape that.
When I see these things I feel hopeless because I know they have given up on truly helping us. There is no true rape prevention, these products suggest to me. There is only rape circumvention. There is only narrowly escaping rape. There is only trying to force yourself to feel thankful when you can only feel horrified and nauseous and traumatized anyway. There is no having a normal fucking life in which your threat of being raped is very very low. There is no going out without arming yourself like you’re walking into battle.
Maybe because people think of rape in very essentialized, sexualized ways, they think that it only matters if a penis goes into a vagina. If you escape that part, it’s all good, right? No worries? You didn’t get raped!
It’s not the penis or the vagina (or any other combination of parts that yes, rape can entail), it’s the violation. The sneering contempt. The sense that your body doesn’t belong to you. The knowledge that, as far as anyone else cares, it was all your fault.
That time that I didn’t get raped has echoed in my mind for almost four years. Maybe if I had been raped, it would’ve been much worse, maybe not. But the point is that this type of “rape prevention” still leaves people extremely vulnerable to trauma. It isn’t enough. This can’t be all there is.
A few more things.
The creators of the nail polish state, “While date rape drugs are often used to facilitate sexual assault, very little science exists for their detection.” Both parts of this sentence are false. Date rape drugs are not actually very often used to facilitate sexual assault; a 2007 study showed that only 2.4% of female college students who had been sexually assaulted suspected that a date rape drug had been used. (While it’s possible that some rape victims don’t realize that they were slipped a date rape drug, it seems unlikely; losing consciousness or having huge swaths of your memory gone after drinking just a little bit would probably alarm most people.)
It’s unclear what they mean by “science” that “exists for their detection.” Science is not a product; science is a process or an understanding. We understand how date rape drugs work and how they can be detected. There have already been plenty of products, including cups, straws, and an electronic device, that can detect them and that have been marketed at women as “rape prevention” tools.
While the relative rareness of drug-assisted rape (unless, of course, you include plain old alcohol) and the existence of other products that detect these drugs doesn’t necessarily mean that more products shouldn’t be developed, it’s disturbing that the creators of the new nail polish seem to be unaware of these statistics or even of other products that serve the same function. If you’re going to battle a very pervasive problem by attacking one particular rare manifestation of it, I believe that you should be able to make a case for why this manifestation needs its own special approach that deserves people’s money. I don’t think that drug-assisted rape needs to be fought any differently than all other kinds, but then, that might be because I don’t think drug-detecting nail polish is the answer anyway.
The last thing that deeply disturbs me about anti-rape nail polish, as well as most other anti-rape devices and fashion, is that they are all targeted at women. To many people, it’s pretty obvious why that is. It’s obvious to me, too, but for a different reason.
We all should know that men get raped. We all should know it especially happens to men in vulnerable situations–boys, teens, prisoners, military subordinates, disabled men, queer men. If you do not know that men get raped, that ignorance is on you, because men have been speaking out about it more and more, and organizations have formed to address it, and it’s been in national news outlets. If you find yourself thinking about rape and rape prevention and it never occurs to you to wonder whether a significant portion of the survivors might not be women, that failure of imagination says a lot about how you think of women and how you think of men and how you think of rape.
Why aren’t there rape prevention devices for men? Is it because we assume that men don’t get raped? Is it because we assume that men do get raped, but they should’ve been able to defend themselves without any special devices? Is it because we think that men who get raped deserved it because they’re in prison or queer? Is it because we think that men get “raped,” I guess, but that’s not “really” rape because rape involves a penis and a vagina?
A lot of the responses to the responses to this online have basically boiled down to So What You Think That If It Doesn’t Solve All Rape It Shouldn’t Even Exist? Maybe some people think that, but I don’t. I don’t think this shouldn’t exist. Do I, personally, wish these resources had gone towards something that had a better chance of really helping? Sure. But they’re engineering students, not sociologists or community organizers, so I’m not sure what else they personally can do besides just set a good example for other men. And we don’t know that they’re not doing that. I hope they are.
One of the reason we get so excited about these really simple fixes is because it makes us feel like the problem itself is really simple. That’s a comforting idea….But I really wish that people were funneling all of this ingenuity and funding and interest into new ways to stop people from perpetrating violence, as opposed to trying to personally avoid it so that the predator in the bar rapes someone else.
I don’t know if this product is Good or Bad and I have no interest in throwing it into either bucket. But I wanted to express how hopeless and alone I feel when this seems like all we’ve got. Not just the nail polish, but the underwear and the iPhone apps and the electric shock jackets and everything else that files under Things Potential Victims Should Do.
I’m tired. I’m so tired. I’m tired of the contingency plans and the self-blame and the jackets when it’s too hot for jackets. I’m tired of knowing who I’ll call if/when I get raped and how I’ll explain whatever injuries I have to people that I can’t tell the truth because they’ll immediately start the interrogation of Where Was I Why Did I Go There Why Did I Go Alone Why Didn’t I Call Someone Why Did I Wear That Why Didn’t I Run. I have thought about different types of injuries that may result and what types of accidents could potentially explain such injuries.
Because, in all likelihood, if/when that moment comes, my phone and pepper spray will be out of reach, there won’t be any drugged drinks to worry about, and nobody will hear a whistle or a scream. Because that’s what happens when you treat sexual assault like a fucking game of Whac-a-Mole. How many specific devices will we invent for a multitude of specific situations where they may or may not come in useful before we finally decide to scrap it and try to tackle the problem all the way down to its roots?
I demand better than drug-detecting nail polish. We deserve better than that.