Girls are told to change

Soraya Chemaly doesn’t want to have to stick her fingers in her drink to avoid being raped.

Every few months, a new product to help women avoid rape hits the market. This week’s is an innovative new nail polish that can identify the presence of drugs when dipped in a drink.

But the commonest rape drug is alcohol, so that’s a very limited fix. Besides, hygiene.

I don’t want to dip my nails into a drink. Or stop wearing my hair in a ponytail. Or start wearing hairy tights. Before I die, I’d like to not have toask a man to walk me home at night. Cool new nail polish is just the latest in way for us to adapt to rape.

From the moment we are born, girls are told to change: change our clothes, our hair, our belt buckles, our underwearour walks, our commutes, our friends, even our vaginas.

Instead we should be changing the world.

Every time we focus on making girls and women individually responsible for avoiding rape, we lose the opportunity to address the systemic root problem that our mainstream culture grows rapists like weeds. Despite my snark, I do understand the need to balance safety with change. I don’t doubt the good intentions of the inventors of these products, but their true value resides less in their questionable efficacy than in the fact that young men like the creators of this one are engaged in confronting rape culture. However, each and every instance of “how to avoid rape” that media takes up is one less instance of explaining rape and reducing its pervasive threat.

Systemic problems need systemic solutions.


  1. John Horstman says

    In Seattle (and elsewhere), starting a few years back, people started dying in unprecedented numbers due to immunosuppression, which it turned out was resulting from the side effects of levamisole used to cut cocaine. While the root problem is the War on Drugs, which prevents us from regulating most recreational drugs to keep them as safe as possible, as we do with most other products, there was much success with deploying levamisole testing kits as a harm-reduction intervention. While this could reinforce the idea that cocaine users are responsible for stopping abuses thrown at them by unscrupulous cocaine producers/distributors and the police state, it also probably has helped save thousands of lives.

    If framed in a victim-blaming way, “anti-rape” devices can certainly perpetuate the problematic idea that it’s up to women to stop rapists from attacking them. However, they can still be important immediate-term harm-reduction interventions in areas were rapists attack people at epidemic levels. I think there is probably a place for such products, but it HAS to be backed by ongoing efforts to change the culture to denormalize and stigmatize all forms of sexual assault/exploitation (and, for that matter, any other violations of bodily autonomy, since they all tend to work to support each other). Systemic problems definitely need systemic solutions, and we can also attempt to come up with palliative measures to reduce harm in the short term.

  2. John Horstman says

    I should note that I’m speaking in generalities in the above comment; people of any gender can be (and are) raped and people of any gender can (and do) rape.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    The Guardian covered this.

    “Why is it easier to invent anti-rape nail polish than find a way to stop rapists?”

    To which the answer is: chemistry is relatively straightforward. Changing a culture, not so much. It sums it up pretty well though. If we want to stop rape – not merely avoid it – we need to hold rapists accountable and stop blaming victims.

    And well-meaning harm-reduction attempts like this may actually slow down the process of doing that, annoyingly.

  4. dshetty says

    I am conflicted.
    While it is true that women should not have to do anything in an ideal world – the reality we are in , implies , pragmatically that women will have to take some precautions.
    Every time we focus on making girls and women individually responsible for avoiding rape, we lose the opportunity to address the systemic root problem that our mainstream culture grows rapists like weeds
    So why cant we do both?

  5. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    [Soraya]Every time we focus on making girls and women individually responsible for avoiding rape, we lose the opportunity to address the systemic root problem that our mainstream culture grows rapists like weeds.

    [dshetty]So why cant we do both?

    Who’s we?
    Does we include only activists who work on rape prevention? Government officials – politicans, police, teachers, doctors? NGOs? Some random enterprenour who had a bright idea about girl-power nail polish?

    dshetty, one of the reasons we can’t do both is that we is a vague, undefined group. I read Soraya as talking about everyone who cares about rape prevention – because everyone who addresses rape in any way is in their own tiny little way influencing the way people talk about rape, deal with rape, consider rape a serious crime or not.

    So when some people take it upon themselves to focus on victims preventing rape (or rather, preventing their own rape, not rape in general), they are not just doing their own part while others can do another. They are steering the conversation about rape in a certain direction.

    If we were an organisation or somehow connected group, that group could be organized so that people do different things while the common goal is in everyone’s focus and doesn’t get compromised.

    But that’s not how it is.
    Rape is still a taboo topic in many places, something that isn’t talked about let alone openly condemned. Of course, what even is rape is still contested. Can rape happen in marriage? Can men be raped? Can a drunk woman be raped?
    The fight to even accept many of these things as rape is still going.

    That’s where the second reason why we can’t do both comes in, intertwining with the first.

    It’s not just that we can’t be trusted to coordinate enough so that both actually is done. As I mentioned before, once people put focus of this one type or rape “prevention” they steer dealing with rape in that direction, at the same time reinforcing some damaging beliefs that are hindering rape prevention in the first place.

    The onus is put on women, on victims of rape instead of the rapists. In a world where victims are so often not trusted or accused of somehow being at fault for being raped (be it for wearing a short skirt, not yelling from the rooftops that they are trans* or by not being manly enough), giving potential rape victims some dubious way to protect themselves is saying, again: “If you don’t protect yourself,it’s your own fault if you get raped.”

    There would be a point if at least these rape prevention ideas were good.
    But really, a nail-polish and putting my fingers in every drink? Gad, I might as well wear a rabbit paw around my neck. At least it would be more hygienic.

    It’s so much easier to invent these little things that every woman (if she can afford them!) can put in her purse than handling the real problem. And people really like taking the easier route. Even if it should be obvious that it doesn’t work.

  6. johnthedrunkard says

    Alcohol is THE ‘rape drug’ of choice. Especially for very young women, who may be pressured into consuming quantities they have no experience of, and women alcoholics, whose particular sensitivity to alcohol makes them vulnerable to blackouts, and to losing control of their intake.

    Date rapists groom their victims, seeking those who they can incapacitate with alcohol.

    So it is NOT victim blaming whenever alcohol is mentioned in these contexts. Giving a teenager a tumber full of vodka is NOT morally ‘better’ than handing her a soda laced with rohypnol. In the case of a young alcoholic being systematically stalked for victim-hood, it is worse…

    But our current culture seems to have normalized the notion that early sexual experiences are supposed to occur in a haze of alcohol. I strongly suspect that many journalists of the ‘Jezebel,’ ‘Salon’ variety, are under-30s who have never had sex without being impaired on alcohol.

    So, to keep the boozing culture safe from criticism, the ‘victim blaming’ card is tossed around at exactly the wrong time. Drinking to unconsciousness, or even worse, to the classic blackout stage, is NOT a teenage rite of passage. I’ve noticed that many, many reporters haven’t even bothered to learn what a blackout IS.

  7. wannabe says

    It seems to me that if you have physical evidence that your drink has been adulterated with an illegal drug designed to incapacitate you and make you vulnerable to rape, the first thing you should do is call the police. At minimum that’s assault with a dangerous weapon.

    Are we just supposed to sidestep knives and bullets without complaint?

  8. tecolata says

    What’s wrong with saying women should take precautions?
    Well, what precautions?
    The most likely place to be raped is our own home. Don’t go home?
    I was sexually assaulted by a doctor during an exam. Don’t go to the doctor?
    Women are raped at work, at school, in public places. Don’t go out?
    There is NO, repeat NO magic “precaution” women can take to “not get raped”.

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