A group of four college students is taking the media by storm with the development of an innovative nail polish that can detect date rape drugs that have been slipped into young women’s drinks. While the new product has captured its fair share of headlines over the past week, sexual assault prevention advocates warn that it’s not necessarily the best way to approach the sexual assault epidemic on college campuses.
Four male students at North Carolina State University have created a nail polish that changes color when it comes into contact with several common drugs intended to incapacitate victims. According to the undergrads, their goal is to “invent technologies that empower women to protect themselves from this heinous and quietly pervasive crime.” Although the product isn’t available yet, their Facebook page has already been flooded with positive responses from people who can’t wait to give it a try.
The response isn’t entirely unprecedented. Products that promise to help women detect the colorless, odorless “roofie” drugs have become more popular in recent years. And more broadly, anti-rape tools to help women protect themselves from potential predators have become increasingly prevalent.
Although these products typically get a lot of press and are sometimes hailed as complete breakthroughs in the fight against sexual violence — “Soon, a fresh manicure could have the potential to save your life,” the Daily Mail proclaimed in a story about the new nail polish — activists working in the field aren’t convinced. They believe innovations like anti-rape nail polish are well-meaning but ultimately misguided.
“I think that anything that can help reduce sexual violence from happening is, in some ways, a really good thing,” Tracey Vitchers, the board chair for Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER), told ThinkProgress. “But I think we need to think critically about why we keep placing the responsibility for preventing sexual assault on young women.”
Women are already expected to work hard to prevent themselves from becoming the victims of sexual assault. They’re told to avoid wearing revealing clothing, travel in groups, make sure they don’t get too drunk, and always keep a close eye on their drink. Now, remembering to put on anti-rape nail polish and discreetly slip a finger into each drink might be added to that ever-growing checklist — something that actually reinforces a pervasive rape culture in our society.
“One of the ways that rape is used as a tool to control people is by limiting their behavior,” Rebecca Nagle, one of the co-directors of an activist group called FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture that challenges the societal norms around sexual assault, explained. “As a woman, I’m told not to go out alone at night, to watch my drink, to do all of these things. That way, rape isn’t just controlling me while I’m actually being assaulted — it controls me 24/7 because it limits my behavior. Solutions like these actually just recreate that. I don’t want to fucking test my drink when I’m at the bar. That’s not the world I want to live in.”
According to Alexandra Brodsky, one of the founders and current co-directors of Know Your IX, a survivor-led group working to address campus sexual assault, well-intentioned products like anti-rape nail polish can actually end up fueling victim blaming. Any college students who don’t use the special polish could open themselves up to criticism for failing to do everything in their power to prevent rape.
Indeed, the argument that women simply need to be more responsible is a common response to the current conversation about sexual assault on college campuses — and one that activists say doesn’t get to the heart of the issue.
“The problem isn’t that women don’t know when there are roofies in their drink; the problem is people putting roofies in their drink in the first place,” Nagle pointed out.
“I think a lot of the time we get focused on these new products because they’re innovative and they’re interesting, and it’s really cool that they figured out how to create nail polish that does this. But at the end of the day, are you having those tough conversations with students, and particularly men, who are at risk for committing sexual assault?” Vitchers added. “Are you talking to young men about the importance of respecting other people’s boundaries and understanding what it means to obtain consent?”
Activists point out that most students are assaulted by people they know in environments where they feel comfortable — situations when wearing anti-rape nail polish doesn’t necessarily make sense. Plus, the vast majority of those assaults don’t involve date rape drugs in the first place. According to a 2007 study from the National Institute for Justice, just about 2.4 percent of female undergrads who had been sexually assaulted suspected they had been slipped a drug.
So, rather than targeting efforts at helping women identify roofies in their drinks, it would likely be more effective to focus on larger efforts to tackle the cultural assumptions at the root of the campus sexual assault crisis, like the idea that it’s okay to take advantage of people when they’re drunk. There’s a lot of student-led activism on college campuses around these themes, as well as some college administrations agreeing to implement more comprehensive consent education and bystander intervention training programs. The advocates who spoke to ThinkProgress said they wish more of those campaigns would start making headlines.
“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,” Brodsky noted. “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.”