A group of male students have come up with a new high-tech beauty product aimed at women: nail polish that detects if there are date rape drugs in your drink. Relax, ladies, young guys in startups and their world-changing technologies are here to save us. Don't you just feel so empowered?
While the group's company Undercover Colors claims to be the "first fashion company empowering women to prevent sexual assault," there are similar products aimed at preventing assault out there, and they all bring with them a host of problems.
The Undercover Colors Facebook page explains that the nail polish it's developing "changes color when it comes in contact with date rape drugs such as Rohypnol, Xanax, and GHB." I reached out to the company several times to ask for more details on how the polish works on a scientific level, but they didn't respond.
A 2012 Indiegogo campaign met its $50,000 target for a collection of glasses and straws that function in a similar way, changing colour when they come into contact with a spiked drink. There's also a little electronic device called pd:id on the crowdfunding platform right now, which flashes an LED when you dip it into a drugged glass.
At first glance, these detectors seem like a simple idea; something everyone should use as a matter of course. With the nail polish, all the wearer has to do is stir her drink with her painted finger, and if her nails change colour, then…
Well, the company doesn't really get into what a woman should actually do next, just that "she'll know that something is wrong."
This hints at one of the key problems with the nail polish, and other tech like it: It doesn't actually "prevent" sexual assault at all. It may give that specific wearer a heads-up that they might be in some kind of danger at that specific moment, but it goes no way to actually stopping sexual assault.
It may warn you about a potential attacker, but it doesn't prevent that attacker from attacking, or do anything to help the 473,000 adults sexually assaulted each year in England and Wales. (In the US, nearly one in five women report having been sexually assaulted.) To do that, you'd have to tackle the root of the problem—the people actually doing the assaulting.
As Jessica Valenti writes at the Guardian, "So long as it isn't me isn't an effective strategy to end rape." Maya Dusenbery at feminist blog Feministing adds that there's a difference between "preventing" and "avoiding": "Personally avoiding sexual assault … is not the same as preventing sexual assault."
Women shouldn't have to stop themselves from being raped; men should stop raping.
Undercover Colors argues that their products could have some sort of preventative effect, effectively suggesting that if the tech was used by enough women, it could work to modify attackers' behaviour. "Through this nail polish and similar technologies, we hope to make potential perpetrators afraid to spike a woman's drink because there's now a risk that they can get caught," they write.
This is problematic, and not only because of the implied prerequisite that a lot of people buy their product in order for real change to be effected. This attitude places the onus on the victim to take steps to prevent themselves being assaulted, rather than facing the root of the problem. From there, it's only a tiny step to full-on victim-blaming. Oh, you were date-raped? Well why weren't you wearing your special nail polish?
Really, women shouldn't have to stop themselves from being raped; men should stop raping. Just as wearing a short skirt isn't an invitation to assault, there should be no suggestion that by not wearing special nail polish, or using a special glass, or wrapping your nether regions in literally impenetrable "anti-rape" underwear, you're somehow making yourself a target.
To suggest this not only inherently places at least part of the blame on a victim for her aggressor's actions, it also shows a very skewed view of sexual assault on the whole. Most of these products are very clearly aimed at young, straight, cis women, perpetuating a myth of what a victim should look like.
— Undercover Colors (@UndercoverColor) July 25, 2014
The whole idea of targeting date rape specifically also reinforces the false notion that women are most at risk from strangers in dark alleys or dark night clubs. In fact, 90 percent of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, according to statistics from the UK Home Office.
That's not to say that spiked drinks aren't a problem, but it seems a bit rich for these companies to claim they're setting out to "prevent sexual assault." Even in terms of protecting against date rape, the devices only check for certain drugs, potentially missing other substances used to spike drinks (like alcohol, to name a common one).
And support organisation Rape Crisis suggests that placing too much awareness on this kind of "stranger rape" can be harmful. "Sometimes, the myth that rape is most commonly perpetrated by strangers can make the majority of survivors, who have been raped or sexually assaulted by someone they know, even less likely to report to the police or even confide in someone close about their experiences," their website explains.
I'm sure the young men behind Undercover Colors have nothing but good intentions—I'd love to talk to them about it—but their approach, and that of other companies working on these kind of personal protection devices, is severely misguided.
(Owing to a lack of additional context, I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt on their slogan, "Choice Matters," and presume that's hinting at a choice of colours or something, and not a suggestion that women have any choice about being sexually assaulted.)
The product just misses the mark on so many levels, and that's before we find out if it's even a decent nail polish in the first place. Feeling obliged to not only wear nail polish, but to wear a certain type of nail polish from a certain company and then stick a finger in your drink every time you glance away from your glass isn't any real solution to sexual assault. And it certainly ain't empowering.
xx is a column about occurrences in the world of tech, science, and the internet that have to do with women. It covers the good, the bad, and the otherwise interesting gender developments in the Motherboard world.