Drug detecting nail polish glosses over prevention
Along with anti-rape underwear, mace and rape whistles, women everywhere now have a new weapon in their sexual assault prevention arsenals — nail polish that can detect roofies.
Developed by four undergraduate students at North Carolina State University, the product, Undercover Colors, is a nail polish that changes colors when it comes in contact with common date rape drugs like Rohypnol, Xanax and GHB.
According to the company’s Facebook page, the students, Ankesh Madan, Stephen Grey, Tasso Von Windheim and Tyler Confrey-Maloney, market themselves as “the first fashion company empowering women to prevent sexual assault.”
The company is currently raising money to refine its prototype and may start a Kickstarter campaign in the near future.
According to a statement on their Facebook page, the goal of Undercover Colors is to “invent technologies that empower women to protect themselves from this heinous and quietly pervasive crime.”
The company also said they hope to make potential perpetrators afraid to spike someone’s drink because of a risk of being caught.
In an interview with Higher Education Works, co-founder Ankesh Madan said the group came up with the idea because they all had known someone who had been sexually assaulted.
“As we were thinking about big problems in our society, the topic of drug-facilitated sexual assault came up,” Madan said. “We wanted to focus on preventive solutions, especially those that could be integrated into products that women already use.”
Although the product has been praised for its efforts to combat sexual assault, many believe that Undercover Colors fails to address the systemic and institutionalized issues of rape culture and violence against women.
Caroline Heldman, associate professor of politics at Occidental College, said the nail polish will not solve the growing problem of sexual assault on college campuses — the only thing that will do that, Heldman said, is if campus cultures shift.
“Fancy rape prevention tools like drug-detecting nail polish, consent apps, and anti-rape underwear focus time, money, and attention on the problem in an ineffective way,” she said. “Not only do these products place the responsibility for preventing this crime on the victims, these gadgets do not effectively address the larger problem of rape culture.”
Tracey E. Vitchers, chair of the Board for Students Active For Ending Rape, a national activism organization, said she thinks the nail polish is well intended but misguided.
“They are basically asking women to continue policing themselves and their surroundings in an effort to prevent themselves from being sexually assaulted, when really we need to be talking to young men about what they can do to prevent sexual assault, either as a bystander or by recognizing that their own behavior in some cases might be predatory or bordering on becoming an act of sexual assault,” Vitchers said.
Rachel Buckner, a senior at Occidental College, said she was excited about the nail polish and its ability to detect roofies, but also thought the polish is just a quick fix and doesn’t tackle systemic violence against women.
“It reinforces a negative conception of what it means to protect and … it places restrictions on women — make sure you put your nail in this drink, make sure you don’t wear this, make sure you walk home with someone else. It doesn’t look at the systemic issues,” Buckner said.
Outside of the three common drugs found in many sexual assault cases, other drugs like Ecstasy (MDMA) Valium and Ativan are also used in drug facilitated sexual assaults. Vitchers said the nail polish simply couldn’t cover the full spectrum of drugs that can be mixed with alcohol.
Heldman said students, and people in general, need to be educated about sexual assault and try to combat misconceptions of the crime.
“We live in a society where rape is not considered a “real crime” by many people, where rape survivors are stigmatized,” Heldman said.
In order to try and prevent sexual assault on college campuses, more bystander intervention and education is needed, Buckner said.
“We need to have programs and have trainings that are systemically and institutionally supported,” Buckner said. “It’s [up to] women and men to look out for the signs. Most people don’t know about the strategies that rapists use in order to target people, so I think there needs to be better trainings and better institutional support to help produce understanding and give people signs on what these predators do in certain situations.”
Data from a 2007 study for the National Institute of Justice on drug-facilitated, incapacitated and forcible rape showed that only 0.6 percent of female undergraduate students were sexually assaulted while incapacitated by the use of date rape drugs. Vitchers said that the majority of sexual assault on college campuses involves large quantities of alcohol without the use of date rape drugs.
“That’s part of the important conversation that we should be having is that young men are using alcohol as a way to incapacitate young women and harm them,” she said.
Vitchers compared the nail polish’s role in trying to prevent sexual assault to putting a Band-Aid over a bullet wound, and said the issue of sexual assault on college campuses simply isn’t going to be addressed by young women wearing nail polish.
“Sexual assault is pervasive across all cultures [and] on all college campuses,” she said. “If we really want to stop sexual assault, then we need to start having a frank conversation about why it’s happening, who’s perpetrating it, and what kind of educational information we need to be equipping students with to protect themselves and to protect each other.”
Sage Daugherty is a junior journalism major who has made her minor in women’s and gender studies into a lifestyle. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.