If you went to college, you probably know someone who became the victim of sexual assault after a night out with friends.

Now a group of engineering students at North Carolina State University are developing a tool that can help young women avoid becoming victims of sexual assault.

Stephen Gray, Ankesh Madan, Tasso Von Windheim and Tyler Confrey-Maloney teamed up to develop “Undercover Colors,” a new type of nail polish that changes colors when it comes into contact with common “date rape” drugs like Rohypnol, Xanax, or GHB. In their mission statement, the four developers state that, “[o]ur goal is to invent technologies that empower women to protect themselves from this heinous and quietly pervasive crime… 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. In effect, we want to shift the fear from the victims to the perpetrators.”

Via the International Business Times:

“With our nail polish, any woman will be empowered to discreetly ensure her safety by simply stirring her drink with her finger. If her nail polish changes colour, she’ll know that something is wrong.”

The team was granted $11,250 (£6,600) from North Carolina State’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, which aims to develop solutions to “real-world challenges”. Each of the students personally know someone who has been sexually assaulted.


Of course, some anti-rape activists see this new detection device perpetuating rape culture, as opposed to fighting it. An article in ThinkProgress lays out the nearly-indefensible argument against detection devices and defense techniques, accusing our alleged “rape culture” of of forcing women to “work hard” to prevent themselves from becoming the victims of sexual assault:

“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.

Another article in The Guardian completely misses the point about rape defense.

The author argues that, because this nail polish could only help one woman, the idea should be dumped entirely in favor of some fantasy strategy to eradicate all violence from the world:

I’m appreciative that young men like want to curb sexual assault, but anything that puts the onus on women to “discreetly” keep from being raped misses the point. We should be trying to stop rape, not just individually avoid it.

If it were truly that simple, previous iterations of this same concept would have worked. Remember “anti-rape underwear”? Or the truly terrifying “Rapex” – a female condom that would insert tiny hooks into an assailant’s penis? You can’t really expect women to wear modern chastity belts or a real-life vagina dentata in order to be safe. That’s not trying to stop rape – it’s essentially arguing that some people getting raped is inevitable… So long as it isn’t me isn’t an effective strategy to end rape.

Examples of “feminists” who are completely missing the point unfortunately abound.

The developers of Undercover Colors aren’t suggesting that their future product is the key to eliminating sexual violence against women; their goal (as stated on their Facebook page) is to “shift fear from the victims to the perpetrators.”

I don’t think anyone is under the delusion that a manicure is going to magically eliminate the violence and control issues that warp the minds of rapists; but any tool we can give women to help eliminate drug-induced amnesia and rape is one more tool that a rapist doesn’t have.

Rebecca Nagle in the ThinkProgress article says that she “[doesn’t] want to fucking test [her] drink” while she’s at the bar. She says that a world in which an assailant could potentially strike is not a world she wants to live in. (Me neither, girlfriend.)

But the reality is, that is the world she lives in; it’s the world we all live in—no matter how many times Jessica Valenti, author of the Guardian article, tries to deny it. Saying that any measure taken to avoid being raped contributes to “rape culture” is terribly disingenuous.

Would we tell a man that putting his wallet in his front pocket as opposed to his back pocket (or a woman keeping her purse zipped as she walks down the street) contributes to “theft culture?” Or that locking the front door contributes to “robbery culture?” We wouldn’t, because most people who exist in the practical world as opposed to the activist philosopher world acknowledge that evil exists. “Leaning in” and “addressing the issues” isn’t going to stop someone with severe control issues from attacking another person.

Arguing that self-defense encourages attacks actually does more to perpetuate this alleged “rape culture” than a bottle of nail polish that has the potential to warn a woman away from a potential attacker.


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