Undercover Colors helps, but not enough

Caroline King

Caroline King
Caroline King

North Carolina State students Ankesh Madan, Stephen Gray, Tasso Von Windheim and Tyler Confrey-Maloney have caused quite the stir with the recent creation of Undercover Colors, nail polish that will potentially (it’s not out of the lab just yet) act as an indicator for the presence of certain date rape drugs such as Rohypnol, Xanax, and GHB. The nail polish, much like litmus paper, changes color when it comes into contact with these drugs, and is designed as a tool for people to test drinks by simply dipping a finger in and stirring.

The students initially created the nail polish to address the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses (1 in 5 women), and they assert that their product will “empower women to discretely ensure (their) safety” and “make potential perpetrators afraid to spike a woman’s drink …shift(ing) the fear from the victims to the perpetrators.”

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Though they have received enormous support from investors who have given the company at least $100,000 to date for product development, they have also received a growing number of critiques from feminists around the country. A nail polish that could help women avoid sexual assault seems benevolent enough, so what’s the problem?

What feminist writers and scholars are getting at is that, first of all, this nail polish, while inventive, should not exaggerate its claims, as it would only work to prevent a small percentage of sexual assaults. According to an article on ThinkProgress, only a small number of women are given date rape drugs (approximately 2.7% of female undergraduate sexual assault victims in 2007).

Further, all of the hype surrounding the polish – a Daily Mail article recently posed the question: “Will this nail polish stop sexual assault?” – makes the product seem like an all-encompassing quick fix.This thinking is dangerous, because it diverts attention away from the source of the problem: sexism and the gross perpetuation of rape culture in our society, defined as cultural attitudes/situations in which sexual and general violence against women is tolerated, normalized, trivialized or ignored (i.e. rape jokes or the “short skirt equals asking for it” argument). Finally, these critiques recognize that giving women tools to help avoid rape is putting the responsibility for rape on the victim (aka victim-blaming) and again diverting attention away from the root causes of sexual assault that need to be addressed if anything is really going to change.

These men may have started with a nail polish, but what they have really started is an important dialogue that is neither about blaming nail polish designers nor feminists; it is a conversation about how to most effectively combat sexual violence that I hope will inform action for education and prevention programs that more effectively address the issue.

In some ways, any effort that can reduce the occurrence of sexual assault is a really positive thing. However, this approach, arming women with date-rape nail polish, brass-knuckles stylishly disguised as a cat key-chain – or laser lipstick for that matter – perpetuates victim-blaming and fundamentally ignores the issues of rape culture and how to stop them, and this necessitates education.

Collegian Columnist Caroline King can be reach by email at letter@collegian.com or on Twitter at @cgking7