Matt Vespa

Four gentlemen at the North Carolina State University have developed a nail polish for women, Undercover Colors, which can detect if their drinks have been spiked with date rape drugs by changing colors. These guys have known someone in their lives that has been sexually assaulted, which galvanized them into action. Their invention is American innovation at work–and everyone should be nodding their heads in agreement that this is a good idea, unless you’re a feminist.

That’s right; some in the wet blanket brigade say that finding ways to prevent rape somehow promotes rape, or something. Some of their responses have been downright angry (via Think Progress) [emphasis mine/edited for language]:

“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 f**king 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.

Maya Dusenbary at Feministing  wrote a post asking a few questions regarding the product, and noted that date rape drugs aren’t used often to facilitate sexual assault [bold text is the product description]:

If your product becomes popular enough to have a real deterrent effect — in other words, to actually “make potential perpetrators afraid to spike a woman’s drink” and not just afraid to spike a nail-polish-wearing woman’s drink — what is stopping rapists from simply using other means, including the current go-to drug, alcohol, to facilitate the crime? Are you working on developing a product that will make them afraid to actually rape?

We are Undercover Colors and we are the first fashion company empowering women to prevent sexual assault.

Do you know the definition of “empowering“? It involves giving someone the power to do something. “Giving” is not synonymous with “selling.” More importantly, do you know the definition of “prevent”? It is not synonymous with “avoid.” Personally avoiding sexual assault — or one particular, rather uncommon type of sexual assault — is not the same as preventing sexual assault. I’m not against the former, but I personally prefer to donate to folks working to do the latter. And I’m not so into a company that raises money by conflating the two.

So, this product could help eliminate a small percentage of sexual assaults; why is that a bad thing? Of course, men should be taught not to rape; it’s part of the ever-expanding conversation about being a good person, not committing crime, getting an education, and becoming a productive part of society. Sexual assaults are inexcusably high in the United States, but these social shifts take time. Tragically, at times, it’s taken a great many steps.

For now, let’s celebrate that there’s something new in the arsenal that helps women avoid being sexually assaulted. As Reason’s Elizabeth Brown wrote yesterday, “teaching men not to rape and helping women avoid rape aren't mutually exclusive options.”

It's been said so many times already so as to be a cliche, but no one accuses security cameras of encouraging "theft culture". And neither do most people blame theft victims for getting robbed just because they didn't have security cameras. This sort of surveillance is simply an extra precaution that some homeowners and businesses take, particularly if circumstances (living in a wealthy neighborhood that's often targeted, living in a high-crime neighborhood, etc.) suggest a higher likelihood of their property being robbed.

Similarly, I find it hard to believe the mere existence of discreet date-rape detection tools would lead to the belief that anyone not employing them deserves being drugged. No one's gonna start expecting all women to start slathering this stuff on all the time. But someone who frequents crowded clubs, or a college student going to a keg party, or someone on a first date may find that taking this added precaution seems worthwhile. Are we supposed to prefer they get drugged and assaulted while we're waiting for a perfect, rape-free culture? As writer and activist Maggie McNeill commented on Twitter, I'm skeptical about "solutions" to crimes & social problems "that require establishing a Utopia first."

Some people agree with Ms. McNeill. Not every woman feels the same way about the nail polish. If you read the comments on Dusenbary’s blog, most posts are supportive of the new product. One commenter said, "I think you’re just pissed because MEN thought of this brilliant product instead of a woman!"  She added that Feministing should be "ashamed" to criticize the nail polish and its inventors.

Matt Vespa

Matt Vespa is the Associate Editor at He previously worked for and was the recipient of Americans for Prosperity Foundation's 2013 Andrew Breitbart Award for Excellence in Online Activism and Investigative Reporting.