The latest product to be added to the anti-rape arsenal is Undercover Colors, a nail polish that can detect date-rape drugs when the user stirs their drink with their finger. The internet has responded with criticisms of the product, saying that it promotes rape culture and ignores the root of the problem.
This may be true, but if the goal of the nail polish is simply to contribute to the consumer’s sense of safety (as opposed to ending rape once and for all), then I think it has a place and a purpose.
Many of us live with the fear that it could happen at any moment. Every interaction or situation is a potentially threatening or violent one. So we do what we can, if not to protect ourselves, to make ourselves feel safer. We might be locking our doors at night, changing the way we dress to avoid street harassment, blocking someone on a social media account, or downloading the Circle of 6 app to our smartphones. Many people, especially women, perform daily safety habits intended to reduce the risk of an attack. To everyone who has criticized Undercover Colors or other anti-rape tools, I ask why wearing drug-detecting nail polish would be any different.
I agree that the nail polish, developed by North Carolina State students, is unrealistic and impractical. I certainly wouldn’t wear the nail polish, nor would I ever wear anti-rape underwear, a condom with teeth, or a tampon with a hidden blade. One of the main flaws of anti-rape products is that their perceived usefulness is reliant on the stranger danger myth. If the rapist is the spouse, acquaintance, significant other, or a family member of the survivor, which is usually the case, these products will do little to nothing in terms of prevention. You’re probably not going to insert a weaponized tampon before visiting your boyfriend's house, because you wouldn’t expect him to be a rapist.
Undercover Colors has also been criticized for perpetuating rape culture by placing the responsibility of preventing an assault in the user’s hands. This is where I have to disagree. I don’t think carrying keys in your hands, locking your doors and windows, carefully choosing what to wear, or any other precautions we might take on a daily basis to ensure our safety is the same as taking responsibility for what might happen. We are not contributing to rape culture by doing whatever we can to protect ourselves.
On the contrary: We are victims of rape culture. It is unfair to blame potential victims for perpetuating a culture when that culture makes them feel victimized, and it is unfair to put the responsibility of changing rape culture on individuals who are affected by it.
We all have a right to manage our sense of security, even if our actual security is still at risk. It really sucks that many of us have to live our lives in constant fear of being attacked or harassed, but these are valid fears and we should not be ashamed of having them or acting on them, however irrational they may be. No one should judge you for protecting yourself from threat of harassment or violence because your way of doing so isn’t feminist enough.
Rape crisis and domestic violence service organizations often work with survivors to create a safety plan to either reduce the probability of running into the perpetrator again, or to have a safe way out in the event of another assault. This could mean changing their schedule, calling a friend for help, or perhaps locking their bedroom door (if the perpetrator lives in the home).
I used to work for a rape crisis organization, and it was slightly uncomfortable and conflicting for me to have these conversations with survivors, because ideally, it shouldn’t be about what they can do to prevent it from happening again. Victim blaming is a huge problem in our society. It is a tool used to silence those of us who are fighting against and are victims of oppression by shifting the blame from those who are doing wrong. Yet, we (providers of crisis intervention) still must have this conversation about safety planning with survivors. Because though it is not and never will be their fault, keeping the survivor safe from the perpetrator is crucial. A survivor shouldn’t have to compromise their safety just to make a point about rape culture.
Among all the criticism of Undercover Colors and similar rape prevention products, I saw very little compassion for those who might buy it. There was no acknowledgement of the pain that someone must have had to experience that would make them want such a product. There was no validation of what a victim or potential victim might feel, or the emotional security that purchasing such a product might bring.
Rape prevention tools do nothing to stop rape culture, and they certainly may not stop rape, but that isn’t the point. Potential victims want security, or at least the illusion of safety, and they cannot wait until patriarchy is dismantled and rape culture is ended. Creators of rape prevention products may be taking advantage of fear for profit, but then again, so are makers of home security systems.
As a survivor, I understand the frustration with products like Undercover Colors. The best way to address sexual assault prevention will always be to focus on potential perpetrators. I hope there is a future where sexual assault and victim blaming are no longer an issue. Until then, I say we respect individual decisions about safety, and give people the space to resist the unpredictable violence of rape culture by controlling how they respond to it.