Students Develop Nail Polish That Can Detect Date Rape Drugs
Author: Eliška Portužáková
Wednesday 27th of August 2014 05:42:06 PM

Also read our updates from The Huffington Post and VICE Magazine under the original article please.
Is polishing of your nails one of your steps to prepare for a party? In the future it can be recommended as a pre-party procedure even more: not because of your beauty, but for your safety.


Four undergraduate students at the North Carolina State University created a nail polish that changes colour in the presence of common date rape drugs like Rohypnol, Xanax and GHB (Gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid). To see if a drug has been slipped into your drink, just swirl a finger polished with 'Undercover Colours' nail polish around in your drink: if the beverage contains rape drugs, the nail polish changes colour, like the special coasters or paper strips that already exist. The young inventors won first place at a competition for students working on solutions to real-world problems with their idea and they also were supported by North Carolina State and by an investor who found them on Startup Showcase - so we can hope that this kind of manicure will be on our own nails soon!

Sophia Kerby, a writer at The Huffington Post, has some very smart things to say about inventions such as this nail polish:

Thanks to four male college students from North Carolina State University, you may soon be able to add a new accessory to your outfit and tool in combating date rape: nail polish. A new nail polish called "Undercover Colors" will be able to detect date rape drugs by changing colors in the presence of Rohypnol (roofies) or GHB (G-juice), the two most commonly used date rape drugs. To see if one of these drugs has been slipped in your drink, a woman has to stir the drink with her finger. Throw that in with the rape whistle and pepper spray that your mom gave you freshman year and you've got your back-to-school check list covered.

While I applaud their efforts to prevent sexual assault among college students, after reading their product description, it's pretty clear that these male students know little rape culture and even less about plausible solutions. Sexual assault doesn't only happen at bars. Analysis by the Washington Post in 2012 show nearly 4,000 allegations of sexual assault on college campus with Penn State University (56), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (34) and Harvard University (31) topping the charts. About 73 percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the survivor knows, where women are more likely to feel comfortable and less guarded. Alcohol is just part of the problem. Our friends at Feministing remind us that, while the stats might vary, it's pretty clear that "plain old alcohol is the substance most commonly used in drug-facilitated rape." While well intentioned, products like "Undercover Colors" actually perpetuate rape culture by placing the burden of safety back onto women.

Let's stop getting distracted by gimmicks like this and talk about real solutions to the growing violence against women. Here are three things college campuses can actually do to help keep all students safe.

1. A little rape-culture competency wouldn't hurt. One of the most devastating aspects of rape culture is the rampant victim blaming. We hear it all the time from victims not being taken seriously when they report sexual assault to their university campus to publicly defending accused rapists while denouncing what their victims say. When violence against women is being trivialized and ignored, none of us are safe. Host an on-campus brown bag lunch to talk about how victim-blaming occurs and talk about what we can do to prevent it.

2. Engage men as part of the solution. Are we having those tough conversations with men, who are more likely to be perpetrators of sexual assault against women, about how to be respectful others boundaries, personal space and what consent really means? Hannah Brancato, co-director of FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, a sexual assault prevention group, states that for consent to be part of common practice on college campuses, it needs to be incorporated "in the sexual culture on college campuses." This needs to include both women and men. FORCE launched a college-themed guide for consensual sexual activity. Check out the guide here and use it on your college campus.

3. Accountability, please. Schools currently facing investigation for mishandling sexual assault complaints have listed several possibly policy changes, including changes to their disciplinary proceedings where expulsion becomes a possibility for perpetrators of sexual assault. While such policy changes will put more of the burden on the perpetrator, such disciplinary hearings have led to wildly inappropriate questions for survivors and light punishments for perpetrators found guilty of assault, such as expulsion after graduation (who knew that was even a thing). Policy changes need to not only hold the perpetrators accountable, but the school's handing of these hearings as well.

It's pretty terrible that in 2014, that these kinds of products even need to exist, but the reality is that they do exist. Instead of funneling money into making gadgets that help prevent women from being raped, let's talk about solutions to shifting rape culture where consent, on both sides, is seen as the norm.

And then Bertie Brandes at VICE Magazine wrote this (and we agree with her):

As somebody who writes online and tweets and identifies as a feminist, however, I appear to have drastically missed the mark. The BBC reported yesterday that a whole lot of people have been outraged by the invention of this safety precaution, and not because the scientists have failed to release an extensive color chart. The BBC also noted, quite hilariously, that "the inevitable internet backlash came from a surprising source—anti-rape advocates," as though they initially expected to be dealing with a group of pro-rape advocates furious that people might have a new way to stop them from attacking women. I can imagine the product's inventors rolling their eyes in anticipation: “Just wait til the rapists get wind of this guys, it’s going to get pretty rough on Twitter.”

But no, so far the pro-rapists have kept suspiciously quiet. Instead, we have a lot of people who are actively interested in gender politics and feminism denouncing this invention. Why? Well mainly for a lot of reasons that are absolutely true, but in no way related to one another or even practically enforceable. The most annoying and widespread response has been along the lines of, “Hey, instead of making women wear this nail varnish, how about you just DON’T RAPE THEM,” as though, if these armchair activists had the power they deserve, there would be study-groups of rapists across the world being lectured and read blog posts from Jezebel, their palms glued to their foreheads in disbelief, wondering how they could ever have been so gross and inconsiderate.

I don’t mean to devalue the work of those anti-rape activists, obviously, but when somebody’s response to the news of a product that might help ensure the safety of a vulnerable person is: “WELL HOW ABOUT YOU ASK THE RAPIST TO WEAR THE ANTI-RAPE NAIL VARNISH” it’s hard not to wince. Yes, of course in an ideal world the rapist would be apprehended before he even became a rapist and nobody would rape anybody ever. But unfortunately we don't live in an ideal world. Not yet.

Arguing in absurdly simplistic moral absolutisms makes you sound like a five-year-old struggling to grasp the concept of crime. Equipping people with the tools to better look after themselves is not the same as victim-blaming or advising them to take “preventative measures.” What’s sad is that these and other safety measures—rape whistles or mace, for example—are largely only marketed towards females. Maybe if more people started talking honestly about how men are also at risk from both physical and sexual violence, it would feel a lot less like women were being blamed for simply being women.

Finally, it’s important to remember that this nail varnish does not claim to prevent rape but simply detect the presence of a drug. And you know what? That’s pretty useful. A study of American college students put the rate of attacks carried out on people who have had their drink spiked at around 5 percent.

And yet, despite this relatively low percentage of actual rapes, the act of spiking of drinks seems to happen depressingly regularly. Basically, a lot of scumbags are apparently pretty willing to try their luck. I have at least two friends who’ve had to be carried into taxis from nice bars with pizza ovens and seasonal beers because they suddenly blacked out and fell over. Both described the ordeal as overwhelmingly embarrassing because everybody assumed they’d just got super wasted on their own when they said they were going to the bathroom, which really sucks. The quicker you can identify that you’ve been spiked, the sooner you’ll get the serious attention you need. And if that means wiggling your finger in a drink to see what color it turns, so be it.

Someone once gave me the advice to stick to the middle of the road if you’re walking down a quiet dark street because you’ll know immediately if someone’s approaching you. It works (do it). Maybe that strips me of my divine right to walk on the sidewalk, but it doesn’t feel like a huge sacrifice in order to be significantly more alert. Obviously in an ideal world the creep who might approach me would have been advised to walk in front of a bus, but until I see a squishy mess of a rapey psychopath under the wheels of my local, I’ll stick to doing whatever the hell I want to feel safe—and so should you. 

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