Ways to Shut That Whole Thing Down

An adaptation of this ran on KQED as a “Perspectives” segment on Tuesday, September 9.

A little over two years ago, Missouri Congressman and Senate candidate Todd Akin made a fool and a national punchline of himself by suggesting that, if a woman is raped, her body has magical defenses that kick in to prevent pregnancy. While arguing that rape exceptions to abortion restrictions are a distraction, Akin said:

It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape is] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work, or something. You know, I think there should be punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist, and not attacking the [fetus].

I’ve always particularly enjoyed that little “but let’s assume” bit. Yes, let’s consider, just hypothetically, that your nonscientific bunk theory about the mind-reading powers of a woman’s uterus doesn’t pan out.

Akin’s election-sealing stumble came to mind recently when I read a story from my alma mater, North Carolina State University. Four enterprising undergrads (#yesallmen) [edit: they are recent graduates, not undergraduate students] have developed a nail polish that changes color when exposed to certain “date rape” drugs.1 They’ve also founded a company to sell this nail polish: “Undercover Colors.” Swirl your finger in your drink, ladies, and find out if it’s been dosed. Their product is, in a sense, attempting to give the female body a way to try to shut that whole thing down.

I saw my first notices about this when it was shared by several fellow NCSU alumni on Twitter and Facebook. One of the four students behind the product is in the scholarship program that I was a part of at NC State, and that program’s official Twitter account also got in on the fun with this little interaction with NYT columnist Nick Kristof, who had shared a link to a story about the nail polish. It turns out that the program had awarded an enrichment grant to one of the company’s co-founders “to support a portion of the team’s research efforts.” This had all the makings of a call-out in the coming year’s annual report to Park Scholarship donors and supporters.

By now, lots of other people have already pointed out the problem with Undercover Colors. It places the responsibility to prevent rape on the victim, and from there it’s a quick step to blaming the victim when it happens. Oh, you were drugged and raped after a night out? Should have been wearing your special drug-detecting top coat — and probably also a prairie dress and veil, to be extra safe. You can never do too much to stop men from raping you.

The lack of special nail polish does not cause rape. Rapists do.

When I was a student at NC State, I didn’t think much at all about sexual assault: about the way we talk about it, the problem of victim-blaming and where we put responsibility for prevention. If you’d told me about this nail polish 10 or 12 years ago, I probably would have thought it was a good idea. So I don’t want to condemn too directly the young men who created the product and are now, as per the American Way, attempting to profit from their creation.

What troubles me most is the apparent lack of adult supervision. These students developed this product and started this company with the support of professors and advisors at the University. They won funding (and publicity) last spring from the University’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, through a multi-round competitive process. I already mentioned the Park Enrichment Grant given to one of the company’s co-founders in direct support of the development of their product. Those grants are also awarded competitively by a committee of professors and alumni.

There were plenty of opportunities for someone to say, “Hey, guys, maybe this isn’t a good idea.” I understand that projects of all kinds develop momentum, and it becomes difficult — both practically and emotionally — to be the person who steps in front of the boulder that’s already rolling downhill. But at every step in the creation of the product and the company, many people had ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

Spinning off companies is not the point of a college education. It’s learning — and not just learning subject matter and professional skills, but also how to be a better human. How to think more carefully about our decisions. How our actions push the world one way or another, so we should do our best to make sure it’s the way we mean to be pushing.

A college campus isn’t the only the place for those lessons, thank goodness. Both before and after, we keep learning, sometimes through pain and embarrassment. Like I said, when I was in college, I probably would have thought this nail polish was a good idea.

College students are young adults; both words matter. They bear responsibility for their actions, their ideas and opinions, and their education. But in many ways, the grown-ups are still in charge: of directing those actions, of shaping those ideas and opinions, of providing and improving that education.

Maybe in the backlash against the drug-detecting nail polish that has appeared over the last few days, the young men behind it are learning something — with the help of pain and embarrassment. Maybe.

This is also a “teachable moment,” though, for the professors, advisors, and administrators at North Carolina State University. You are molding young minds. Do better.

  1. The phrase “date rape,” wherever it is used, needs to be one word shorter. 

5 thoughts on “Ways to Shut That Whole Thing Down

  1. Hmm, I don’t really understand your contention that the nail polish puts the onus of preventing rape on the victim (but I haven’t followed the controversy, only saw the same FB links you mention, so I may be missing something). Just because I might do things to protect myself from date rape or other physical crimes (e.g., not leaving my drink unattended, being attentive to where/when I’m walking alone, etc.) doesn’t mean it’s my fault if those things fail (or if I choose to make a choice some might consider less safe) and something bad happens. Just because it shouldn’t be my responsibility doesn’t mean that it’s not a good idea to do those prevention type things. I wish we lived in a world where they weren’t necessary/helpful, but I know that I personally feel like it’s worthwhile to be defensive about my personal safety, and I will teach my daughter to do the same (just as I will also teach her not to blame herself if someone hurts her). I feel like this nail polish is an attempt to give women another tool to do that if they want, not to say that it would be a woman’s fault if she were raped and not wearing this nail polish. But like I said, I haven’t followed the details of this so maybe I’m missing something.

    That said, the polish doesn’t seem like a great idea to me, but for more practical reasons. I feel like it’s better to practice awareness of one’s surroundings, and that if someone thinks that she can rely on nail polish that probably isn’t infallible instead of keeping an eye on her drink, that probably isn’t good.

    • The most immediate practical reason that the polish doesn’t seem like a great idea is that it’s extremely unlikely to work: false positives, false negatives, extraordinary variety of drugs that might cause incapacitation in service of sexual assault. Also, the most common “date rape” drug is willingly-consumed alcohol. The drugs the polish purports to detect actually aren’t used that often. Nobody needs to put anything in the drink. It’s already … in the drink.

      That’s the least of the problems with this, though. You, personally, might not think that a woman choosing not to wear special nail polish, or walking alone, or over-indulging in booze-ahol translates into sexual assault being (at least partially) her fault. But plenty of other people do seem to think that, like, I don’t know, the former president of George Washington University, to name just one: http://www.washingtonian.com/blogs/capitalcomment/local-news/former-gw-presidents-recommendation-to-reduce-campus-sexual-assaults-stop-drinking.php.

      He’s hardly alone, and it doesn’t stop at drinking. From UNC: “Is there anything you would have done differently?” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/annie-e-clark/rape-is-like-a-football-g_b_2769576.html

      Every time someone touts a product or a strategy that a woman is meant to employ to “prevent” herself from being raped, it gives people another way, after the fact, to make it seem like it was her fault. You had all these strategies available to you, but you failed to use them and _now look what happened_! You should have stayed sober. You should have worn pants. You shouldn’t have walked back to your car alone. You should have worn your special nail polish.

      I don’t have a daughter (or son, for that matter) to worry about. But if I did, I wouldn’t want to have to shout after her, “Try not to get raped!” any time she walked out the door. I might do it, because I’m both paranoid and horribly inappropriate. The problem isn’t just sexual assault, the act, something that happens at a specific time. The problem is the culture that makes it a constant threat for which women (in particular) are expected to alter their behavior in increasingly expansive and pervasive ways.

      That’s why I called it a “teachable moment.” These guys are going to make their nail polish and attempt to get it to market — to make money, in other words, from telling women they should try harder to not get raped. (I know that’s now how they’re positioning it. They use words like “empower.”) I don’t see any number of blog posts stopping them.

      The best thing I can see coming out of this is that a bunch of people at NC State, and maybe elsewhere, have conversations about why the product is problematic. And maybe the next time some (well-meaning!) young man wants to do something about sexual assault, he’ll bend his energies toward supporting changes in the culture, not building a better chastity belt.

    • I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I’m just having a lot of trouble seeing it this way. I mean, I think we agree that the practicalities of this are not good, so maybe it’s a moot point and I should just stop worrying about it, but I can’t seem to get it out of my head. Describing it as a chastity belt or veil just doesn’t make sense to me. It seems more like taking a self defense class. We would all much rather live in a world where there’s no reason women would want to do that, but the fact is that’s not where we are right now. And in the meantime I feel like we need both sides – help women protect themselves as they choose and find reasonable [not sure that’s the right word – I mean reasonable in the sense of weighing risk/reward, since it is obviously unreasonable and unfortunate that we live in a culture where such risks exist], while also working on changing the culture so that sexual assault and rape, which seem particularly rampant on today’s college campuses, happen less frequently and so that victims are better supported when they do.

      I do think there would be more effective ways for young men to help prevent rape that have more to do with fighting against “rape culture” (a terms that I find less noxious than date rape but still pretty terrible), and encouraging them to spend their efforts there instead makes sense to me. But again, this has more to me to do with the practicalities – this nail polish seems to be a not-that-effective way to defend against a very small percentage of rapes. Using it as a teachable moment to try to get folks to better think through the best way to effect change seems like a good idea, but telling these guys their actions are more or less equivalent to the a**holes that tell women it’s their fault if they get raped seems more likely to me to make them wish they had kept their heads down and not tried to talk about this problem at all. And how does that help anyone?

      • I actually think these were nice young men who I assume think sexual assault is bad. It’s just that nobody helped them think about the context for why this particular product might be a bad idea. It wasn’t necessarily their job to understand that context — it was their teachers and advisers. I’m with you on the practicalities side — women shouldn’t be given the impression that this is an effective prevention tool. And I think veils are different from self-defense classes, even though both might be presented as ways to protect yourself from unwanted male contact. Sadly, neither would have prevented anyone I’ve known who have experienced sexual assault from being raped.

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