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.