Red nail polish photo © 2010 J. Ronald Lee

Photo © 2010 J. Ronald Lee used under a Creative Commons license

Another day, another well-intentioned yet misguided ‘rape-prevention’ invention.

If you haven’t heard about it, allow me to introduce you to Undercover Colors, a nail polish which allows its wearer to detect the presence of common date-rape drugs in a drink.

Not yet on the market, this stuff is the brainchild of four male students at North Carolina State University. Apparently, their creation has already won them some $11,000 in prize money and attracted a $100,000 investment. How lovely for them.

The website for Undercover Colors contains virtually no information (although it is splashed with lots of pink because of course it is) but the motivation behind this exciting new product can be found on the team’s Facebook page. I quote:

In the U.S., 18% of women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. That’s almost one out of every five women in our country. We may not know who they are, but these women are not faceless. They are our daughters, they are our girlfriends, and they are our friends. While date rape drugs are often used to facilitate sexual assault, very little science exists for their detection. Our goal is to invent technologies that empower women to protect themselves from this heinous and quietly pervasive crime. For our first product, we are developing a nail polish that changes color when it comes in contact with date rape drugs such as Rohypnol, Xanax, and GHB. With our nail polish, any woman will be empowered to discreetly ensure her safety by simply stirring her drink with her finger. If her nail polish changes color, she’ll know that something is wrong. Through this nail polish and similar technologies, we hope to make potential perpetrators afraid to spike a woman’s drink because there’s now a risk that they can get caught. In effect, we want to shift the fear from the victims to the perpetrators. We are Undercover Colors and we are the first fashion company empowering women to prevent sexual assault.


I mean, I get it. These young men’s hearts are in the right place. They want to do something.

Unfortunately, the thing they’ve chosen to do perpetuates rape culture by feeding some problematic narratives around sexual assault and how we should go about stopping it from occurring.

Note that they say they want to shift “the fear” from the victims to the perpetrators. The responsibility for actively doing something, however, not so much. That gets to stay squarely on the shoulders of women — who, you’ll also note, are defined solely by their relationship to other people (ie: men). Way to other your target demographic, guys.

Here’s the thing: like most other products marketed for their alleged rape-prevention abilities (remember anti-rape underwear?), the underlying assumption of roofie-detecting nail polish is fundamentally flawed.

From the time we have the ability to understand what rape means, girls are indoctrinated on all manner of techniques we are expected to employ in order to prevent ‘getting raped’ (a term that conveniently disappears the person doing the actual assaulting).

Don’t go out at night. Don’t go out alone. Don’t park in parkades. Always check your backseat before getting in your car. Don’t walk past bushes. Don’t wear your hair in a ponytail. Don’t listen to music using headphones when you’re jogging. Carry your keys between your knuckles. Don’t wear your purse across your chest. Don’t get in an elevator with a man. Don’t travel alone. Wear a fake wedding ring. Carry pepper spray. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t take public transportation by yourself. Don’t leave your drink unattended. Don’t get drunk. Don’t dress like a slut. Don’t lead men on. Wear anti-rape underwear.

Now we’re supposed to start wearing nail polish at all times so we can stick our fingers into every drink we consume in a public place? HOW REASONABLE AND EMPOWERING.


Moving on, there’s another serious flaw in the premise behind Undercover Colors — one that Kate Harding articulates well in this kick-ass reaction piece.

“All these clever products do is reinforce a terribly bleak message: somebody’s going to get raped. If you work hard at making sure it isn’t you, maybe it won’t be,” Harding writes.

In other words, drug-detecting nail polish won’t prevent rape. Just your rape. (Maybe.) Rape, then, remains an inevitability. Like it always has. Like death and taxes. Like the flu. Just one of those things that happens.

This nail-polish-as-protection strategy doesn’t seem so empowering now, does it?

Rather, it seems divisive and cruel; sacrificing someone — anyone — more vulnerable than us to save our own skins.

Harding’s column reaches the same conclusion that I did, which is this: if these guys truly want to help prevent rape, they would be more effective going around their campus, explaining to other guys that raping people is not acceptable behaviour – whether one slips a capacity-inhibiting drug into one’s victim’s drink beforehand or not.

Mind you, this type of rape-prevention work would likely get pushback from people instead of accolades. This type of work focuses attention on the demographic to which most perpetrators of sexual assault belong (men), not on the demographic from which most perpetrators choose their victims (women) — and, as previously mentioned, we don’t like to focus on perpetrators.

We don’t like to admit that rapists and potential rapists walk among us, and that sexual assault occurs not because someone went out at night or wore the wrong thing or drank a cocktail without first sticking a finger in it to check for drugs.

Sexual assault occurs when someone decides to commit it. To have any shot at actually preventing rape, we need to target our efforts on the people doing the raping.

But that’s hard work. Certainly, it’s a lot less fun than playing in a chemistry lab. A lot less lucrative, too.