Move over, Ice Bucket Challenge — there’s a new controversial campaign in town, and it’s taking the Internet by storm. Undercover Colors, a nail polish line designed to detect common date-rape drugs, was an idea proposed by four North Carolina State University students to help empower women to defend themselves against possible sexual assault.
The all-male group is currently raising funds to further develop their prototype, but the initial widespread acclaim and support turned sour in late August when anti-rape advocates openly denounced Undercover Colors, insisting the product will only propagate the very rape culture it intends to eradicate.
To the typical consumer, this backlash might seem like nothing more than an overreaction to the unwarranted complaints of a bunch of insatiable ultra-feminists, but these women make a valid argument.
There’s no denying that the founders of Undercover Colors mean well. According to a Newsweek article, co-founder Ankesh Madan revealed in an interview with Higher Education Works why the group chose to focus on this particular issue.
“All of us have been close to someone who has been through the terrible experience,” Madan said. “[And] we began to focus on finding a way to help prevent the crime.”
The idea is certainly a step in the right direction for sexual assault prevention, and carrying around some sort of self-defense object can be comforting for a woman living in a world of sexual predation. Yet, the continued development of this sort of product might not actually do anything to eradicate rape culture.
For one thing, the technology itself might not be advanced enough for the product to truly be effective. The anonymous medical columnist at Animal New York — who writes under the pen name “Backdoor Pharmacist” — says that most products claiming to detect date rape drugs are not reliable and cites the results of several studies as evidence for this claim. The columnist goes on to point out that there are simply too many different drugs out there for any product of this nature to be failsafe; no matter how much funding Undercover Colors might receive, it would be nearly impossible to invent a product capable of identifying every drug used to involuntarily alter a subject’s consciousness.
Technology aside, Undercover Colors gets the statistics of rape wrong. When juxtaposed with the reality of rape in the United States, the notions fueling products such as Undercover Colors seem too naive. For one thing, the most common date rape drug is alcohol itself, which is a common beverage at many party or bar scenarios.
Moreover, the image of a college rapist as a random stranger is a complete misconception. One in Four, a nonprofit organization advocating for sexual assault awareness and prevention, provides a list of sexual assault statistics on its website, compiled from various censuses and medical journals. According to the webpage, 60 percent of victims of on-campus sexual assault considered their attackers “acquaintances.”
In shifting the burden of rape prevention to women, Undercover Colors also undermines the female empowerment it seeks to promote. Saddling women with the responsibility to prevent their own sexual assault is harmful on multiple levels, which is why Katie Russell from Rape Crisis England & Wales refuses to endorse the product.
“Whilst Undercover Color’s initiative is well meaning, on the whole, Rape Crisis does not endorse or promote such a product or anything similar,” Russell explained to Newsweek. “This is for three reasons: it implies that it’s the woman’s fault and assumes responsibility on her behalf, and detracts from the real issues that arise from sexual violence.”
The Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti points out that Undercover Colors is also ineffective in its tendency to “leave room for victim-blaming” when women do not take these preventive measures. This “victim-blaming” completely negates all the work that crisis centers like Russell’s aim to accomplish. The main purpose of centers like these is to provide support for victims and assure them it was not their fault. Assault-prevention products leave room for victims to feel as if they could have done more to avoid their current plight, when it should not have been their responsibility in the first place.
In the words of Valenti, “We should be trying to stop rape, not just individually avoid it.” This is really the crux of the issue, the heart of this alarmingly prevalent problem. There’s nothing wrong with carrying a bottle of pepper spray on one’s keychain, but not much will change for the better until society finally holds perpetrators accountable for their actions and educates men and women about the reality of sexual assault.