Under cover out in the open

Op-eds Opinions

Recently, four graduates of the University of North Carolina created a new type of nail polish, Undercover Colors, which can detect the presence of certain date rape drugs such as Rohypnol, GHB or Xanax. The Internet then collectively lost its shit.

Now, I can imagine what you’re thinking: “Really? On the Internet you say? But isn’t that the bastion of the most reasonable and balanced debates?” Typically, you’d be right — except for in cases of women’s health and security. In those cases, it seems that everyone with access to a keyboard, including yours truly, gets to weigh in and have a say. Now I wonder: why do we care so damn much about what a woman chooses to put on her nails?

I don’t believe that this is really a reaction to nail polish (though I must admit that some of online samples are pretty fabulous). No, this was a reaction to changing attitudes in Canada, where women are no longer silent about the culture of rape on campus.

Last year, St. Mary’s University, UBC, and University of Ottawa all came under fire for tacitly condoning aggressive sexual culture at their respective institutions. Closer to home, Student Health 101 at UVic has provided a “helpful” portrait of a sexual predator in its September edition (at some point, I’m sure to address the myriad of mistakes in that particular article). So while this is clearly a problem, we seem to be split on how to address it.

And so, writers of the internet have taken a nuanced, challenging situation and boiled it down to an artificial dichotomy: one side applauds Undercover Colors as a tool to help protect women, and one criticizes the company for not working directly to remove the systematic effects of rape culture on our campuses. Now, some of my favourite feminist bloggers, such as Feministing or Jessica Valenti, have correctly pointed out that alcohol is by far the most prevalent date rape drug, for which Undercover Colors is useless. Where I disagree with my fellow authors is the premise that drug-detecting nail polish shifts blame from the perpetrator to the victim (their logic being that a lawyer can simply ask “why didn’t you wear your nail polish”, absolving perpetrators of any culpability).

Rather, these bloggers (and I use that term affectionately) declare that our sole focus should be on systematic reforms and policy level interventions. There should be no need for such a silly little tool as drug-detecting nail polish (I will refrain from going down the truly crazy rabbit hole that is Jenny Kutner’s Salon article decrying rape profiteering by male entrepreneurs).

While I stand with my fellow activists in our outcry for better public policy and education around rape, I also feel as though every option should be exhausted. Undercover Colors does not create a victim mentality for women who choose to wear it, nor does it place responsibility for prevention upon them. Let’s face the ugly truth: sexual assault continues to remain too prevalent an issue, and the challenges are too great for one or two solutions to work by themselves. So let’s use them all.  Let’s use the stop-gap measures, like AR Wear or Undercover Colors, not only to try and prevent an assault from happening, but perhaps to empower those that have already lived it. Let’s foster better discourse and demand policy change. No one strategy will succeed on its own, but in the meantime, let’s stop blaming women who want options for protecting themselves.