Can nail polish help end rape? Yes, that is a real conversation going on this week, thanks to four (let's be honest, pretty brilliant) male undergraduates from North Carolina State University interested in preventing sexual assault on campus. The men crafted a new product designed to allow women to detect unwanted drugs in their drinks with a quick stir of the finger. If dipped in a drink spiked with GHB, the most common form of date rape drug, the nail polish is supposed to change color.
It's important to stress here that I think it's a really positive step that the product was created by four men. The last time we heard from male undergrads in the news, they were justifying women being raped when they are drunk with a horrifying metaphor, comparing it to getting a "bike stolen if I leave it unlocked."
So kudos, gentlemen. Men should be interested in preventing rape and should be advocates in this space. But while it's encouraging to see that men are thinking about this kind of stuff, this product may not be the best strategy.
However well-intentioned, there seems to be an awful lot of resources, time and energy dedicated to telling women how not to get raped, and comparatively little going to preventing men from raping in the first place. This provides women with a false sense of comfort and the illusion that a product or a precaution can actually solve the problem of rape, which it won't.
Moreover, the more we depend on women to prevent rape, the easier it is to blame them when it happens to them. Here's a look at the well-documented ways we can actually stop rape. Maybe it's time we invest a little more time and resources into implementing them before we send gallons of nail polish to colleges across the country.
1. Teach men not to rape.
There is one single surefire way of ensuring that women don't get raped — and it's by teaching men not to do it.
Encouraging women to buy products to make themselves safer is sort of like cutting off the weed at its stem, instead of at its root: It might give you something to do, but you aren't going to actually eradicate weeds from your garden. To stop rape, we need to teach men not to rape, not teach women that it's their responsibility to prevent it.
We often talk about sexual assault with our daughters, but we don't do the same with our sons. Political leaders, most recently in India, have recognized this systemic problem.
Even here at home, President Obama has set up a task force to tackle sexual assault on campus, with a high priority on reaching male students. "I want every young man in America to feel some strong peer pressure in terms of how they are supposed to behave and treat women," he said in January. Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime advocate for sexual assault survivors, has similar concerns about the way we raise men to treat women: "Men have to take more responsibility; men have to intervene. The measure of manhood is willingness to speak up and speak out, and begin to change the culture," he said during a speech in 2013.
2. Ensure our legal system doesn't blame women for rape.
Remember when a U.S. judge gave a convicted rapist 45 days in prison because his victim was "promiscuous"? Or that time a teacher who raped his student was handed a 30-day sentence because his victim "looked older than her chronological age?" And because rape culture is, sadly, a global issue, let's not forget the Australian jury who let a rapist go free because his victim was wearing "skinny jeans." Just because legal systems have laws on the books designed to punish rapists doesn't mean justice is always served. Indeed, research suggests the majority of rapists never spend a day in jail.
This makes a mockery of a justice system that's supposed to bring rapists to justice. If the judges, juries and lawyers won't do it, who will?
3. Test the thousands of rape kits currently sitting on shelves.
It's bad enough that women have to go through the invasive procedure of a rape kit after a sexual assault, but what's much, much worse is that the entire, humiliating process is often done in vain. A horrifying number of rape kits in this country are still in a cold storage locker somewhere, waiting to be tested. According to the Justice Department, 400 thousand rape kits are presently sitting on shelves, doing no one any good.
And because many rapists are recidivists, leaving kits untested allows rapists all over the country to roam free and commit additional assaults. Thanks in part to the efforts of advocates like actress Mariska Hargitay, the government is aware of this public health problem. Congressional leaders worked hard to pass the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting Act, designed to address the rape kit backlog, in 2013. However, the bill's reforms have yet to be fully implemented.
One thing is clear: Testing rape kits puts rapists behind bars. After Detroit finally processed its backlog, 100 serial rapists were detected and 14 prosecutions were filled. One of these offenders, whose original victim had filed a rape kit more than ten years ago, went on to rape three other women.
4. Improve how campuses handle sexual assault.
Although rape is statistically common on college campuses, accountability is still far too rare. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that 75% of the women who reported a rape were under the age of 25 and that 1 in 5 college women will be a victim of rape, but barely 12% are reported. Despite this clear need for a robust college reporting system, a recent study showed that 2 out of 5 colleges did not investigate a single rape report.
Feminist writer and activist Wagatwe Wanjuki experienced her college's culture of impunity toward rapists firsthand after she was sexually assaulted as a student. She believes we can eradicate rape on campus by strengthening the administrative response to incidents of sexual assault on campus.
"We need to have schools commit to properly punishing assailants. If cheating on a test is a violation of a school's code of conduct, why shouldn't rape be a violation as well? Schools need to make a public commitment to holding assailants accountable through providing adequate sanctions," Wanjuki told Mic.
Wanjuki also stressed the importance of refuting stereotypes about the "typical" college rapist. "I definitely think that the hesitation to believe that the charming student government leader, the straight-A student, the star athlete could commit such a violent act serves as barrier to justice for survivors," she told Mic. "We need to make it clear that a history of being pleasant, kind, smart, talented, etc., doesn't eliminate the possibility that a student assaulted another."
5. Teach men what consent looks like.
Data shows that many men will confess to the act of rape as long as you don't use the word "rapist." In fact, if you start asking college students about their behaviors with questions like "Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone who did not want you to because they were too intoxicated to resist?" you end up with a lot of them volunteering the information that they have, without realizing that this counts as rape.
It's not surprising college men are so confused about consent considering even a lawyer in the Steubenville rape trial argued that because a semi-conscious intoxicated teenage girl didn't utter the word "no," she had implicitly consented.
Enlightened advocates now realize that sex education programs should emphasize the presence of "yes," instead of the absence of "no." Enthusiastic consent, in other words, the "mutual verbal, physical and emotional agreement that happens without manipulation, threats or head games," needs to be taught in all schools, so that both women and men understand that there are actually no blurred lines when it comes to sexual assault.
6. Encourage the media to engage in critical conversations about "anti-rape" products.
Jennifer L. Pozner, founder and executive director of Women in Media and News and author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, explains that the disproportionate amount of air time given to rape prevention products is problematic because it reinforces the message that it's up to women to prevent rape.
"The media's breathless fawning over roofie-detecting manicures is a two-fer: Outlets get to hype a feel-good 'girl power' accessory, while placing the onus on rape prevention squarely on the shoulders (or fingernails) of the victims, rather than on the perpetrators of violence against women," she told Mic.
Pozner further explained that "corporate media always prefer to frame sexual assault as something women need to figure out how to avoid, rather than as an educational issue of boys needing to be taught about healthy, enthusiastic consent versus criminal sexual assault, and men needing to take responsibility to not commit violent sexual abuse."
Although we should have conversations about these products, it often seems one-sided, and perpetuates myths about whose responsibility it is to prevent rape.
7. Stop making women responsible for men's behavior.
Encouraging the woman to alter her behavior to stop rape does nothing to prevent the potential rapist from choosing another target. Encouraging women to buy products to make themselves safer is, therefore, little more than a bandage.
Rape is potentially the only crime in which the victim is so often held responsible. Victims are already asked an awful lot of questions in the aftermath of abuse, ranging from "What were you wearing?" to "Were you drinking?" Do we really want to add "Why weren't you protecting yourself with this nail polish?" to the list. And what if the nail polish doesn't work correctly, who's to blame then?
As Pozner put it: "If a hot manicure can tell me if my drink's been drugged, great, send me a bottle in purple. But that's treating the symptom, not the disease, because there will still be a guy dropping roofies into the glasses of other women who didn't polish their nails at all. For any rape prevention program to work, we need to be targeting the guy slipping roofies into women's glasses."
8. Stop perpetuating the myth that most rapes are committed by strangers.
The overemphasis by the media on rape prevention products like rape underwear or drug detecting nail polish also helps perpetuate the myth that the most common form of rape is from a stranger at a club. In fact, nearly 75% of rape victims are assaulted by someone they know. As reported by Al Jazeera America, that number jumps to between 80% and 90% when it comes to campus assaults. This means that drug detection nail polish is simply not useful for most cases of rape, unless we honestly believe all women should check every drink they consume.
Although products like drug-detecting nail polish claim they can give women and girls additional power to control what happens to their bodies, it's an illusory sense of control.
9. Enforce stricter rape laws.
Although stricter laws are not enough, there is evidence that they can help with reporting and conviction. Michigan, for instance, was able to effectively increase convictions and arrests with legal reforms.
However, many researchers believe these reforms aren't enough, and will only produce results when coupled with supplemental, complementary efforts that encourage women to come forward when they are assaulted.
10. Push the media to stop presenting rapists as victims.
When reporting on sexual assault, mainstream media still often get it wrong. Whether it was the way CNN decided to emphasize the Steubenville rapists' "promising futures" as "star football players" whose "lives fell apart," or the way a Fox News guest emphasized the Maryville rape survivior's responsibility for assault because "what did she expect at 1 a.m.?" there is no shortage of examples of the media promoting, inadvertently or not, victim-blaming on the airwaves.
Unfortunately, until the media catches up to the idea that women are never to blame for their own rape, it will be that much harder to stop men from thinking they have a license to keep doing it.
11. Prevent politicians from saying absurdly offensive and ignorant things about rape.
When it comes to old white guys and ignorant rape statements, it's frankly hard to know where to begin.
There's always the classic example, provided by amateur OB/GYN (and equally amateur congressional candidate) Todd Akin, who infamously claimed that during "legitimate rape," the body has ways to "shut that whole thing down" to prevent pregnancy from sexual assault. Then there's Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who casually explained that rape is something "God intended to happen." And let's not forget popular Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, who used his legislative powers to redefine rape and who believes sexual assault is just another form of "conception."
That's only a small sample. Let's expect more from our political leaders, while using the ballot box to show that this type of outdated, ignorant worldview no longer has a place in our nation's government.