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Uncovering Undercover Colors: A Cosmetic Fix to a Systemic Problem

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September 3, 2014

Undercover Colors, a nail polish that can detect date-rape drugs (also known as benzodiazepines) in potential rape victim’s drinks, has proven to be highly controversial throughout mainstream media and the feminist blogosphere. The product invented by invented by four male undergraduates at North Carolina State University, is being marketed towards female identifying individuals to use to prevent their own rape. Like the many rape-prevention products that have come before it, under this nail polish’s cover of empowerment is just another product that functions to place victims of rape, harassment, and assault at blame.

This cosmetic could be genuinely helpful and a great product for those who like to wear nail polish, those who can afford to buy it, and those in situations where benzodiazepines are involved. The service it will provide to that small group should not be diminished. The fact is that the most common date rape drug is alcohol.  And although this product could potentially help a select group of consumers, Animal New York’s Backdoor Pharmacist argued last week that there is a discrepancy between the media’s praise of these drink testing products and their accuracy and precision. More importantly, Undercover Colors does not get at the root of the problem: putting the responsibility on women to “prevent” their own rape.

Products like these subversively support rape culture and the rampant culture of victim-blaming. Although these products might very well prevent a rape or even many rapes, the costs and benefits need to be weighed before releasing them into the market: will Undercover Colors just prevent rape or does it have the potential to further facilitate a culture that causes rape to occur?

Victim-blaming by individuals and the culture that places more emphasis on what the survivor did or didn’t do is one of the main causes of the perpetuation of rape in our society. With tagline “Empowering Women to Prevent Their Own Assault,” this nail polish company takes the attention away from the rapist and diverts the blame and inquiry onto survivors. When the emphasis is placed on the survivor or potential victim’s precursory actions for prevention, it creates a toxic culture that results in only 3% of rapists ever spending a day in jail. It is never the survivor’s fault and there is nothing that they could or should have done to prevent his or her rape.

Rape-prevention activists are agreeing with the lab results on the nail polish’s low efficacy. “One of the ways that rape is used as a tool to control people is by limiting their behavior,” said Rebecca Nagle, co-director of FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, explained to Think Progress. FORCE is a group that works toward changing societal norms around rape culture through demonstrations in Washington D.C. and by hacking popular brands like Victoria’s Secret and Playboy.  “As a woman, I’m told not to go out alone at night, to watch my drink, to do all of these things. That way, rape isn’t just controlling me while I’m actually being assaulted — it controls me 24/7 because it limits my behavior. Solutions like these actually just recreate that. I don’t want to fucking test my drink when I’m at the bar. That’s not the world I want to live in.”

Are there products that call for men to not rape? Do I have a better idea for a product than Undercover Colors? No, because I don’t think you should have to spend money to avoid getting raped. That being said, the nail polish could absolutely be meaningful to some and prevent a rape somewhere down the line. The main issue is that cultural violence like rape and assault is not solved by capitalism and the marketing of tangible products. How can this paradigm be shifted effectively?

It is amazingly awesome to see science intersect with social justice! Taking action effectively will require the very people who are predominantly affected by violence against women and the people who do work to systematically change the narrative to demand that we begin to hold aggressors and rapists accountable for this violence.

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