Sexual assault defense products might protect individual women, but do not solve deeply rooted cultural problems
Students at North Carolina State University have developed a nail polish that can detect the presence of date rape drugs. The product is intended to serve as a defense mechanism against sexual assault.
Numerous colleges, including the University, are currently attempting to revamp their sexual assault policies, after facing pressure from the federal government and from the public, knowing that the University is one of 55 schools under investigation for mismanaging sexual assault cases. The University has hired a new Prevention Coordinator, Nicole Thomas, who will work with Dean Nicole Eramo to create new prevention initiatives.
A product like Rohypnol-detecting nail polish is an individualized rather than an institutional approach. While the new invention has been received positively by some, others think it only perpetuates habits of victim blaming — putting the responsibility of preventing sexual assault on women.
This is not the first product invented for women to defend themselves against sexual assault. Last year, a company named AR Wear designed “anti-rape” underwear, and faced similar criticisms from many anti-rape activists, even though the company was likely well-intentioned. The reality is there will always be some kind of product marketed to women to protect themselves, from the high tech to the rudimentary — mace, pepper spray, self-defense classes. There is nothing inherently wrong with creating, buying or using these products. But they can only help in isolated incidents; they do nothing to fix the larger problem.
The inventors have said their product “empower[s] women to protect themselves,” and though a woman may feel empowered by averting an attack, we still need to ask why she needs to avert one in the first place. Why is sexual assault such a pervasive crime? Why is it a violation that one quarter of college women experience?
There are more effective methods of preventing rape which deal with the larger problem. We have endorsed an “ask first” consent policy, and yes, we continue to beat the dead horse because the issue continues to be pervasive. We have advocated for a combination of prevention and punishment. In addition to education and conversation about how to properly respect a peer’s bodily autonomy, students need an efficient and effective judicial body to ensure their attackers will be reprimanded. The case of three James Madison University students who were found guilty of sexual assault and punished with “expulsion after graduation” does not offer survivors any sense of security. If survivors feel no confidence in their universities’ adjudication systems, they will not report, and perpetrators will continue to commit crimes knowing there will likely be no consequences.
Members of boards which adjudicate sexual misconduct cases should place scrutiny on alleged attackers, asking “Did you ask for consent?” and “Did she say yes?” rather than asking complainants, “Did you use your Rohypnol-detecting nail polish?” or “Did you wear provocative clothing?” While women always have the freedom to use preventative measures, they should not be required to do so in order to prove their refusal.
Our hope is that universities can eliminate the need for individualized defensive products, because a community in which we feel we need to test our drinks before consuming them does not fit the ideal of a community of trust. We need to dig into the heart of this issue in order to fix it; nail polish only brushes the surface.