Rape

When 'Preventing Rape Promotes Rape,' You're Doing Feminism Wrong

Teaching men not to rape and helping women avoid rape aren't mutually exclusive options.

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A team of undergraduate students at North Carolina State University has developed a novel solution to helping women avoid "date rape" drugs like Rohypnol (aka "roofies") and Gamma-Hydroxybutric acid (GHB): nail polish that changes colors when it comes into contact with these substances. "Our goal is to invent technologies that empower women to protect themselves from this heinous and quietly pervasive crime," the creators of "Undercover Colors" polish wrote in their winning submission to the school's Entrepreneurship Initiative competition—hardly the words of people promoting sexual assault, would you say? 

Yet bunches of high-profile, liberal feminists* saw things otherwise. Maya Dusenbury at the blog Feministing starts with a good point—that drugs like Rohypnol, Xanax, and GHB are not used to facilitate rape as commonly as we might imagine, and it's important not to give people false impressions of when and how assaults take place. But to Dusenbury, that makes preventative efforts aimed at less-common circumstances somehow suspect: 

Are you at all worried that by overstating the prevalence of date rape drugs, your product might give its users, who are no less likely to become victims of other kinds of sexual assault, a false sense of security? And given that your product only addresses a relatively tiny subsection of the sexual violence in this country, do you have any plans to donate your profits to help protect the remainder of the 18 percent? 

Yes, her complaint actually seems to be that the nail polish creators are only helping prevent some rapes and not all rapes. Meanwhile, Salon assistant editor Jenny Kutner is skeptical of the polish and yet still distraught that it will be sold and not magically subsidized and distributed freely:

… there's room for skepticism about a rape prevention method that aims to deter assaults through more fear and stigma — albeit stigma attached to committing sexual assault, not to surviving it — instead of through education. And, beyond that, tools like Undercover Colors raise questions about the cost of profiting from rape prevention: Is this really a market we should continue to applaud entrepreneurs' (notably male ones) tapping into? Or might these resources be better allocated trying to teach people not to rape?

At The Guardian Jessica Valenti asserts that "anything that puts the onus on women to 'discreetly' keep from being raped misses the point. We should be trying to stop rape, not just individually avoid it." Here's Jezebel writer Lindy West:

Here's Elizabeth Plank, a senior editor at millennial news site Mic

And Rebecca Nagle, co-director of the group FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, told Think Progress:

One of the ways that rape is used as a tool to control people is by limiting their behavior. 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.

At the crux of most of these complaints is the axiom that we should teach men not to rape instead of teaching women not to be raped. And that's an important message! Too much cultural focus for too long has been on how a women's own conduct contributed or may contribute to her assault, in a way that winds up absolving assailants of culpability.

But teaching men not to rape and helping women avoid rape aren't mutually exclusive options. It's been said so many times already so as to be a cliche, but no one accuses security cameras of encouraging "theft culture". And neither do most people blame theft victims for getting robbed just because they didn't have security cameras. This sort of surveillance is simply an extra precaution that some homeowners and businesses take, particularly if circumstances (living in a wealthy neighborhood that's often targeted, living in a high-crime neighborhood, etc.) suggest a higher likelihood of their property being robbed.

Similarly, I find it hard to believe the mere existence of discreet date-rape detection tools would lead to the belief that anyone not employing them deserves being drugged. No one's gonna start expecting all women to start slathering this stuff on all the time. But someone who frequents crowded clubs, or a college student going to a keg party, or someone on a first date may find that taking this added precaution seems worthwhile. Are we supposed to prefer they get drugged and assaulted while we're waiting for a perfect, rape-free culture? As writer and activist Maggie McNeill commented on Twitter, I'm skeptical about "solutions" to crimes & social problems "that require establishing a Utopia first."

* Really want to stress that these criticisms are coming from mainstream liberal feminists because I've seen plenty of other feminist-minded women, from libertarians and conservatives to rad-fems and writers at popular women's publications, mentioning the nail polish approvingly.