Four enterprising young men from the engineering program at North Carolina State University have been garnering plenty of attention in these past few weeks. Stephen Gray, Ankesh Madan, Tyler Confrey-Maloney and Tasso von Windheim comprise the team behind Undercover Colors, a nail polish product that will be able to chemically detect the presence of date rape drugs.
Their goal, as stated on the team’s Facebook page, is to “invent technologies that empower women to protect themselves from this heinous and quietly pervasive crime.”
However, what seems to be a praiseworthy effort has instead been met by a confounding amount of sensationalized and non sequitur criticism from certain factions of the press.
The main argument against Undercover Colors is summed up by this perplexing statement from Sophia Kerby’s blog post in Huffington Post Women: “While well-intentioned, products like Undercover Colors actually perpetuate rape culture by placing the burden of safety back onto women. Let’s stop getting distracted by gimmicks like this and talk about real solutions to the growing violence against women.”
So a device that can warn me about a potentially dangerous situation burdens me? An effort to scare off the use of rape drugs perpetuates rape culture? A productive and impactful application of chemical engineering is a “gimmick?” And somehow the invention of these products directly prevents “real solutions to growing violence women?”
Unfortunately, Kerby’s piece failed to articulate the logic behind that claim and leaves my questions unanswered.
The knee-jerk leap these writers take in linking such self-defense mechanisms to victim blaming is as presumptuous as it is unrealistic. In other situations, it is rare that the existence of self-defense mechanisms will undermine the victim’s case. In street robberies and assault cases, the police never question why the victims weren’t carrying a gun.
Along the same vein, I find it hard to imagine a police officer or lawyer questioning why a rape victim wasn’t wearing her handy-dandy Undercover Colors nail polish at the time of the crime.
While I’m perfectly aware that many rape victims have been, unfortunately, grilled with unwarranted and irrelevant questions about their clothing choice or their consumption of alcohol, I have not yet heard of a single case in which a rape victim was accused of not carrying self-defense tools.
Self-defense mechanisms are different because they are not rooted in societal expectations, and as common sense dictates that most victims of crimes are taken by surprise, law enforcement could hardly chastise victims for not being prepared with nail polish or pepper spray.
We can’t look at self-defense mechanisms with the automatic assumption that they will be added onto the laundry list of “what women are supposed to do.” Rather, they are devices that can provide women a better sense of security and give them a little more control in a situation that is otherwise out of their hands.
The existence of self-defense measures shouldn’t be seen as a reason to increase the responsibility of the victim, and I think the large majority of the public would agree. It’s sad that arguments against victim blaming have leaked into such a positive dialogue started by the Undercover Colors team.
I should clarify that I am a feminist, one who believes in the social, economic and political equality of opportunity for both genders. I believe in cooperation, respect and mutual support between the sexes. Victim blaming is unjust and insensitive, but the arguments against it need to be separated from those concerning self-defense mechanisms.
As a fellow student and scientist, I deeply admire the simple yet effective work of these engineers. They are not touting their product as an ultimate solution to rape culture, but their efforts also go beyond simply creating an emergency preventative measure.
By actively trying to thwart the use of rape drugs, they’re adding to the dialogue that’s denouncing rape on college campuses. They are making a clear statement to their peers across the country that these crimes are unacceptable and that wrongdoers employing these drugs will soon be caught red-handed (figuratively and literally). To me, that sounds like a pretty good example of how men are stepping up with us to combat this societal problem.
Jackie Yang is a freshman majoring in neuroscience.