Advocacy - Policy - Research

Why “Rape-Prevention” Gimmicks Contribute To Rape Culture

We live in an age of innovation and creativity. There seems to be no limit to human imagination, and four students from North Carolina State University, have proved this to be true, by inventing “Undercover Colors,” a nail polish that, when applied, will change colour if it is dipped in a drink which has been laced with date-rape drugs such as Rohypnol, Xanax and GHB (Gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid). These are drugs that are commonly used by rapists on their victims.

All any girl has to do at a party is make sure she is wearing her metal underwear with the key hidden somewhere secret, make sure her pepper spray is in her purse, check her rape whistle, finalize her outfit making sure that she isn’t wearing clothes that invite rape, and use Undercover Color nail polish; this way, if someone puts drugs in her drink (alcoholic or otherwise!) she can just “discreetly” dip her finger into her glass to see if her nails change colour. And if she fails to use her ‘rape-preventing’ nail polish, who’s to blame if she gets drugged and raped?

There is considerable outrage against the fact that feminists do not seem enthusiastic about the rape-preventing nail polish. An acquaintance retorted to me, “Feminists. They don’t know what they want.” It does sound quite irrational, that there is a new invention, created by four bright young men to help women, to help protect women, to help women stop rape, to help women feel safe. So why are feminists complaining about it when women’s rights is what they talk about?

Let’s go back on that sentence a little bit. To help “protect” women. To help women “stop rape.” To help women “feel safe.” If one doesn’t understand the rhetoric behind such statements, then they lack the required understanding of rape culture; what it is, how it exists, why it exists, and how it can be dismantled. (Read Bolo Bhi’s two-part blog on rape culture in a Pakistani context here and here.)

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Rape culture is why these nail polishes have not been met with enthusiasm, unless it is enthusiastic dissent. Rape does not exist or happen in a vacuum. The four men behind this idea were college-students who, to quote an interview with the team itself in Higher Education Works, “All of us have been close to someone who has been through the terrible experience, and we began to focus on finding a way to help prevent the crime.” Rape in colleges and universities in America has reached a tipping point, and activists and students have spoken out against the issue, blaming universities for dealing poorly with campus rapes. Students like the team of Undercover Color have responded in various ways, actively joining the fight against rape. The only problem with Undercover Color is that they are basing their product on the idea of “preventing” rape. This is much like how I, along with my father, go to the hospital every year before winter to get a flu shot, since we have allergies and are prone to falling sick easily. Our allergies are an unfortunate side-effect of genes, environment,  etc. and are an actual illness that have no permanent solution, and require constant vigilance on our part.

Rape is not an inevitable fact of life that can or will happen to you at any point in time

Rape is not an illness. Rape does not require constant vigilance. Rape does not require you to modify your life or behavior in any way. Rape is not an inevitable fact of life that can or will happen to you at any point in time, and thus is something you should be prepared for at all times. If you disagree with any of these statements, you are automatically perpetuating rape culture; the idea that rape a) is inevitable, b) requires women to prevent it (thereby implying that failure to effectively “prevent” rape doesn’t make you a victim, but rather a perpetrator in the violation of your own body!) c) cannot be fought or ended in any way.

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The problem isn’t with the four well-meaning, and quite intelligent young men decided to do a good thing and try to help out women. By focusing blame on these four young men, we are deflecting from the real issue, which is the lack of awareness or understanding about rape culture. Consider the language used on their official Facebook: “In the U.S., 18% of women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. That’s almost one out of every five women in our country. They are our daughters, they are our girlfriends, and they are our friends.” This sort of reductive reasoning has long been criticized by feminists, because it is a patriarchal notion to talk about protecting “your” women, the women around you, those immediately present in your life. This mindset is especially more obvious in South Asian countries like Pakistan, where the culture is rigidly patriarchal and violence against women is rationalized away under the guise of traditions. This violent patriarchy means that women are treated as property by fathers, brothers, and husbands, and henceforth mistreated and subjected to cruelty. So to perpetuate the idea that anti-women acts should be abstained from because “they’re someone’s sisters, wives, mothers,” is an enforcement of the proprietary ownership of women by men- she’s been claimed by a male owner, so back off and find someone without a father, husband, brother, etc.

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For Undercover Color, indulging in such language doesn’t make them any less brilliant or compassionate. And yes, in a time when rape is a problem even in countries where there is more legislation against it, the ability to understand that sexual assault is a problem that needs to be tackled is an act of compassion. As long as people compare the occurrence of rape with metaphors of unlocked bicycles getting stolen due to the owner’s carelessness, such insight will continue to be compassionate, rather than a logical conclusion that is ingrained in human consciousness. The problem is with a society where rape culture is not seen to be a real problem, rather than something confined to feminist circles. Therefore, rape is simply viewed as a crime that can be prevented just like you lock your door to keep from being robbed, secure in the knowledge that if someone somehow breaks down your door and robs you, you still did your best to “prevent” it. To reiterate for the third time, rape does not exist in a vacuum. It exists because there is a culture of impunity that accepts rape as an inevitable fact of life, lays the onus on women to protect themselves, engages in cultural misogyny that demeans and dehumanizes women, and does not enforce harsher punishments on rapists.

Chloe Hamilton puts it succinctly in writing for The Independent, “Suggesting rape is inevitable and women should be armed to the teeth just in case it happens to them is dangerous, and doesn’t tackle the root of the problem. It’s the equivalent of sticking a plaster over a septic wound. It might stem the bleeding, but it won’t cure the infection.” Rebecca Nagle, co-director of an activist group called FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture lashes out while speaking to Think Progress against this same concept of prevention, “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.”

Moreover, in a world that is increasingly capitalist, where that same capitalism perpetuates patriarchy ensuring the systematic oppression of women, it is incredibly dangerous to let rape become another profiting model for business. There should be no focus on preventing rape through new gimmicks because rape is a horrific traumatic event that stays with the survivor forever, not an opportune moment for cashing in on an idea. Maya Dusenbury, executive director of Feministing criticized the idea of profiting from rape from a business perspective, as well as asking a lot of hard questions including the most important, “If your product becomes popular, won’t drink-spikers just learn to target the drinks of nail polish-free women? Will you have a clear polish to avoid this problem?” And here we have another problem with these supposed “preventions” against rape; if one woman wears jeans and doesn’t get raped because her bare legs didn’t excite a man to animal-like arousal, (never mind the fact that rape is never about sexual desire and always about power and control) the blame automatically shifts to the rape survivor who was at a nightclub or a frat party, wearing a skirt. We’ve seen this happen in Pakistan as well. A woman was raped in Karachi in 2011, and rather than sympathizing with the survivor, aspects of her personal life were used to justify her rape, such as the fact that she allegedly lived with a male room-mate, and had been at a late-night party. This continued to the extent that she was labeled a prostitute, because of course sex workers exist to be dehumanized so it doesn’t matter if they are raped!

(See Sana Saleem’s blog criticizing the victim-blaming media and politicians here)

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I prevent my own rape so that men don't have to be responsible, or think of women as anything other than sexual objects!

Undercover Colors

We don’t need rape prevention. We need to work towards ending the idea that rape is inevitable. We need to work towards harsher punishments for rapists to help shatter the culture of impunity that makes rape an acceptable idea in a rapist’s mind. We need to specially educate young men about rape, because they will often stand by and watch, or simply help friends lie because of problematic “bro culture.” We don’t need to attack those well-meaning young men. We need to actively engage with them to show them why their good intentions are translating into negativity, so they can learn and find more productive ways to fight rape and rape culture, because it seems obvious that these are well-meaning young men genuinely wanting to end campus rape. We can count at least eleven ways to end rape that are better than victim-blaming gimmicks, and the list can’t stop there. But it is imperative to not fall sway to these gimmicks, and remember that a woman is not responsible for her rape, or for preventing her own rape.

Rape does not exist or happen in a vacuum.
Research Associate (Gender & Tech) at Bolo Bhi
Ghausia Rashid Salam manages Gender & Tech initiatives at Bolo Bhi. She is in charge of conducting digital security trainings, and is also Chief Storyteller at Stories Beyond Borders, where she heads the HERstory series. She has previously worked at The Missing Slate as an Articles Editor, and has written for The Missing Slate, Newsline, and The News on Sunday. She also moonlights at Pakistan Feminist Watch as an assistant to the editors. She is an intersectional feminist, a writer, a recovering caffeine junkie, and a control freak.

She can be on Twitter @Ghausia and reached via email: ghausia@bolobhi.org

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