Feminist September: The Ethics Of… Anti Date-Rape Nailpolish

What a difference a week makes. This time last week before The Fappening made me a title offer too good to refuse, I was well underway with an article about a new wonder product – a nail polish which, when dipped into a drink, would change colour if it had been spiked.

At the time this innovation was being heralded as a wonderful new tool for women everywhere to avoid date rape, taking the guesswork out of the situation, and importantly giving the victim’s friends a clear signal that something was wrong (apparently a friend passing out isn’t enough for some).

One week later it not only turns out that the product fails to screen for some of the most common date rape drugs, but often fails even when the ones it is looking for are used, as well as returns a bunch of false positives which are bound to cause some serious trouble. Furthermore, a bit of research shows that the use of date rape drugs, such as ‘roofies’ and other medications, is actually very rare – after all, why bother with risky and illegal concoctions when alcohol does the job just fine?

All in all it’s just as well that I didn’t write about this last week, otherwise I’d be doing one hell of a correction job right now (thanks for nothing, science).

But ultimately the effectiveness of this nail polish doesn’t matter, because one thing it was extremely successful in doing was starting a MASSIVE storm of criticism in feminist circles – not about the effectiveness of the product, but rather about whether it was even a good idea in the first place.

Now on the surface this criticism seems insane. These guys have invented a product intended to help women protect themselves… and you think that’s a bad thing?

wut-1010I will take literally any excuse to use this photo.

But dig a bit deeper and you can start to see the point these critics were making; why is it that every time we talk about rape, it’s always about what the victim can/should/didn’t do about it? Why is it that we’re so keen to give women tools to protect themselves (including, believe it or not, stun-gun underwear), but don’t seem very interested in talking about the culture that creates rapists in the first place? Why is it that unlike virtually every other crime out there, victims of sexual assault are the ones expected to do something about it, rather than society make any serious effort to solve the problem – imagine a government that responded to a wave of arson attacks by advising people to stop building their houses out of wood.

In summary, why are we so very keen to blame the victim?

rapey

Unsurprisingly this criticism was in turn met with its own wave of counter-criticism;

ROnwn

Social Justice Warriors’ (not a compliment) and ‘professional victims’ were two terms that came up a lot (along with several others that I’d rather not repeat), but the entire attitude to the feminist critiques is best summed up in this quote by some random forum poster:

Also, we discourage the use of seatbelts, since it implies that all car accidents are the driver’s fault.

Are you seriously arguing that women shouldn’t take every opportunity to protect themselves? Do you seriously think that people who rape don’t know what they are doing is wrong? You can teach don’t rape all you want buddy, there will always be psychos and scumbags out there who will ignore you and do whatever they can get away with. Opposing this product because it ‘encourages rape culture’ is not just untrue, it perpetuates the problem by denying women the means to protect themselves and encouraging them not to take at least some responsibility for their own safety.

And so on and so forth.

So who’s right here? It’s bloody hard to say. Both sides have some good points and counter-points; it’s true that the nail polish doesn’t even attempt to deal with the underlying problem; but then (had it worked) it’s also true that it would have been a useful tool for women’s protection. It’s true that by placing responsibility on women the nail polish continues a disturbing trend to focus on the victims of sexual assault; but it’s also true that focussing on what potential/likely victims can do to protect themselves will help them stay safe.

It’s a tough conundrum that doesn’t appear to have an easy answer – that is until you realise that we’re having two completely separate conversations.

Practically the entire debate around this issue has gotten hung up on how the nail polish and other self-defence options for women interact with the culture that makes rape possible in the first place. The simple answer is that it doesn’t: these are two separate issues that should be addressed accordingly.

It is entirely true that ‘rape culture’ is a problem in many places/communities. This does not mean that rape is encouraged but rather that the topic is generally avoided, with any incidents hushed up so that they don’t upset people – all of which can very easily lead to the understanding that it doesn’t matter if sex crimes happen, so long as we don’t hear about it.

In extreme cases of this culture, you end up something like the Steubenville High School rape case, where after two rapists were convicted after being captured committing an attack on film and celebrating it on social media, their town rallied behind the attackers and hounded the victim’s family until they moved out of the area. Why? Because the boys were really good football players and the incident might ruin their careers.

The popular rallying cry of feminists, ‘Teach men not to rape’ is often taken too literally; what is needed is not the stupidly obvious lesson that raping someone is bad, but rather ongoing education in all communities about what consent is, how to deal with uncertainty, and how to respond to an incident if it does occur. This is less about dealing with rapists themselves and more about removing the factors that create the mindset that rationalises sexual assault in the first place, and justifies it after it occurs.

THAT SAID

It is ALSO true that encouraging potential victims to protect themselves is a good idea. Yes, rape culture exists and yes it should receive the vast majority of our attention if we want to do something meaningful about sex crimes. But as with changing any culture, this is a very long and very complicated process – considering the vast majority of social progress has only happened in the last 50-100 years of human history, we’re already moving remarkably fast as it is.

In the meantime, the threat of sexual assault is very real and not going away any time soon. As such, taking precautions to protect yourself, proportionate to the likelihood of the risk, is just a sensible thing to do. Whether that involves staying with people you trust, drinking less, avoiding risky locations, learning self-defence or using a newfangled nail polish (that actually works), the principle stands – the risk exists, and you are managing that risk.

Yes, it is possible that some people will use these self-defence options as ways of blaming victims (“why wasn’t she wearing the nail polish? You can get it for like $5! Sounds like a case of next-morning regret if you ask me”) but here’s the thing; people like that will blame the victim anyway, regardless of any precautions taken. If they can’t use the nail polish to do so, they’ll say the victim was too drunk, put themselves in a dangerous situation, or should have taken a male friend along – whatever justifies their comfortable world view that ‘rape isn’t really a problem’ will be happily adopted.

Getting annoyed by sincere attempts to help victims protect themselves from attack, on the basis that it’s missing the bigger picture, is just shooting yourself in the foot. Yeah you may well be right that it’s a lot of attention on a relatively small benefit, and that is definitely frustrating when we’d rather ignore the 100kg cultural gorilla in the corner, but getting angry about it is not going to help.

Mixed-messages and apparent hypocrisy are issues feminism suffers from a lot, largely because the movement spans such a massively wide range of topics. But nothing hobbles a movement more than infighting, and when people concerned with one aspect of preventing rape get stuck into other people concerned with another, different aspect of preventing rape, the only people that win are the ones that would like us all to shut up.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s