Some days I think I’m such a bad feminist that someone’s going to knock on the door and ask me to turn in my membership card.*
Today is definitely one of those days, because I am rather out of step with the wave of outrage against the new roofie-detecting nail polish that’s been all over the news.
Before I prove all the ways I am limited as a feminist, I do want to acknowledge the ways that I share many of the concerns I’ve seen expressed in the media blitz about “Undercover Colors.” ThinkProgress quotes Tracey Vitchers of Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER): “I think we need to think critically about why we keep placing the responsibility for preventing sexual assault on young women.” Damn straight. Some day soon I might just tell the story about the time I nearly lost my shit at Elizabeth Vargas and tried to take exactly that ideological stand (alas, in a woefully inarticulate, limited, and ultimately ineffective, way).
The ThinkProgress article goes on to talk about the kinds of efforts they (and their interviewees) would recommend be publicly highlighted:
So, rather than targeting efforts at helping women identify roofies in their drinks, it would likely be more effective to focus on larger efforts to tackle the cultural assumptions at the root of the campus sexual assault crisis, like the idea that it’s okay to take advantage of people when they’re drunk. There’s a lot of student-led activism on college campuses around these themes, as well as some college administrations agreeing to implement more comprehensive consent education and bystander intervention training programs. The advocates who spoke to ThinkProgress said they wish more of those campaigns would start making headlines.
Again, I’m in agreement. I even think Jessica Valenti of The Guardian (or her editors) pretty much hit the nail on the head when she/they titled her article on this topic: Why is it easier to invent anti-rape nail polish than to find a way to stop rapists?
So I agree that there are huge problematics with rape culture — the victim-blaming, the way women are expected to carry the responsibility for “rape prevention,” the way those two things fuel a world in which women’s freedoms are endlessly constrained. And I think the media firestorm around this “life-saving nail polish”** is hugely symptomatic of rape culture, and adds to the ongoing perpetuation of same.
And yet. (Here’s where I’m about to lose my feminist credentials.)***
I don’t really have that much of a problem with the product itself. Because when I think about the primary objections I’ve seen voiced against the product as its own thing, they don’t entirely ring true for my understanding of the world.
1. This product will create more victim-blaming. Is that even possible? When I look around me, it seems like victim-blaming is already up to 11. Yeah, I’m sure that this nail polish will be added as a new flavor to the victim-blaming soup but it doesn’t sense to me like it would actually, objectively increase the quantity of victim-blaming or the likelihood that victim-blaming will occur. ‘Cos, as far as I can tell, the unfortunate truth is that you’ll be blamed for whatever you do or don’t do — if you didn’t wear this nail polish, you’ll be blamed for that, but if you were to wear it, you’d still be blamed just as strongly, only for some other bullshit excuse.
2. It’s wrong for a team of college men to be profiting (or trying to profit) off a crime predominantly commuted against women. I’m not really loving the fact that the R&D team for this is all guys. Still, this line of reasoning feels uncomfortably reductive to me: casting all men into the mold of sexual predator — which is similarly problematic to the societal mythology that casts all women into the mold of sexual object.
Besides, the company founders are hitting a lot of good notes in their public statements. From the Facebook page:
We are taking just one angle among many to combat this problem. Organizations across the country need your support in raising awareness, fundraising, and education. Among the ones we recommend are:
Please consider following these campaigns and finding new ways to fight this crime in your communities around the world.
And, yes, it’s possible these words are insincere and manipulative. It’s also possible they’re completely sincere, and I want to give these guys the benefit of the doubt until I see more definitive evidence that they’re being unethically opportunistic.
3. This product will create a false sense of security (in this big unsafe predator-filled world), and also at the same time Women shouldn’t have to police their behavior or work so hard to protect themselves (the world should be a safer place). I’ve grouped these last two together, because I’ve been so deeply fascinated by the ways they’re often invoked together despite their contradictory undertones.
Part of the “false sense of security” narrative is based in the statistical reality that only about 2.4% of campus rapes are suspected to be linked to roofies or other such substances. As such, someone electing to use that product may feel like they’re protecting themselves from danger when in actuality they might have made themselves less aware and more careless about all the real dangers that are out there in the world.
[SIDEBAR] I am very curious to see if that statistical fact — only 2.4% of sexual assaults involve roofies — is the thing that finally tanks the business model for Undercover Colors. I’m not convinced there’s that much of a market here. But I still don’t think it’s wrong for anyone to be exploring that question. It’s the circle of product development: prototype something to see if it can be created, then do further market research to see if there’s enough of a desire for that newly-created thing to warrant further development and scaling up. [/SIDEBAR]
And, somehow, simultaneous with the reasoning that this product is a Bad Thing because it won’t guard against the real dangers out there, stands also the reasoning that it is a Bad Thing because it’s not fair that women need to put in the extra effort to negotiate an unsafe world. Which brings me back to Valenti:
As former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir said after a cabinet member suggested that women be given a curfew to curb a spate of sexual assaults: “But it’s the men who are attacking the women. If there’s to be a curfew, let the men stay home, not the women.”
And to ThinkProgress, quoting Rebecca Nagle, co-director of the activist group FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture:
“The problem isn’t that women don’t know when there are roofies in their drink; the problem is people putting roofies in their drink in the first place.”
And, quite honestly, this brings me back to a place of partial agreement. Because, yes, I believe — I know — that the ultimate necessity here is to dismantle rape culture, to stop rapists from raping, all of that. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the patriarchy needs to die in a fire, like now.
Except “like now” isn’t really how it’s gonna go. Cultural transformation takes time, and until we’re on the other side of that transition, I can’t help but have empathy and compassion for anyone choosing to use whatever techniques they choose to feel a little bit safer and (in a statistical “playing the odds” kind of way) maybe even to be a little bit safer.
And yes, it sucks that those sorts of calculations can so strongly restrict women’s freedom. And we should live in a world where freedoms aren’t restricted like that. But we’re not there yet.
I kept an army knife in my bedroom for a number of years in Philly. Would it have been potentially useful if I’d been attacked? Perhaps. Was it a foolproof method of self-defense? No way. Would I have been “to blame” for being attacked if that knife wasn’t effective self-defense? No fucking way. Was it symptomatic of our fucked-up rape culture that I felt the need to have this knife? Absolutely. Was it an expression of personal weakness that I wanted that object to help me feel/be safer? I’m betting yes.
Do I blame myself, current and past, for making that adaptive choice to help myself get through the days, and to achieve some level of freedom from hyper-vigilant insomnia during the nights? Not on your life.
And as with my old army knife, so with someone else’s chemically reactive nail polish.
* I’m not giving back my free toaster, though…
** Don’t you just love marketing hyperbole?!?
*** Though, hey! I’m still thinking through all these different threads of meaning and feeling. It’s possible I’m onto some level of personal truth. It’s possible I’m talking out of my ass. I’ma just keeping on writing and watching, and I’ll see if I refine this line of thinking or if my ongoing study leads me to a different place, when all is said and done.
Image credit: “nailpolish” by rainbow-colour, shareable via a Creative Commons License (retrieved from http://rainbow-colour.deviantart.com/art/nailpolish-73597318 )