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Is nail polish that detects date-rape drugs actually a bad idea?

Published August 28, 2014 4:06 pm

Advocacy groups • Some say the product would lead to more victim-blaming.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Four North Carolina State University students have created a nail polish that they say can indicate date-rape drugs by changing colors when dipped into a spiked drink.

The four men — Tyler Confrey-Maloney, Stephen Gray, Ankesh Madan and Tasso Von Windheim — say the polish will detect date-rape drugs such as Rohypnol, Xanax and GHB. They entered it into the school's Lulu eGames competition, sponsored by Lulu.com and NCSU's Entrepreneurship Initiative that challenges students to develop solutions to real-world problems.

"With our nail polish, any woman will be empowered to discreetly ensure her safety by simply stirring her drink with her finger. If her nail polish changes color, she'll know that something is wrong," they wrote on their Facebook page, where they're also soliciting funds to turn their prototype into a retail reality.

The product is called Undercover Colors, and its slogan is "The First Company Empowering Women to Prevent Sexual Assault."

Holly Mullen, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake City, lauded the four men for coming up with a product that is making people address rape and treating it seriously. She said she believes the product seems promising.

"There's enough date-rape drug out there," Mullen said, "that if a woman is going out to a bar or party with some friends, if the nail polish is out there on the market, they should take advantage of it."

Mullen said she didn't realize how prevalent the problem was until she began working with rape victims and discovered that many women were drugged and then sexually assaulted.

Many date-rape drugs are difficult to detect because they leave the system quickly. A 2007 Utah rape study found that 2.3 percent of women who were raped were given drugs or alcohol without their knowledge or against their will.

The Beehive State ranks 19th in the nation for reported forcible rapes, making it the only Utah crime that ranks higher than the national average, according to "Utah's Sexual Violence Primary Prevention Plan, 2010-2017." The report notes that more than 7 percent of adult Utahns have been sexual assault victims in their lifetimes, and nearly 12 percent of students in ninth through 12th grade were forced to have sex against their will.

Mullen argues multiple approaches are needed to change rape culture, and products like this nail polish are simply one approach.

"You don't come at these solutions with one solution or one answer," she said. "You work on this one, and let's continue to focus on who causes rapes — rapists — and we talk about respecting boundaries and consent. But you don't approach this from five, six, seven or 10 ways, you look at all angles."

There has been pushback, however, from several other rape-prevention advocacy groups, saying the nail polish will lead to more victim-blaming.

Rebecca Nagle, co-director of a group based in Baltimore called FORCE, told The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., that the polish makes it the victim's responsibility to detect the drug.

"Yes, we need to take steps toward ending rape and preventing rape, and it's really not the responsibility of people who might be raped to do that. It's actually the responsibility of two groups of people," she said. "One is the perpetrators. People need to stop raping people. And then it's also the responsibility of communities and our country."

Katie Russell of Rape Crisis England & Wales told Newsweek her charity won't be endorsing the product.

"Whilst Undercover Color's initiative is well meaning, on the whole," she said, "Rape Crisis does not endorse or promote such a product or anything similar. This is for three reasons: It implies that it's the woman's fault and assumes responsibility on her behalf, and detracts from the real issues that arise from sexual violence.

"For us, we work with victims to make them realize that they did nothing wrong," she added. "Among primary cases, some do ask if they could have done anything to stop it. Products like this suggest otherwise. The emphasis must be placed 100 percent on the perpetrator."

The Undercover Colors' Facebook page says that the product is designed to make rapists realize they won't get away with committing the crime.

"Through this nail polish and similar technologies, we hope to make potential perpetrators afraid to spike a woman's drink because there's now a risk that they can get caught," it states. "In effect, we want to shift the fear from the victims to the perpetrators."

The page has been inundated with comments, many asking when the product will be available for purchase.

The four inventors posted Tuesday they were grateful for the support and feedback.

"We are not the only ones working to stop this crime. 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," they posted, pointing readers to RAINN, Men Can Stop Rape and InterAct.

smcfarland@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sheena5427