I hate to discourage young people trying to do good in the world, but when I read about the date-rape-drug–detecting nail polish created by four North Carolina State engineering students—for which they've won an $11,000 prize and a $100,000 investment—all I could think was, “For Pete’s sake, make it stop.”
It’s nice that these young men want to use their talents in service of women’s safety, but there’s already a company working on cups and straws that detect the presence of drugs like Rohypnol, GHB, and Ketamine. There’s also one selling coasters that do the same. Beyond that, there’s the old-fashioned self-defense trio of bartenders, friends, and common sense, which, working together, can help most women ensure that their drinks never get spiked.
It’s not difficult to ensure, in fact, because few rapists actually bother with what we think of as “date rape drugs.” Why would they, when they can just use alcohol itself to render victims simultaneously more vulnerable and less credible?
It’s telling that Mickey-detecting products continue to proliferate and attract prizes and funding, despite how relatively rare spiked drinks are. The combination of a drug earmarked for sexual assault and a simple test to demonstrate it’s been used is irresistible to a society that abhors rapists—just as long as there’s incontrovertible proof of their intent to rape.
If the only evidence is a woman’s testimony that she didn’t want a given sex act forced upon her, however, we generally give rapists the benefit of the doubt. If an alleged victim’s system is full of alcohol, or a combination of booze and other depressants that people more commonly take on purpose, we tut-tut about her poor judgment and—if we believe she’s telling the truth about being raped, which is by no means a given—lament that it harms her case. If she doesn’t go to the hospital soon enough to have her blood tested for drugs, we wonder just how traumatized she could have been. Wouldn’t you rush to seek medical attention, if you’d really been raped? Wouldn’t you have cuts and bruises from fighting him off? Wouldn’t you immediately demand that a nurse comb your pubic hair while a strange detective questions you, lest anyone suspect you of wanting it?
And if not, how could you expect to be believed?
“Date rape drugs” take away all of that uncertainty. They provide the hard evidence, so often lacking, that a man had rape on his mind, and worked to ensure his victim’s inability to consent. They allow us to conceive of rapists as recognizable, Snidely Whiplash–style villains, so we never have to consider that they might be our local and national football heroes, our police officers, our doctors, our dentists, our beloved television personalities, our teachers, our clergy, our neighbors, or our classmates. The bad guy slips something into a drink, the good girl sticks her finger in it until it changes color, and presto, you’ve got an airtight case! Of someone spiking a drink, anyway.
Perhaps our hypothetical rapist would be arrested, tried, and convicted for that, but more likely, he’d just move on to another victim, either banking on her not wearing the right kind of nail polish or eschewing the roofie altogether. That’s the problem with focusing all of our attention on how women can prevent our own rapes: While we’re each individually focused on our self-defense moves and chastity panties and alcohol consumption and high-tech nail polish and reputations for sexual prudence, we can’t also protect all the other women—and men, and children—who remain vulnerable to rapists.
All these clever products do is reinforce a terribly bleak message: Somebody’s going to get raped. If you work hard at making sure it isn’t you, maybe it won’t be.
“But we have to tell women to protect themselves!” say the mighty defenders of the status quo, every time. “The criminals don’t listen!”
This is untrue. Snidely Whiplash doesn’t listen, because he’s a fictional character, but real rapists are listening to the people around them all the time. They hear that women are bitches and sluts and objects; that women who drink or dress a certain way “deserve whatever they get”; that guys who “don’t need to rape anyone” to get laid couldn’t possibly force a woman. They hear victims called “accusers” and hear everyone question the “accuser’s” account of what happened, as though she herself has been accused of a crime.
Criminals hear that all women have rape fantasies, and that most will make up stories about rape for the flimsiest of reasons—to avoid anyone finding out they had consensual sex, or to punish a man for not calling, say—even though the actual incidence of false reporting is between 2 and 8 percent, similar to other crimes. They hear that there’s no way to know who’s telling the truth in a “he said/she said” situation, and if you can’t prove a man guilty, then he’s innocent.
They hear about their peers being accused of rape and still allowed to graduate from college, while the alleged victims drop out of school. They hear that most rapes are never reported, and of those, very few are prosecuted. About those, they usually hear “not guilty.”
Criminals do listen to what we, as a society, tell them—and what we tell rapists, time and again, is that we don’t take their crime seriously, so they can probably get away with it. If other young men out there earnestly want to prevent rape, they’d be better off talking to their peers about consent, calling out other guys who dehumanize women, and intervening when they see something that makes them uncomfortable. Unfortunately, there’s no prize money for being an engaged and compassionate person. Maybe if there were, we’d have a society where a woman could order a beer in public without feeling the need to perform a chemistry experiment for her own safety.