Study self-defence. Wear anti-rape underwear. Don’t walk alone. Stick to lighted areas. Don’t wear a skirt/dress/tank top. Don’t drink. We can now add “paint your nails” to the list of recent rape prevention advice given to women. The message, in all cases, is that women are responsible for their own safety. Andrea Grimes, a Senior Political Reporter at RH Reality Check, pointed out the irony of the invention on Twitter: “Rape prevention nail polish sounds like a great idea but I’m not sure how you’re going to get men to wear it.”
It is being called “rape prevention nail polish” and “anti-rape nail polish”, but these sensational names are not accurate. It changes colour to indicate the presence of common date rape drugs. But, what does this entail on a practical level? In order for it to work, women have to dip their fingers in their drinks. Before going out, will I stop by the salon and ask for an “anti-rape manicure”?
Will I then go to parties and dip my fingers in my drinks and those of my friends? Aside from the fact that this is not a realistic model of behaviour, the assumption here goes beyond the idea that a woman must protect herself. The four male university students who invented the nail polish are selling it as a “preventative measure”. This forms part of a larger cultural misinformation campaign that permeates discussions of rape. In fact, the nail polish has little relation to the reality of rape.
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Let’s get into the facts, which should be a part of comprehensive and required sex education programmes. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, approximately 2/3 of rapes are committed by attackers who know their victims. We should stop promoting the idea of the random rape, which plays into the ethos that women should modify their behaviour at all times just in case a rapist is around.
Rape is about relationships and power, it is about educating men and women about boundaries, respect, and equality. On a cultural level, both men and women tend to blame women for rape. An analysis of public anti-rape campaigns in various reveals this bias.
A nationwide rape awareness campaign in England that appeared various times throughout the 2000s featured a photo of a woman passed out on the floor and warned, “One in three reported rapes happens when the victim has been drinking.” Where was the campaign with a photo of a rapist stating “One in three rapists is a husband, boyfriend, or significant other of the victim?”
The focus is always on randomising rape, on making women feel unsafe in public space, on controlling our behaviour. The statistics point to a much more sinister and mundane reality.
In response to rising sexual violence in Juarez, Mexico in the 1990s, mayor Ramon Galindo started a publicity campaign in the local newspapers El Diario and Norte. The campaign gave women advice about how to prevent rape: “Carry a whistle. Do not dress provocatively. When you leave home, let everyone know where you are going and when you will be returning. If you are attacked, do not yell ‘Help.’ Instead yell, ‘Fire’ so more people will pay attention to your cry. Help us by taking care of yourself.” When it comes to rape, the trend toward victim blaming is evident in many recent high profile rape cases.
Earlier this year, Indian politician Asha Mirje, said that women were “responsible to an extent” for rape and advised them to think about their “clothing and behaviour.” In 2013, CNN anchor Poppy Harlow, who was covering the Stubenville rape trial, described the rapists as, “two young men – who had such promising futures, star football players, very good students – literally watched as they believed their life fell apart.”
Media coverage of rape shows how we as a society consistently empathise with the perpetrator. Even when we think we are providing the victim with tools, we are often sending women the message that they must protect themselves.
Anti-rape nail polish is the perfect media sound bite, and it is representative of media and cultural responses to rape that hold women responsible for their own safety. In 2011, New York Times reporter McKinley Jr, described an 11-year-old victim of a gang rape stating that, “she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s.
She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.” It is time to admit that women cannot dress their way out of rape. They cannot prevent rape by painting their nails. When a woman is raped, in addition to asking what she was wearing, will we now ask why she wasn’t wearing anti-rape nail polish?
Alice Driver is a writer who explores issues of gender, women’s rights, and human rights with a focus on Mexico.
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