Anti-rape nail polish: The ideal rape culture accessory?

This morning, while wasting time on twitter, I came across the following tweet:

Anti-date rape nail polish! It changes colour if your acquaintance has slipped something dodgy into your drink! So a bit like those Hello Colour bath time toys you might remember from childhood, only way more sinister!

I look at this and I wonder, what is really being achieved? First we had anti-rape underwear, then hairy leg stockings, now rape drug detector nail polish (also available as drinking straws and cocktail stirrers!). You start to get the feeling that rape isn’t an act that rapists choose to commit, but an inevitability for which all women should prepare, like bad weather or traffic jams. You wouldn’t leave the house without an umbrella, so why leave the house without your anti-rape clothes on? Embrace your role as “potential rape victim”! Once you’ve come to terms with the fact that to some men, that’s all you’ll ever be, life gets a whole lot easier, right? I’m not convinced.

Contrary to what many “it’s all just common sense” commentators believe, women and girls do not grow up ignorant of the threat of rape and sexual assault. We know. It scares us. And yet, foolish creatures that we are, we still dare to open our front doors, leave the house, walk the streets, interact with others, all the time knowing that we are penetrable! What are we thinking of? It’s almost as though we’re human beings, not just walking orifices. The knowledge that we are culturally defined as rape-able – and that were we to be raped, others might blame us for it – never leaves us. We assert ourselves in spite of this, bowing our heads, avoiding eye contact, never quite walking with the same confidence and swagger as young men do, but walking all the same. Because we’re people, too, and that’s one thing rape culture tries hard to erase.

What does it mean to ask a woman to accessorise in response to the threat of rape? It will not keep her safe; the vast majority of rapes are committed by people known to the victim and do not involve the use of Rohypnol or similar drugs. It will, however, contribute to a culture in which the idea of rape is normalised; it just happens. This is precisely the kind of culture in which rape flourishes. As Jill Filipovic notes, ”cultural opposition to rape myths makes men less likely to commit assault, and acceptance of those myths makes sexual assault more likely”:

In social groups where there is wide acceptance of rape myths […] rape proclivity is higher. When men internalize rape myths, they are more likely to commit rape or see rape as more acceptable. When men perceive these rape myths as being widely-accepted social norms, their rape proclivity increases. When men believe their peers are using coercion to “get” sex, those men are more likely to engage in the same behaviors. But when men see that rape myths were challenged or not accepted, their rape proclivity decreases.

Anti-rape nail polish tells men “other men are doing this – whereas you, with your pushing and shoving and guilt-tripping and mild coercion, you’re not so bad”. It tells men it’s the law of the jungle; be a nice guy – of course you’re a nice guy – but it’s up to a woman to arm herself.

When feminists talk about teaching consent this is often ridiculed. Rapists gonna rape, right? But it isn’t that straightforward. Right now young men are developing appalling attitudes towards women’s bodies and consent. This week The Independent reported on a study showing a “climate of coercion” regarding anal sex between young people:

It found that some young people normalised “coercive, painful and unsafe anal sex”, in an issue that needs to be addressed by health workers and schools in sex education.[…] “Even in otherwise seemingly communicative and caring partnerships, some men seemed to push to have anal sex with their reluctant partner despite believing it likely to hurt her […] Persuasion of women was a feature to a greater or lesser degree of most men’s and women’s narratives about anal sex events, with repeated, emphatic requests from men commonly mentioned.

Another piece revealed that more than 300 rapes have been reported in British schools in the past three years. Such things do not just “happen”. They take place within a context of women being seen as less than human, and one in which female sexual agency is utterly disregarded.

Of course, the teaching of consent has to extend beyond discussions of sex itself. It’s not simply a matter of what goes in where when. It’s about looking at someone and having the basic knowledge that this is another human being, with her own feelings, desires and boundaries. The truth is, we’re not hot on female agency outside of the bedroom. Women are still expected to talk less than men, take up less space than men, step back from positions of authority and always put themselves second. It takes very little for a woman to be considered to have overstepped the mark. You only have to look at responses to women on social media – the horror men have of opinionated women, their fear of women who talk to each other and not about men, the desire to vilify and silence women who don’t acquiesce – to see that a woman who is not merely a penetrable hole, receptive to the greater wisdom and desires of males, is an aberration. In some ways I think this rape culture is merely an extension of this.

I won’t be wearing anti-rape nail polish myself. My nails are too bitten, I don’t go out much anyhow and above all, I’m sure I spend enough time responding, in some unspoken, subconscious way, to the threat of rape. It is a culture I know but it is not one I accept. I still demand the right to simply say no.