Students develop nail polish to detect date-rape drugs

When’s the last time you got a manicure that could also prevent date rape?  The likely answer is never.

But four college students claim they’ve come up with a way to do just that.

Undergraduate students at North Carolina State University – Ankesh Madan, Stephen Grey, Tasso Von Windheim and Tyler Confrey-Maloney – created a nail polish called “Undercover Colors” that changes color in the presence of common date rape drugs like Rohypnol, Xanax, and GHB (Gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid).

To see if one of the drugs has been slipped into her drink, a woman has to stir it with her finger. Not exactly discreet (or good manners, or very hygienic), but arguably more stylish than similar inventions, like these coasters, cups and straws, that do the same thing.

“We wanted to focus on preventive solutions, especially those that could be integrated into products that women already use,” Madan told Higher Education Works in June. “All of us have been close to someone who has been through the terrible experience [of date rape], and we began to focus on finding a way to help prevent the crime.”

Critics says the clever concept and good intentions don’t add up to a product that actually empowers women.

The blog Feministing pointed out that date rape drugs “are not used to facilitate sexual assault all that often. While exact estimates vary, it’s safe to say that plain old alcohol is the substance most commonly used in drug-facilitated rape.”

“Well-intentioned products like anti-rape nail polish can actually end up fueling victim blaming,” wrote Tara Culp-Ressler of Think Progress. “Any college students who don’t use the special polish could open themselves up to criticism for failing to do everything in their power to prevent rape.”

The nail polish is yet another item to add to a growing list of gimmicky-seeming precautions that includes anti-rape underwear and pepper spray cameras which do little more than “delude” women into believing they’re safe from sexual violence, Feministing observed.

Another problem with the polish is that it distracts from real solutions to the problem. “I think a lot of the time we get focused on these new products because they’re innovative and they’re interesting, and it’s really cool that they figured out how to create nail polish that does this. But at the end of the day, are you having those tough conversations with students, and particularly men, who are at risk for committing sexual assault?” Tracey Vitchers, the board chair for Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER), told ThinkProgress. “Are you talking to young men about the importance of respecting other people’s boundaries and understanding what it means to obtain consent?”

Writing for Salon, Jenny Kutner questioned whether profits should be reaped from rape prevention. “Is this really a market we should continue to applaud entrepreneurs’ (notably male ones) tapping into? Or might these resources be better allocated trying to teach people not to rape?”

Still, others are enthusiastic about the idea. Earlier this year the four materials science and engineering majors won first place and took home $11,250 at NC State’s Lulu eGames, a student competition that which challenges students to design working solutions to real-world problems.  They also scored $100,000 from an investor who saw their product demo at the K50 Startup Showcase.

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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