Unfortunately, This Magical Anti-Rape Nail Polish Won’t Save Us

Four chemistry students are creating nail polish that changes colors when exposed to drugs often used in sexual assaults such as GHB, Xanax and Rohypnol. The idea behind Undercover Colors, they say, is to create an easy to use product to combat drug-facilitated sexual assault against women.

It sounds so logical, so simple. Their intentions seem good — they say they thought of the project because they all know someone who has been sexually assaulted. They’ve received heaps of praise (Buzzfeed called the product “lifesaving”) plus a $100,000 grant from an investor and $11,250 from the Entrepreneurship Initiative at their university, North Carolina State.

As a science fair project, it’s impressive. But it falls short as a meaningful tool to protect women from rape.

The four men behind Undercover Colors.

The four men behind Undercover Colors.

Depending on which statistics you look at, 18 to 25% of women experience sexual assault in their lifetimes. That number goes up for college-aged women. But in a survey of 5,466 undergraduate women, only 2.3 percent believed or were sure they had been given drugs without their consent before they were assaulted. So, the number of women whose rape or assault might be prevented by such technology is quite small compared to the overall number of women who are attacked.

That percentage breaks down even further when you consider other factors, like that the vast majority of women who are sexually assaulted know their attacker. Women are unlikely to go around sticking their fingers into every drink they receive from a cousin, a partner or a friend — nor should we expect that succumbing to that level of paranoia is a reasonable expectation of women if they don’t want to be sexually assaulted. This technology also wouldn’t help most masculine of center women, most men, or people like me who pick their nail polish off within 24 hours of putting it on.

Katrina Stephens is a 24-year-old sexual assault and domestic violence advocate in Seattle Washington (she’s also a lifelong friend of mine). A few years ago, her friend sexually assaulted her after putting GHB in her cup of water.

“It never even crossed my mind that there could have been an issue,” Stephens said. “If I had happened to be wearing the nail polish, it wouldn’t have prevented anything.”

Let’s play out the scenario for the one in millions chance that someone in the presence of someone who wants to assault her is wearing the nail polish, coyly gets her finger into the drink, and spots the color change. Then what? How does it end? If this person is willing to go to such lengths to harm her, they won’t be phased by her setting her drink down. So let’s say she gets away or finds help. Does she call the police to report the activity of her fingernails? What happens when the next person this predator wants to harm opts for her favorite OPI shade that weekend?

How does it end?

It doesn’t; not with nail polish, anyway. Instead, this nail polish created by four young men who have daughters, girlfriends and friends to think about (so they say on their Facebook page) is another in a long line of products designed to help women prevent their own rapes. Last year, uncuttable, magical locking shorts were all over social media. There are cups and straws that are also designed to change colors to detect drugs. There’s Rape Axe, an insertable spiked contraption that locks onto a penis upon insertion that will supposedly speed attacker identification when he has to go to the hospital to get it removed — let’s note that for this tool to be effective the attacker must complete the rape first. There are whistles and pepper spray, both of which I’ve carried because they make me feel a modicum of security.

AR Wear, a special pant designed to prevent sexual assault, was all over the news last year.

AR Wear, a special pant designed to prevent sexual assault, was all over the news last year.

There is a line between sensible precaution and allowing fear to control my life. It doesn’t feel safe or empowering to imagine a scenario where I’m getting flawless on Friday night and deciding “I better paint on an extra coat, bring it, ya bastards.” If even one woman evades sexual assault because she put on this nail polish, then I will give these dudes a virtual high five, and I certainly don’t blame any woman who uses it or otherwise goes to great lengths to protect herself from risk. But this product does nothing to dismantle a culture of violence against women that demands we constantly become ever more vigilant against those who would do us harm. Undercover Colors, like so many other products, treats rape as an individual incident rather than a systemic and pervasive problem. Despite the never ending stream of prevention products, the statistics haven’t improved.

Instead, the products perpetuate victim blaming by making it easier for others to turn to the victims of assault and ask “Well [product] exists; why didn’t you use it to prevent this from happening?” On their Facebook page, the creators say they “hope to make potential perpetrators afraid to spike a woman’s drink because there’s now a risk that they can get caught.” What about making potential perpetrators afraid to rape a woman because when she tells someone about it, they’ll believe her and seek justice? What about creating cultural shifts so that people don’t become violent assailants at all? Date rape drugs are just a tool, and if would-be rapists find it to be a less effective one, they’ll find another. The issue isn’t date rape drugs; the issue is rape culture.

As Know Your IX founder Alexandra Brodsky said to Think Progress, “One of the reason we get so excited about these really simple fixes is because it makes us feel like the problem itself is really simple. That’s a comforting idea. But I really wish that people were funneling all of this ingenuity and funding and interest into new ways to stop people from perpetrating violence, as opposed to trying to personally avoid it so that the predator in the bar rapes someone else.”

If comments on the group’s Facebook page are any indication, donations to aid in the development of this project are rolling in. Meanwhile, in a 2013 survey of rape crisis centers across the U.S., 75% reported a drop in funding, and more than half reported staffing reductions to conserve costs. Stephens, who has worked at four sexual assault and domestic violence shelters and for the National Dating Abuse Helpline, says there are never enough resources for the programs to be as effective as their communities need. And even organizations with highly successful prevention curriculums were unable to prioritize those, she said.

“They are so focused on doing the best they can with what they’ve got,” she said. “They’ve got to be able to help people now, and they can’t begin to think about longterm solutions.”

I don’t want to begrudge these young men their creativity and success — except that prevention and crisis programs are facing local, state and federal funding cuts and a drop in donations while money for their drug-detection paint rolls in. Local, education-centric programs are our best hope for seriously reducing incidents of sexual and other forms of violence. At Vassar college, three students created a bystander intervention program called We Are Here that aims to be intersectional and complicate understandings of what violence looks like. Shivani Dave, one of the creators, said one of the goals is for students to understand all the ways violence can be perpetrated, from the use of slurs and stereotypes to murder, rape and assault, so they can intervene when they see violence and avoid committing violence themselves.

“When we don’t intervene and take responsibility for the language and the jokes and the stereotypes, we’re not taking responsibility for the physical violence that happens as a result,” Dave said.

The curriculum is highly specific to Vassar’s campus but can hopefully be adapted to any community, she said. She and co-writers Emma Redden and Sofie Cardinal got some funding from Vassar for the project and hope that with more work it can make a difference on campus and perhaps beyond. But, Dave added, “When you do this work you have to find ways to stop thinking about violence. If I am checking my nail polish every time someone brings me a drink, that’s not making me feel safe. That’s telling me to be a better woman and not get raped.”

via Men Can Stop Rape

via Men Can Stop Rape

I am thankful that more men are becoming allies to sexual assault victims and potential victims. Some efforts, like educational and advocacy program Men Can Stop Rape, focus on deconstructing tropes around masculinity and empowering men to identify and speak out against violence. In contrast, Undercover Colors ignores so many realities — the limited number of rapes that involve date rape drugs, the even smaller number of women who might be in a position to test for such drugs, and the very large number of women who are raped by someone they would never suspect of harming them. What if they had combined their chemistry powers to develop a more efficient and effective rape kit or to create awareness around misogyny and violence against women in the sciences? Instead, we have another product that reminds women we are in constant danger and should do everything in our power to mitigate threats. But hey, at least we can look pretty while we do it.

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Audrey is a Texan living in Managua, Nicaragua. She loves journalism, country dancing and talking to strangers. Follow her on Twitter @audreywhitetx.

Audrey has written 47 articles for us.

65 Comments

  1. Thumb up 11

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    You are so spot on with this. I work at a domestic and sexual violence advocacy organization (what a mouthful) and I get so frustrated by these sorts of things because they ignore the real problems. One of which is that alcohol (without drugs in it) is used more than any drug to facilitate rape, so focusing on the drugs is not going to stop anything. (I’m not saying that women shouldn’t drink or that they are responsible, just that perpetrators will purposefully get victims drunk in order to assault them).

    I also get frustrated by funding going to projects like this, while there are crisis organizations struggling to make ends meet. In Vermont this year a big chunk of state funding was cut from all of the DV/SV organizations.

    My program might have to let myself and one of my coworkers go (thus cutting our staff almost in half) because we don’t have the funding. If that happens it will make it extremely difficult to serve the victims and survivors in our county, but by all means send money to these guys so they can keep making nail polish.

  2. Thumb up 4

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    I think everything in this article is spot on except… can we stop demonizing these guys? Between this article and Feministing… JESUS CHRIST. Guys are trying to be engaged in a conversation about sexual assault, and all we can do is shoot them down and criticize them?! Maybe these guys aren’t good at intervention, education, or the million other things that are probably better at responding to the problem of rape. Maybe all they can do, as engineers, is to create a technology that might help a woman feel like she has more control of her body.

    My friend was roofied last weekend by the freaking BARTENDER. Yes, it’s terrible that as a woman I feel so much fear and pressure to be hyper-vigilant to not walk home alone, to not accept drinks from strangers, to not leave a drink unattended – now I can’t even trust bartenders?!

    By the way, I volunteer at a rape victim advocacy program at my college, and unfortunately, no matter how many times I educate other people or help survivors, it does not change the fact that I cannot control the actions of other people. Yes, we need a conversation about rape culture. I hope that we can eventually use these guys’ story as a springboard for talking about sexual assault in a more effective way without throwing them under the bus for even trying. But until then, I will put my nail polish-covered nail into every drink I’m holding. I *already* live in fear – nail polish is not adding to that.

    And that’s my opinion. Feel free to disagree. I just needed to get that off my chest.

    • Thumb up 2

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      I completely agree. I posted a link to the jezebel article on this because
      – I know LOTS of people who have had their drinks spiked
      – many of them don’t know who did it
      – but viable contenders were friends or the bartender
      Thus I think this is a great product for DRUG DETECTION because drink spiking is not always about rape.
      And I had someone shoot me down so hard I felt personally attacked and very upset.
      I think, for anyone who has had a drink spiked and been robbed, gotten lost, been I’ll, been hospitalized, regardless of gender, this product could make a lot of people feel safer.

    • Thumb up 13

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      I feel like she was actually pretty fair to them. Their hearts are in the right place, right, and if this product does prevent a woman from being assaulted, that’s a great point in their karma bucket. Criticizing their reach isn’t a criticism of them, it’s a part of the conversation, educating some well-meaning male students (and hopefully future innovators they may inspire) about how rape culture actually works. Maybe this nail-polish if the first step in what will become a much more impactful career; but it wouldn’t be, if we didn’t point out the little good it does, and the great good that could be done. Plus, it seems to me the majority of coverage is not attacking them, but lauding them, and as people who are used to having their voices overwhelmed by an ill-informed majority, we know that can be a serious harm.

      I hugely appreciate and admire the work you do, and the fact that you can use their story as a springboard contributes to a larger body of good that this can do. But I think there is a very important point to be made that gadgets and accessories and whatever else are not the most effective thing we could be doing, here, and diverting funds can actually make it a harm.

      It’s like fighting a full-scale war and giving all the funds to some dudes with slingshots. It’s not that those guys aren’t great, and ~maybe~ even kind of useful, but putting the majority of your resources into them is simply, strategically inadvisable. Pointing out that that’s not how war works is not demonizing the sling-shotters, it’s guiding them into the possibility of doing something more useful.

      I kind of feel like this was maybe a stupid metaphor, especially since I’m a pacifist, but you get it.

      Plus, if a dude is put off from helping prevent assault by some criticism, he would probably not have been a great help in the first place.

      ~not here to assuage some male egos so they might possibly give a tiny fuck about women who live in fear~

  3. Thumb up 0

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    There’s been a lot of conversation about how the date rape drug isn’t really a thing anymore– except it totally is. Several clubs in my area have had to post warnings about being vigilant of your drinks, & instances in my community have made me super wary of ever leaving my beer unattended.

    But can we please stop with the victim-blaming? & teach our young folks how to respect boundaries & about all the shades of consent instead of delegating safety & anti-rape tactics to those who are the most at risk for assault? kthanx

  4. Thumb up 14

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    Why doesn’t anyone ever turn their invention into a thing that helps someone other than the women at risk prevent rape? Say that these guys found a compound that changes color upon contact with Xanax, GHB or Rohypnol. What about incorporating it into the glass itself, making it show up as a cross, a skull or something else when the drink has been spiked?

    But I suppose then the bars and clubs would have to actually order special glasses and be bothered about the risk of women getting drugged. And we can’t put the responsibility on anyone else but women, right? *sigh*

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      That is actually a very good point, and maybe someone should bring up with the inventors. However, by the sounds of things this maybe a one time use thing, until reapplied, and in some cases it wouldn’t work because someone is drinking beer straight from the bottle or a can.

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      Date rape drug detecting glasses and straws also exist: http://drinksavvy.com/ (“While we know this solution to end DFSA is long overdue, we are still developing our product for commercial release and will have them available ASAP!”)

      I like the idea of bars having a full set of this kind of glassware more than women being expected to stick their finger into every drink they ever get.

      • Thumb up 4

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        Ok thinking through the economics of this more-

        Instead of rapists goes to rape another girl who doesn’t have that kind of nail polish, it’s rapists go to a bar which doesn’t have that kind of glassware. But I imagine a bar would advertise getting that kind of glassware and so more women would go to that bar (bringing with them more straight men who are interested in women and interested in not being perceived to be rapists.) This would make the other bars in the area want to get the glassware to get more customers and avoid being the “date rape bar” (unless they’re terrible and date rapists themselves and then hopefully they will go out of business.)

        The downside of this is the class thing- would only more expensive bars be able to do this? Would this turn into a situation where more expensive bars become safer while cheaper bars (attended by college students, less well off folks) become more dangerous?

        (But yes, spot on article, Autostraddle!)

  5. Thumb up 1

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    Thanks to Autostraddle for a spot-on critique of the latest in gimmick-based rape prevention. Your appreciation of local, education-centric programs gave me a smile, as I’m part of a hardy band of activists who lead experiential trainings in empowerment self-defense. Some of the criteria you named are our bedrock: intersectional, complex understanding of the entire spectrum of gender-based violence,trauma-informed, firm stance against victim blaming, to name a few. Since we’ve been doing this work for decades, we fancy ourselves experts, and hope that those designing new programs (like the women at Vassar) will reach out to us and not reinvent any unnecessary wheel parts. Here’s one place to learn more: http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/07/self-defense-blame-victims/

  6. Thumb up 3

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    (I’m going to just throw out there before I start: I’m an outsider and clearly not part of your community, so feel free to ignore everything I’m about to write – this is your community and I’m just a, hopefully fairly well-mannered, guest).

    There seems to be an implicit assumption in this story and the comments that rape prevention is a zero sum game, that attention on something like this pulls attention away from other potential solutions.

    And maybe that’s true, in the most limited sense, for funding. It is also true that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is pulling money away from rape prevention. Via moral licensing studies, we know that for every $1 they bring, something like 50 cents is money that would have gone to another charity. And yet this article isn’t about how those damn ALS kids are stealing money from rape prevention.

    This two steps forward, one step back in funding certainly isn’t true for attention. There is great research that shows that because of the tendency of journalists to cross-post and cross-link, every story about a subject makes it more likely that another story will be written about a different angle on the same subject. This anti-rape story will beget other anti-rape stories, unless there are so many anti-rape stories that we refuse to read about it anymore.

    But it is the last statement that Raquel made in her comment that I actually react most strongly against (and I think the undercurrent is in the article).

    Male advocacy IS fragile. Do I wish it wasn’t? Of course. I wish that all men felt like it was easy to stand up and do something about gender inequity. Selfishly, as the dude who stands up a lot, I wouldn’t mind some company.

    But because we don’t yet live in that world, I think we need to be selective and attentive with our criticism. Think about this: four young men spent some serious time thinking about preventing rape and other people thought it was worthwhile enough that they won a competition. Did they get the right answer? Hell no. In the same way that many of the inane things I’ve seen come out of hackathons to combat poverty are ridiculously impractical. And yes, that sometimes gets my goat too.

    But people didn’t get excited about this because it was simple; they got excited because it was technical and right now, we’re in a world of technofetishim. Being a geek is cool. Geeky solutions to things are cool.

    And fifty years ago, no group of young men would have even considered this problem as one worth solving, let alone would have bet their one shot at real money on it. The Buzzfeed article even called out that this shouldn’t be used for victim blaming. And why did the young men do it? Because all four of them knew victims of sexual assault.

    You don’t need my permission not to congratulate them or to be mad; I actually think that women have lots of really good reasons to be mad (how about gender pay equity? We didn’t build GetRaised.com for no reason). But if you care about fighting rape, please at least take a step back and think about the outcome of your actions, comments, and articles. What is more likely to end rape: pointing out all the ways in which four young men didn’t do it right or congratulating them and then furthering the conversation? Because the evidence shows us that constructive conversation does make this go farther. It shows us that it does increase funding and research and action. By congratulating these four young men on taking a stand against a real problem, we get a chance to talk about why it is a real problem and what other things could be done. Like the rape kit. Like smart interventions. Like smart prevention.

    And in a very real way, saying “men who get turned off by a little criticism wouldn’t have been helpful” is incredibly damaging. Is that we react when young women receive very subtle criticisms that cause them to steer away from STEM fields?

    You totally have the right to be mad – but think about what it costs to exercise that right. And if you still come out wanting to write articles and take shots at these guys, I promise to shutup and let you take the stage. But at least worth thinking about.

    • Thumb up 8

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      sorry if I am cranky but

      she literally did congratulate them and then further the conversation

      like, what, congrats for not being shitty misogynists like your grandparents? pat on the back, dudes.

      if I knew someone who had been assaulted and wanted to help, I would want to help many times, and in the best way possible. I would take criticisms like this with gratitude.

      but ok sorry she didn’t include enough laudations in the article because these poor boys are not getting praised for this anywhere else and without it, why, they’d just give up the thought of helping women! we can’t have that! like we can’t talk about important things for stopping rape without complimenting dudes the whole time? is that the password so we can be listened to or something?

      and also, women getting criticized out of STEM fields is a hegemonic, structural issue. not the same. get out of here with your condescending “just consider this wonderfully measured male point of view so we can do the most good” self-contradictory crap.

      • Thumb up 1

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        Actually, she literally didn’t. She said they did a nice science project but that they actively made things worse for women. She sort of suggested at the end that maybe male allies were awesome, but not specifically these male allies, because their idea clearly made women feel worse rather than better.

        Literally.

        I actually do know plenty of assault victims and as you said, I’d like to help them as many times as possible and in the best way possible. And I’d want their feedback on how to do that. But I’d be sad if they judged me when, as an imperfect person, I didn’t support them in the best possible way. Either because of my own ignorance on the topic or my hegemonic blinders or the fact that people are imperfect supporters of each other. I’d want their encouragement to try again, better.

        The point isn’t that she didn’t laud them. The point is that she says what they did is actively hurtful and making things worse for women. She makes several specific points about how they do that (well, really only three: funding, taking attention away from other programs, and making women feel more scared) and I tried to address those with as much factual data as possible, from actual psych research. Those damn facts, they’re just so condescending.

        Just because I’m part of the white male power group doesn’t mean I don’t have something to add to the conversation, any more than your being part not part of that group invalidates your contributions. The password to being listened to depends on the person, but in your own comment, you made it clear that my gender is part of the password for you. Would you have felt differently about my comment if I wasn’t male? Would you feel differently, would this article ever have been written, if this had been four women who created it?

        Critiquing men who try to help is a hegemonic, structural issue. In the same way that white police made sure that blacks attacked Asians in the LA race riots, the hegemony loves it when feminist women attack male allies for offering imperfect support. Why? Because it keeps them in power.

        And hey, I validated your right to be fucking pissed off; I’m a man who isn’t directly effected by lots of gender equity issues, but they still fucking piss me off. Want to write them a note asking them to use some of the money they collect to make rape kits cheaper to analyze? I’ll sign it. And like most these issues, I’m happy to put money behind it as well.

        But it better be a nice fucking letter. Why? Because these guys did something pretty damn decent that, speaking as a dude, isn’t always easy to do. Hell, I didn’t have to comment here – I wouldn’t have to have anybody tell me to get out and call me condescending. But I did. And I’m glad I did.

        You don’t have to be glad. *grins*

          • Thumb up 0

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            Great, so be an ally to male allies and listen to what I’m trying to tell you. *grins* Because if you want more of them, and I think we all do, then what I’m telling you is valuable.

            Nobody wants to tackle problems and then get shot down for it. So if you want anybody to tackle these problems, male or female, constructive rather than destructive if you please.

          • Thumb up 4

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            “If you’re not as nice to us as we want you to be we won’t help prevent sexual violence,” is a threat, not the statement of an ally whose priority is to prevent sexual violence.

            It’s really tough work being an ally. One is often wrong, and often gets called out on it. I’ve been called out for being a bad ally to trans people, for being a bad ally to people of color, for being a bad ally to people from other classes, for being a bad ally to people with disabilities. And each time, I try to learn about how I can be a better ally, because my priority is standing in solidarity with others and helping improve the world. My priority is not being praised for doing a half-assed job of helping others.

            Do you think that people on AS have never done the tough work of learning how to be allies to others? We understand how tough it is to hear that good intentions aren’t enough. And we expect that male allies are strong enough, dedicated enough, and bold enough to learn and do the work that they need to do to become better allies. After all, we are able to do it and we absolutely don’t think that men are lesser human beings than women and non-binary people.

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            I don’t think we’re wildly far off in that we both think that helping people grow is a good thing. The difference is how we think one should go about doing that. This article? Not it. Really not it. Constructive critique that praises what they’ve done so far and helps them see how to make it better? Hell yes.

            It may just be the teacher and psychologist in me, but I’m having a hard time seeing where people are objecting to taking an approach that actually facilitates learning. It isn’t a threat, it is simply a reality and probably most non-cognitive: dragging out the women in STEM example again, you wouldn’t say it was a threat when I suggest that we encourage young women by saying “yes and…” instead of “no because”, so why would this be any different?

          • Thumb up 5

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            I’m sorry that you don’t think male allies are able to grow through the kinds of conversations that routinely help people on Autostraddle grow as allies. We have these conversations all the time, and I see many white people, cis people, monosexual people, etc., learning how to become better allies from this kind of frank and respectful dialogue. Personally, I am confident that male allies are capable of such growth as well.

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            Ooph. Got to love any sentence that starts “I’m sorry that you…” *grins*

            As I’ve repeated over and over again, I do think male advocates are capable of growth. I should know: I am one and I have and do grow. I also think there are ways that help folks grow better and this is a little nudge in that direction. I think this article and much of the commentary here is actually tonally different then much of the site, or at least as much as I’ve been able to stuff into my brain in the last 24 hours or so.

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            I don’t always, but I tend to towards advocate for two reasons.

            One, it sounds less passive to me. Allies are folks who stand up when a war happens; advocates are out there fucking shit up. And as a guy who spends a bunch of time actively working on these issues, I’d rather be doing the active version.

            Two, and this is silly, but people started introducing me as a “mally” (male ally) at talks. And I just fucking hate that term. First, it sounds evil (because of the latin “mal) and second, what? Mally? *falls over*

          • Thumb up 3

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            “Mally” is terrible, I’m with you there. Like man-purse, “mail polish” etc., it’s ridiculous and offensive.

            However, I was wondering about your use of words because I see your use of the word “advocate” as symptomatic of the problem with your general approach to this issue. An ally helps those who are directly affected by a problem, listens to them, and takes their agenda as hir own. An advocate decides what the agenda should be, even when (as in this case) those who are directly affected and directly involved feel that a different approach is required.

            I’m not interested in pursuing conversation with someone who wants to decide the agenda and educate women, survivors, non-binary people, and allies on how to talk about rape culture. Best wishes with your equal-pay work, and I hope that you consider some of the things that have been said in this thread if you ever decide that you are interested in working on being an ally.

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            I’m not offended by it. I just feel like an idiot whenever someone uses it.

            Maybe we simply have different agendas. If the agenda is “how to talk about rape culture”, I’m trying to suggest how to talk about ending rape culture in a way that encourages men to participate in the ending of rape culture. Why? Because I think getting men to take action on ending rape culture is the best possible way to end rape culture, since mostly men are doing the raping (and the rape blaming and etc etc).

            And I’ve talked to a lot of men who have trouble becoming good advocate/allies. And almost all of them who have tried to help and quite have cited some version of getting attacked for being imperfect supporters. So in trying to caution against that here, guess I’m a good ally for male allies, at least.

            Maybe your agenda is about “how to talk about rape culture” for a completely different purpose. And that’s a good thing: we need people working on every facet of the problem. Just trying to draw a little attention to when your, and the author’s, agendas make mine more difficult. Which you’re not obligated to care about.

    • Thumb up 4

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      “Is that we react when young women receive very subtle criticisms that cause them to steer away from STEM fields?”

      Ahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha, subtle criticisms. Yes. Yes, that is the reason why women are forced out of STEM careers. Subtle. Criticisms. Because sexual harassment, abuse, lower pay, and death/rape threats are all subtle criticisms.

      Sir, you were so close to having me sympathize with your argument, but alas, you missed it by just a subtle amount.

      • Thumb up 1

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        Sorry, I wasn’t in any way trying to suggest that’s the only reason women get pushed out of STEM. But lots of things you’re talking about happen long after girls decide to hate science because of precisely the kind of “oh that’s cute but you’re not doing it right” tone in this article.

        Thanks for the reading rec; I actually read the primary source on this as part of some other stuff I’m doing right now, but always good to hear triangulated opinions.

        And just to clarify, I’m a dude in a STEM field who works damn hard on gender equity issues, spends a bunch of money each year to keep GetRaised.com running as a free resource and to fund a bunch of women (and men) to go to GHC, and am a support for a bunch of the women who face the exact things you’re talking about. There is always more I could be doing and I’m certainly imperfect in my support, but like these guys, I’m on the right side of the (very fuzzy) line and fighting hard to pull more men over to this side.

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          Good. I applaud your efforts to be an ally and to be supportive. Recognize, though, that belittling or dismissing the very problems you advocate against is not constructive, and building straw arguments out of experiences you can never claim will only reflect badly on your presentation.

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        Sorry, how do you feel that I am belittling or dismissing any problems here? I’m missing that piece.

        Indeed, I’m far from belittling the impact of critique on motivation: my entire point is that these sorts of critiques do great harm by discouraging people. Whether it is girls and STEM, or guys and male advocacy, my point is that the things we say about their efforts have very real effects on what they choose to pursue.

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      There is a very big difference between “you can’t do this because of your gender”/ structural sexism, and the criticism of this product which is that while well intentioned, it is unlikely to help (or at least help many) and that it doesn’t address the underlying problems with rape culture. There is no assumption that rape prevention is not a good idea- in fact programs that are more likely to be helpful and are run by men are helpful are mentioned. There is an explanation of why the author believes that *this project specifically* is not going to be helpful. Also, if you’re only an ally as long as people agree with everything you say and like everything you do, you are a shit ally.

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        First, the author isn’t saying “it won’t help”. The author is specifically saying “things like this hurt” – they pull funding, they pull attention, and they make women feel afraid. That’s a very different argument then “here are some ways you could become an EVEN BETTER male advocate” and it happens to be one that I disagree with. I’ve even noted the research that supports that efforts like this are actually helpful.

        Second, I’m here. Talking about this in a place where I am very likely to be disagreed with, sometimes in less-than-perfectly-respectful ways. So clearly I’m going to keep being a male advocate, despite the commentary here.

        But when you say “you’re only an X as long as you’re supported”, that’s where I go back to the STEM point. If you change X to “female scientist”, it shows just how destructive those kinds of statements are. As I said earlier, male advocacy is still in its infancy and is incredibly fragile, in the same way that women in science was at one point very fragile. Critique is great, when people are ready for it, but speaking from experience, let’s try nurturing this spark a bit before we critique it. And when we do critique it, let’s say “that was awesome, you could make it even better by XYZ” instead of “everything you did, though well intentioned, is going to make the problem worse”, especially when that simply isn’t true.

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          Laura: see my original comment and follow up – I specifically call out the right to be pissed and even noted that gender inequity in general pisses me off. So much so that I’ve spent a lot of money and time working on the problem.

          That doesn’t mean that anger is helpful in all situations and this happens to be one. Because yes, women (and men) do need to be careful and nurturing in how they support male advocates. Because at the moment, they’re pretty rare, and just like we celebrate Anita Borg and Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace in tech, we have a lot more to gain by celebrating these guys than we do by taking potshots at them because they were less than perfect in their solution. Suggesting that what they did is actively harmful is a) untrue (which I offered actual scientific evidence for) and b) going to create less male advocates in the future.

          So I guess you get the choice: be pissed and get less male advocates, or give constructive critique and get more?

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          It’s a problem that you think the kind of pushback men get for being feminists is equivalent to the kind of pressures that keep women from going into STEM. Especially when you identify the “oppressors” of male allies as women and feminists who speak up and expect more. It’s also a problem that you think that women who propose similar “solutions” to rape wouldn’t be criticized. I have frequently been part of discussions in which women and self-identified feminists got very similar criticisms of their well-intentioned efforts. If one’s intentions are good, getting feedback about how one’s actions are problematic is helpful, and women give that kind of feedback to women all the time.

          As you say, you’re new to this community, and you don’t know the kinds of discussions that take place here. But being called out for doing something harmful even though one had the best intentions happens all the time, to men, women, and non-binary people, and if male allies can’t take that kind of criticism, they aren’t the kind of allies they thought they were.

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            You’re flattening a lot of nuance in that first sentence: as I’ve repeatedly clarified, comparing one of the many barriers that women face in STEM to a barrier men face in male advocacy does not mean it is the only barrier women face in STEM (or the only barrier men face in male advocacy).

            I don’t think it is a problem to call out that the gender of the inventors (and my gender as a male commenter here) affect the responses we receive. Nobody here is gender blind, and we should all acknowledge our biases.

            Getting constructive feedback is helpful. Neither this is article, nor many of the comments, fall into that category. And to suggest, as you and others have done, that “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” will result only in a bunch of potential male advocates getting out of the kitchen. Which has been my repeated point: you get to choose here between expressed anger and destructive criticism versus having more male advocates.

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            Do I understand there are differences between those two things? Of course. Do I think there are commonalities around how critique is used to discourage people in both contexts? Of course.

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          I think that in this debate, like in most issues discussed between two groups with a power differential, the underlying problem is a lack of good-faith listening.

          These young men recognized a problem and worked toward a solution without adequate input from less-empowered people dealing with the issue. It should not be a surprise then, that their solution is not universally recognized as useful. Just as it is unwise for companies to disregard customer feedback, it is unwise for allies of a disempowered group to get defensive and ignore feedback when they attempt to help.

          If you’re trying to help a group of people, or be their ally, the first step is educating yourself on their needs, and directly engaging with them.

          Gay people are not children. Women are not children. People of color are not children. These groups recognize the problems that they are facing. They know what needs to be changed. What allies should do is leverage their own power to help implement the change that these groups ask for.

          And comparing these engineers to female pioneers in computer science is absurd. Those women are not famous for being women, they are famous for what they accomplished. I’m sure there are some women in STEM who do mediocre or poor work. No one lauds their crappy work because it was done by a woman in a field that is tough on women. I would think that male allies would find it insulting to be lauded just for being men, when they’re producing mediocre results.

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            I very much agree on the listening point. Which is why I’m having such a hard time with the fact that folks can’t quite seem to get the difference between constructive feedback and what is occurring here.

            Hence the thought experiment: pretend that this was four young women and instead of rape, they developed an imperfect solution to another problem. Would we be OK with men writing articles like the one featured here, in which their work was ridiculed as a cute science project but fundamentally bad because it pulled funding/attention away from the issue and made people feel more scared?

            I’m very much for talking to women about the issues they face; we did hundreds of hours of in-person interviews with HR folks and women and scientist and all sorts of folks before we even laid the first line of code for GetRaised.com. But the question isn’t whether the guys did the perfect thing here – it is whether, faced with imperfection, we give constructive criticism that encourages more people to take a shot or whether we give destructive critique that discourages and demotivates others?

            And you’re absolutely right about Grace Hopper, etc. – let me try to make the point differently. Ignore the gender of the group: I think we can all agree that we want more people to attempt solutions to gender violence, because relatively few people do. Given that, should we a) destructively critique people who try or b) actively encourage them with positive guidance on next steps that would be more effective? You’re absolutely right we celebrate those women because they are badasses, and because they are women, that had a disproportionate effect on bringing other women in to the field (as well as some men, I’m sure). These guys did something that is imperfect but still valuable – by celebrating them, we encourage others to also address the problem and in particular we encourage young men to address the problem (the rarer group in those addressing). Is that somewhat clearer?

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          I don’t think it’s accurate to characterize this article as “ridicule,” “pissed” or “anger and destructive criticism.” Audrey’s article actually gives really clear and level-headed critique, inclusive of pointing allies in the direction of ways they can be more helpful.

          From the article:

          “If even one woman evades sexual assault because she put on this nail polish, then I will give these dudes a virtual high five, and I certainly don’t blame any woman who uses it or otherwise goes to great lengths to protect herself from risk. But this product does nothing to dismantle a culture of violence against women that demands we constantly become ever more vigilant against those who would do us harm. Undercover Colors, like so many other products, treats rape as an individual incident rather than a systemic and pervasive problem.

          I am thankful that more men are becoming allies to sexual assault victims and potential victims. Some efforts, like educational and advocacy program Men Can Stop Rape, focus on deconstructing tropes around masculinity and empowering men to identify and speak out against violence. In contrast, Undercover Colors ignores so many realities — the limited number of rapes that involve date rape drugs, the even smaller number of women who might be in a position to test for such drugs, and the very large number of women who are raped by someone they would never suspect of harming them. What if they had combined their chemistry powers to develop a more efficient and effective rape kit or to create awareness around misogyny and violence against women in the sciences?”

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            Then we disagree, strongly. Could it have been angrier? Sure, absolutely. But she trivializes it as a science project, accuses the product (and by proxy, the young men) of perpetuating victim blame, and directly says that she begrudges the men because she thinks they are pulling funding with initiatives she finds valuable. And those are all based on direct quotes from the article.

            Not once does she acknowledge that these young men are effective male advocates or that they are promoting male advocacy. She does she say that she appreciates male advocates generally, but then seems to suggest that she doesn’t appreciate these guys. And she says she’ll give them a virtual high five if they ever manage to prevent an actual rape (implying that their imperfect product has no chance of doing so).

            So let’s not confuse this with level-headed, supportive critique. Is it the worst possible article that one could right? Of course not and I bet real money that Audrey is actually pretty awesome and wants male advocates to get involved. Hence my taking rather a lot of time to try to talk through the tone of how one actually gets dudes to get involved.

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            I felt the urge earlier to start sending you links on pedagogy and how to teach (which is basically the science of facilitated human growth as we know it). That just feels condescending to me, as does your repeatedly telling me I’m tone policing (which I’m actually not), so I didn’t do it.

            I actually like “If you tread on someone’s toes, and they tell you to get off, then get off their toes. Don’t tell them to “ask nicely”.” So let’s use it here. I’m not saying “don’t be pissed that women get raped”. Nor am I saying “ask nicely and we’ll stop raping you”.

            This isn’t an instance in which guys actually did something actively bad and now we’re discussing it. This is an instance where they did something actively good (though imperfect) and someone wrote an article that painted them as having done something bad, which isn’t the case. And then it was suggested that that was OK because it should be seen as directions on how to make them good.

            Want the imperfectly good to do better? Say “you did this well, here is how you can do better”. That’s a basic principle of both psychology and education and is the right way to address anyone you want to help grow.

            Aren’t interested in helping them grow? That’s cool, you do your thing, you can safely ignore all of my comments and not miss a darn thing.

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            Also, to be clear, I wasn’t necessarily saying the article itself embodies all of those things – some of that is in reaction to the comments. *grins*

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          You’re right but probably not in the way that you’re hoping. I think that not only that this won’t help, but that her explanation of how it fits into rape culture is incredibly clear. Also, the author never suggests that men are incapable of being helpful- she actually gives examples of programs based around male advocacy in the article. If you are an ally or an advocate (and also, look up the word ally because your definition is actually that of a sympathizer), you have to realize that you have to listen to the people you are trying to help and help those people. Instead, you are complaining like a child, saying “isn’t it enough that i claim to care? isn’t that what being an ally is about? making me feel good? pretending that i did a good job or these men did a good job even when pretending actually makes things worse? because if you pretend I’m good at it, I’ll keep pretending that I’m an ally/advocate, and that’s what really matters.”
          Really, I’m sure just you being here to disagree with us about the utility of a product meant to help people that aren’t you is great. We should be so grateful to you and the creators of this mostly useless product. this is a huge advancement. Because now the people perpetuating rape culture aren’t our enemies or oppressors, they’re our advocates. *grins*

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      Not gonna wade back through all of this, but I want to respond to your most recent comment. No mincing words, I think Undercover Colors is a really bad idea. Lots of sexual assault experts and advocates agree with me. I could not have written an honest essay that did not dismiss the nail polish thing entirely. There are some ways in which it is actively good (yay men talking about dismantling rape culture), and there are also ways in which it is actively bad, so at best it’s a neutral — and a neutral that is receiving gobs and gobs of attention and money. So no, I can’t say “you did this well, here’s how to do it better.” Instead I said, this is a terrible idea, here are some better ones! I pointed out good work that both men and women are doing and suggested ways in which men in the sciences can do meaningful, effective work. I want smart men fighting sexual assault with us, but I won’t praise bad ideas from them anymore than I’ll praise bad ideas by women (that horrifying and ridiculous barbed female condom situation was invented by a woman, for example).

      If our fundamental disagreement here is whether the nail polish itself is a good or bad idea, I’m not sure where to go from here.

      Another important thing that speaks several of your comments — I wasn’t really talking to the guys behind UC, as I sincerely doubt they’ll ever read this. I wasn’t even talking to other men who might be interested in working to combat rape culture (though others have pointed out why if reading this discourages them, we may not want them on the front lines anyway). I wrote this for our community of queer women writers and readers to talk about the ways we must demand better from anti-rape work and not get complacent or congratulatory when presented with ineffective and/or incomplete solutions.

      And one last thought — it’s bizarre to me that you just accused Laura of condescension. Perhaps you aren’t aware of how that *grins* thing comes across.

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        Damnit. I wrote a wonderful response and then site ate it: stupid “can’t connect to database error”!

        Short form: I suspect we do disagree at a fundamental level about the badness of what these guys created and the attention it is getting. You cite unnamed experts on your side – I guess I cite the general public, plus all the research I pointed out that specifically rebut what see to be your points (funding, attention, rape blame, and fear).

        As for the *grins* – sorry, I’m human. I’m trying to laugh and have a bit of snark to avoid being insanely pissed off that you and some other commenters are using precisely the language that men have used to silence women for so long, like “I’m sorry that you BLANK” and then blaming anyone that might find your article objectionable as not a good enough ally. I’m trying to laugh and be pretty level-headed instead of just completely losing my mind that the very folks I would most expect to object to that kind of language are using it.

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          I appreciate that this is obviously an issue close to you. And I appreciate that you are taking the time to engage on an issue in a space that is not designed for you. But I’m also confused by your insistent defense of these guys. You’re saying you have invested a great deal of time and resources in being an ally in an effective manner. I think that’s valuable, and I appreciate it. However, we don’t see evidence that these guys were as thoughtful in their work as allies as you have been in your efforts. Why is that such a problem for you? If you have high standards, why is it a problem for you that they don’t meet those standards?

          Also, I think you’re forgetting an underlying power issue. Men, and what they have to say, are given more credence and respect in society than women and our ideas. Your refusal to believe women who say these men’s efforts are a problem, is a problem. It is not good allyship. Your decision to defend them for making a sad effort over believing women who are giving their honest opinion about that effort is, in my opinion, poor allyship. I get that male allyship is important, and needs to be fostered. But fostering at the expense of giving women’s voices equal credence fundamentally undermines the point of that allyship.

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            I feel like this is where we get into having two actually different discussions here.

            1) Is what the guys did helpful or hurtful to rape prevention?

            2) Is the way in which the author and commenters have expressed their reaction to that going to create more or fewer male allies?

            My problem with critiquing them for not being perfect falls into the (2) bucket; those critiques, if not expressed constructively, result in fewer male allies, which we desperately need.

            The problem is that hinges on (1) and what we are comparing these dudes to. If we are comparing them to the other teams who chose not to address rape as an issue in this competition, then I’d rather have more of them these guys than less of them. If we compare them to the hypothetical versions of themselves where they built a cheap-to-analyze rape kit (which I think has much higher practical value) after talking to folks who were super familiar with the problem, then yes, I’d much rather have more of the hypothetical versions.

            So I suppose that is why I am so passionate in my defense. I recognize that (2) rests on (1), and so I’m arguing that is important to acknowledge both that these guys did something less than perfect but that what they did is actually a good deal better than doing nothing at all. Which, without putting words in her mouth, I think Audrey disagrees with me on – she thinks it would be better for them to have done nothing. Or maybe not – the prose and comment make me think so but I could be entirely off base.

            I’m sorry you feel I’m not giving women equal credence. I am showing up, and responding to these comments with a minimum snark and I’d like to think no shortage of intelligence. Which, at least in my world, is one of the highest compliments you can pay: having the intelligent discussion, even when you disagree. Listening and responding, in some depth, and caring enough to keep doing it.

            What’s funny is that even that appears to be undervalued by some here. Why spend time writing? Don’t you have better things to do? I wrote it originally after some debate, and have continued to write, because I think it matters how we choose to bring allies and advocates into a cause. And because I think the women here are important voices in doing that. And as a guy who spends a bunch of time trying to bring other guys into the fold, I’d rather you didn’t make it harder for me.

            So there we have it. I think some people here agree with me that what they did is suboptimal and others think what they did is actually hurtful; I’ve offered evidence for my side on both funding and attention and I doubt that anyone will say “well you should have been using that special nail polish” as a form of victim blame anytime soon. And I think there are people who think demonizing these guys are wrong (although given how quickly she was shouted down, I wouldn’t expect her to chime in again) and those who think we should demonize them because they actively hurt the cause.

            But to the person who called me a pretend ally – I will bet you a significant portion of my income that I have taken more direct action to improve the status of women in America than you have. Am I imperfect in that advocacy? Absolutely. Am I an imperfect dude more generally? Yep. But of all the many things I’ve done in my life, that has been the least socially rewarding: men say idiotic things like “the only reason there are male allies is because they want to get dates” and women point to all the ways we could be doing more.

            Side note: I actually had a woman tell me the other day that helping women understand how to use data to negotiate for a raise was teaching them to “act like men”. Since when did men have the monopoly on logic? Fuck me running.

            But you’re absolutely right about one thing: I do have other things on my plate right now. Sadly, they are confidential but I will try to remember to tell Audrey about it when it launches and then we can see how she feels. And I promise not to say a damn thing if she thinks it is terrible, so you don’t have to deal with a discussion that isn’t perfectly in line with the community conclusion.

            And for what it is worth, the net effect is that I am temporarily less excited to try to work on this problem. And I honestly think that if you step back and look at this discussion, you can see why. Now you can argue that means I shouldn’t be trying to help in the first place, but I think to most folks, this conversation would be discouraging. Because I pointed out at the beginning, if you tell people how bad they are instead of how good they could be, they stop trying.

            Maybe that’s a worthwhile metric: I walked away less likely to help with rape prevention (at least temporarily; fortunately, I’ll rebound given my massive ego and belief that this is changeable). Did you? Because if you didn’t, then it is because you are in the position of power. This is your turf, a community of people likely to agree with you. And you used it to make someone else want to help less.

            Awesome.

            Tara: good call. I should have started by congratulating Audrey for thinking about rape culture, even if I don’t agree with her opinions. I sometimes forget that not everyone understands that when I take the time to make an intelligent argument, I’m trying to say just that. So if I didn’t start with it, at least I can end with it – Audrey, thanks for taking the time to think critically about this issue. I think next time around, there is a way to present it that both talks about the issues with what they did and still encourages male advocacy and I’ve tried to outline how. Look forward to future articles.

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          lol yo friend, you seem to need something to do tonite lololol cuz i’ve read what you wrote and some of it is cool but like go find some site with a bunch of cis-men on it and go learn THEM something cuz for me i’m just like stop

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          Somebody reaaally seems to want a pat on the back and a cookie for being an “ally” and when he didn’t get one he’s pissed.

          I’m really getting tired of the male trolls who have been visiting this site as of late. First their was the transphobic asshole last week going on about how mentally disturbed trans people are. Now we get this guy.

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          Three things:

          1. It’s not for you to decide if you’re an ally or not. It’s up to the people you are claiming to be an ally to.

          2. Giving money to a cause is not the same thing as being a good ally.

          3. If your likelihood to help rape prevention depends on how women react to your version of helping, then that says a lot more about you and it does about anyone else.

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      Hi Matt!

      Maybe your comment would have gone over better if you had started off by thanking the author for the time and thought that she put into writing this and listing all of the ways that the two of you agree before you launched into your critiques… and then of course finished up your comment by stating that her attempt to help dismantle rape culture is AWESOME and she deserves a pat on the back even if you think she could do better next time.

      Or do the rules you’re trying to teach the author about constructive criticism somehow not apply to you?

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    i’ve always wished that people had the ability to push out grated steel spikes from their orifices at even the slightest threat of rape. like i’ve imagined/daydreamed that my vagina would push out wolverine-like claws when it’s been under attack so that my attacker’s parts would be shredded to bits immediately, like the second they even put half of anything where it shouldn’t that my body would be able to “shut that shit down” and provide an equally brutal response to a brutal situation. i think a part of me has always been mad at god or the universe for not equipping us all with some sort of self-protection worthy of even the largest/most aggressive attacker. i’m weird i think.

    but that hasn’t happened, didn’t happened, won’t happen.

    nail polish just isn’t the thing at all.

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      You’re not weird.
      Wanting The Black Furies from White Wolf to real is weird but still it’s all like some sort of attempt to cope or what.
      *still fantasizes about survivors going Crinos and never having to be survivors*

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