The Meaning of Technology and Drug-Detecting Nail-Polish

ThinkProgress has an interesting story today about anti-rape activists’ mixed feelings toward a new nail polish that can detect various “date rape” drugs. I think there are three related arguments against this product: technologies that allow individual women to prevent date rape 1) are an individual rather than collective solution to the problem of date rape, 2) lead their user to believe that she bears primary responsibility for preventing rape, and 3) may perpetuate that expectation and thereby entrench “rape culture.”

The first criticism of this product seems to me like a category mistake. It seems like a very good thing that women will prevent some date rapes with this new technology. If the choice is between 100 drug-induced and 90 ones, all other things equal, we would clearly prefer 90. So the objection that individual use of this technology doesn’t fundamentally transform unjust social norms seems inapt to me–that option is not part of an individual woman’s choice set. Still, however, it is better for each individual woman that she foils a would-be rapist.  Individual use of this technology solves an individual problem, and it’s no objection to individual use that it doesn’t solve a collective problem because the two are categorically different.

Of course, technologies do have social and collective effects, which leads to the second criticism. It’s certainly possible that the collective effect of this technology would be to reinforce the sense that women bear an unfair responsibility for preventing rape. But I don’t think that’s a necessary effect.

Consider what might have been said about another technology that made women’s lives easier–the washing machine: “Washing machines make individual women’s lives a lot easier. But, women shouldn’t have to buy products that make their housework easier because the sexual distribution of household labor is fundamentally unjust. In fact, focusing on making women’s housework easier might actually distract and even reinforce the idea that women should be homemakers.”

This argument is very similar to the argument made here against the collective impact of technologies like date-rape detecting nail polish. In fact, however, technologies like the washing machine were instrumental in liberating women to participate fully in public life. Rather than further entrenching and imprisoning women in the home, technologies like the washing machine helped women undo the social norm of “separate spheres.” As the feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton observed:

“Is it, then, consistent to hold the developed woman of this day within the same narrow political limits as the dame with the spinning wheel and knitting needle occupied in the past? No, no! Machinery has taken the labors of woman as well as man on its tireless shoulders; the loom and the spinning wheel are but dreams of the past; the pen, the brush, the ease], the chisel, have taken their places, while the hopes and ambitions of women are essentially changed.”

Washing machines by themselves didn’t secure women’s suffrage. But women did use their newfound independence made possible by technology to bring about changes in their political status. Obviously, drug-detecting nail polish has a much smaller effect. But the essential similarity is this–intentions matter when it comes to technology. Indeed, it is a strange form of technological determinism to suggest that this new product will reinforce existing norm around rape prevention. A better model to guide users of these of products would be that these put would-be rapists of the world on notice.

The third argument is simply an extension of the second. Technologies that make individual people safer don’t necessarily express or entrench victimhood. They don’t necessarily entrench or express anything. Anti-rapists are right that social norms around rape prevention need to change, and drug-detecting nail polish is one small part of the solution for policing and disciplining would-be rapists.

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