As a man, it shouldn’t be surprising that I just don’t get all those nail polish selfies on Instagram. What is surprising – to nobody more than me – is that I’ve just taken a nail polish selfie.
I recently met a guy called Tom Pugh, who set up a charity called Given to Live that gives people with physical, mental or emotional difficulties the opportunity to experience live music in ways they would otherwise not be able to. It’s a really wonderful idea, but it’s not Tom’s only good idea.
You might have read in recent days about the development of a nail varnish that can detect date rape drugs in drinks by changing colour. Clever, eh? Maybe – until you stop and consider the implications. A backlash laying out those implications has been trending on the BBC News website and, writing in The Guardian’s Comment is Free yesterday, Jessica Valenti laid them out pretty frankly.
I don’t doubt that the guys who are developing this nail polish – and, interestingly, they are all guys – are doing it with the best intentions. But what does it say about how we approach and think about rape? That it’s just an unfortunately inevitable threat in our society? That the onus is on women to defend themselves against that unfortunate threat? What does it say about how women should feel about being victimised in this way when the response offered to the covert, secret and cowardly act of slipping something in someone’s drink is to use a covert and secret trick to find out? True, a woman is spared the horror of being raped – but a would-be rapist is spared any consequence other than wasting a roofie and not having his way. With her, at least. This time, at least. Not good enough. The same problem of rape still remains.
In his blog yesterday, Tom apologised for the pun of calling this new nail polish “mere veneer”. But that is what it is – a gimmick, not a solution, because it just glosses over the problem. There is already enough stigma and silence around rape and sexual crimes. They are already under-reported and under-punished. Colour-changing nail polish might quietly prevent a rape here and a rape there, but it still keeps it secretive and hush-hush. It doesn’t address the root causes – the predatory attitudes of some men towards women, and the culture of impunity that emboldens those attitudes. If we want to – and we need to – go further to challenge rape in our society, we challenge it openly.
So why am I painting my nails? What will that achieve? In this video, Tom explains his idea for asking myself and a number of other men to wear nail polish for a week. For me, it’s a statement. Women shouldn’t have to wear James Bond nail polish to protect themselves. The onus is not on women not to be raped: the onus is on men – not only not to rape, but not to perpetuate the stigma and the silence around rape and sexual predation. And the onus is on us as a society not to stand for, stigmatise or trivialise sexual crime.
How does painting my nails make that statement? Well, anyone who knows me knows well I’m not the most extroverted guy. I’m a lot more self-conscious than self-confident. So, this is a little nerve-wracking for me. Over the next seven days, when I’m out and about, I know I’ll be embarrassed and wondering what people are thinking. But I hope some of them are less self-conscious than I am. I hope some people ask why. I’m glad you asked, I’ll say. Because that’s how the conversation starts and the silence starts to end. And I hope most of them are men.
Speaking of men – I want to speak to the men reading this, and ask you to take up Tom’s challenge too. Join in. For one week, paint your nails and when someone asks why, tell them. Because as a man, I’m not okay with rape. Or however you want to put it into your own words.
How much difference will it make, you ask? I don’t know. We’ll see. These things often start small with one person with a novel idea, getting a handful of others involved and letting it grow. Whatever you make of the Ice Bucket Challenge, there’s no doubt that a lot more people know a lot more – and are talking a lot more – about motor neurone disease/ALS than a few months ago. People who wanted to do something about it.
And that is what’s needed here – not just awareness, but knowledge, and not just knowledge but action, however small. It’s one way to help break the silence. One way to highlight the absurdity that a woman should have to use her nail polish to avoid being raped. One way to say that we are all responsible for challenging and eradicating rape in our society.
Men, paint your fingers. Thanks.
The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre Helpline can be reached at 1800 77 88 88