Nail polish against rape: an update

I intended posting a nail polish update at the end of my week of wearing it, but other things cropped up, so I’m only getting to it now. What that means, though, is I got some extra time out of the nail polish. Or it got some much-needed extra time out of me.

In case you missed the original post, a fellow named Tom Pugh asked myself and several other men to paint our nails for a week to highlight the issue of date rape. This was his idea in response to news that a new nail polish can detect date rape drugs like Rohypnol, changing colour if dipped in a drink that has been spiked. At first, it might sound like a clever invention. But the problem is, it still puts the onus squarely on women to prevent rape, it still maintains the silence and stigma around sexual violence, and it still continues to let sexual predators and would-be rapists off the hook. Not good enough, thought Tom. By painting our nails, the idea was, on the one hand, for us men to highlight that it shouldn’t be up to women to have to wear nail polish to avoid being raped; and on the other hand, that when asked, we could take the opportunity to talk about this and say that “as a man, I’m not okay with rape”.

So, how did it go for me? 2014-09-09 01.05.11Well, not as well as I would have liked, but partly that was my own fault. I had no qualms in talking about the issue, but – being the self-conscious type – I often caught myself hiding my nails in public. Which kind of defeated the point. I thought of Oliver Burkeman‘s experiment in the Stoic “ritual of deliberate self-humiliation” to remind himself that often the things we dread to the point of paralysis turn out to be not nearly as mortifying as we’d imagined. In his wonderful book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, he describes travelling on the London Underground and bellowing out the name of each stop. Terrified beforehand, Burkeman discovered that the worst he got was a few funny looks from strangers he’d probably never see again, and no harm done. Which is about the same as I got when I was typing or paying for my coffee or reading my paper, but yet I instinctively felt embarrassed. Eventually I did get used to it – but it’s one reason why I didn’t get asked too many questions.

Another reason may be that while people might notice strange things about others in public, many won’t comment on them, instead keeping their assumptions to themselves. I’m sure there were people who may have assumed I might be gay, a closet goth or maybe had a mischievous daughter but no strangers bothered to ask, so which is it then? Perhaps if there’s one downside to Tom’s nail-painting plan, that might be it. People often assume, but don’t question.

When I did get asked about my nails, it was mostly by people I knew, most of whom were women, most of whom were already of a similar opinion. The big challenge came when I was playing in a weekly ukulele session and knew there would be no avoiding my nails being on display. So I plunged in and took the opportunity to talk about the issue in public to a lot of people at once. Which was great and the response was positive – but it was brief. There were songs to be played and people waiting to hear them, so it perhaps wasn’t the best place for opening up a discussion on rape.


Now, that might all make it sound like it wasn’t a very successful activity, but actually, it was by no means a waste. On an individual level, it certainly kept the issue in the forefront of my attention, since every look at my hands was a reminder, and that made me engage with it all the more. And in both the mainstream media and social media there was plenty of opportunity for engagement. Colour-changing nail polish was not at all the only story about rape in the news last week. In fact, it was the most positive and least disturbing of them.

The most high-profile story was of rapper CeeLo Green’s deeply unpleasant tweets, which  suggested either (as The Independent and The Guardian read it) that “it isn’t rape if the victim is unconscious“; or that if a woman is unconscious, she can’t prove she was raped – which is only marginally less sinister. There was an obvious backlash – his TV show was cancelled, he was dropped from the Gretna Heritage Festival (and gratifyingly replaced by a feminist in Joan Jett); and even our little ukulele group made the explicit decision not to play the one CeeLo song in our songbook (though, to be honest, we’d never played it before anyway). It’s encouraging to see that – in the public arena at least – such victim-blaming attitudes are unacceptable.

But it’s not the public arena where the problem really exists. Rape is secretive, underhand, covert, and is born out of personally-held attitudes towards women. Sometimes those attitudes do spill out into the public arena, as with CeeLo’s tweets. An art student at Columbia University is almost literally dragging her alleged rape out into the open – carrying her mattress around the campus with her until the student she says raped her is expelled. But for the most part, rape, sexual violence and the attitudes towards them still stay hidden. And that goes for how women are treated after they’ve been raped too.


If you get sick, get a hangover, get fired because you were drunk, it might be reasonable to say “Well, I deserved that. I’ve only myself to blame.” If you get raped because you were drunk? There is no equivalence.

Last week, Tom sent me a link to another story whose headline said it all: “I was raped at university. Afterwards the police pressured me into dropping the charges. Why?” The why ties in well with CeeLo Green’s attitude toward rape – because the woman had been drunk. The judge – a woman herself – said “rape conviction statistics will not improve until women stop getting so drunk”. It was not just the content of the article that was disturbing, but the content of the comments on the Independent’s Facebook page, many from men who were suggesting – in line with the judge – that it was the woman’s fault for being drunk.

Now, I don’t know if these guys have or have not ever been drunk but I’m fairly sure that they wouldn’t have taken the blame had someone raped them while they were passed out. If you get sick, get a hangover, get fired because you were drunk, it might be reasonable to say “Well, I deserved that. I’ve only myself to blame.” If you get raped because you were drunk? There is no equivalence. It’s not just the illogical idiocy of that attitude that’s disturbing: it’s the misogyny inherent in the double standard. It’s the victim-blaming, it’s the constant emphasis on the woman’s responsibility to defend herself to the neglect of the real issue – challenging and changing those attitudes. Which brings us back to the nail polish.


The day after I’d painted my nails, I was at a party. Among friends, I was happy to flaunt my nails (and take the compliments on how “beautiful” they were) and I was happy to talk – again, among like-minded folk – about why they were painted. Afterwards, I took the bus home, a little drunk, to the second-last stop in a dark and quiet residential estate. The only other person who got off at the same stop was a young woman, who may or may not have been drunk herself. The fresh nail polish on my nails suddenly made me all the more aware of what that must feel like – to walk alone as a woman in a dark place late at night with a strange man walking behind you. I could imagine the fear, the sense of being threatened – even though knew I was no threat to her – and I thought how awful that must be to have to feel instinctively fearful and defensive just because you are a woman and for some men that makes you available for their gratification. Only challenging and changing those attitudes will really change that reality for women. It won’t be done by any colour-changing cosmetic.

This nail polish gimmick may well prevent the occasional rape, but what happens when it becomes just another expectation, another obligation, another way to blame the victim? How long until the usual excuses – she shouldn’t have gotten drunk or she shouldn’t have walked down that street or she shouldn’t have been alone or she shouldn’t have worn such a short skirt – are joined by she should have worn her anti-roofie nail polish? As Tom Pugh wrote in his blog, it’s just veneer. The only expectation should be this: She shouldn’t have to feel that fear. She shouldn’t have been raped. No excuses. No matter what.

So I am glad that I took on Tom’s challenge, but I’m also glad I can now take off my own nail polish and go out and about without feeling self-conscious, without attracting stares or assumptions or unwelcome attention. I wish it was that easy for everyone.


Tom Pugh is the founder of the live music charity Given to Live. Watch his video on this Paint Your Fingers campaign and check out his blog at

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre Helpline can be reached at 1800 77 88 88


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