Want to Prevent Campus Rape? We Need More Than Nail Polish!

09/18/2014 09:58 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2014

Fun fact: According to eBay, the top-selling OPI nail polish color on the site is "You Are So Outta Line," followed by "Haven't the Foggiest" at Number 2. Rounding out the list at Number 8? "4 in the Morning." It was only a matter of time before someone thought to himself, "Hmmm... rape drugs and raping seem to be problems. Solution: nail polish." (I then picture this entrepreneurial fellow turning to his bro, high-fiving, and yelling "Nailed it!")

Sure enough, this time has come to pass. A team of North Carolina State University undergrads developed a nail polish that changes colors in the presence of a date rape drug. The inventors founded Undercover Colors, a company calling itself the "First Fashion Company to Prevent Sexual Assault." The idea is that a young woman will stir her drink with her finger. If the polish changes colors, her drink has been "roofied." The company's Facebook page promises "Empowerment through discreet functional fashion."

Now, if I had a drug slipped in my drink, I'm sure I would find it helpful to know about it. If my lovely shade of "Up on the Roofie-Top" can get me there, great. But I'm not confident that celebrating this type of approach to dealing with campus sexual assault offers the "empowerment" college women (and men) actually need.

As students at Columbia University recently pointed out, rape prevention efforts rarely invite men and women to think about the true nature of sexual consent. The underlying interplays of power, sex and privilege are left unexamined, shaping how women and men come to experience their sexuality in radically different ways. When one in four college women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, we must be willing to confront these deeper questions.

Colleges, universities and even the Obama administration are finally paying attention to the culture of sexual violence that pervades campus life. Still, campus sexual assault prevention efforts tend to emphasize rape avoidance as a female responsibility. Don't get too drunk at a party. Don't walk home alone. Don't leave home without your date rape nail polish. Men, when they are addressed, are generally urged to "intervene" in sticky situations (at least until the nail polish dries). In this system, the blame for rape indirectly falls on the careless victim rather than on the abuser.

Campus communities need to recognize the role that gender norms and silencing play in sexual assault and gender-based violence among college students. Long before a college student first sets foot on campus, the culture they live in is already shaping these patterns. When men are taught to treat women as sexual objects -- trophies to be won or prizes to be shared -- they also learn to understand sexual aggression and sexual pleasure apart from mutual consent. When a woman is taught that the responsibility for her own sexuality is in some sense out of her hands -- that whether she will or will not have sex depends on how well she plays defense -- then she experiences a missed opportunity to reflect, with men, on how they might build together the type of world in which people are not slipping other people date rape drugs -- or raping.

So how can we build campus cultures that allow men and women to thrive while maturing as healthy and whole sexual persons? I believe it starts way before 4 a.m.

Years before, actually.

By the time young people arrive on campus, they have been shaped by almost two decades of messages about gender, sex and power. Working with universities to reduce sexual violence is crucial, but it is a process of intervention. All of us can also be part of shifting the culture in which our young people mature as sexual and ethical persons.

What can you do?

Talk to friends, parents, educators and lawmakers about the messages they are communicating to young people -- children and teens -- about sexual ethics, health and wellness. Support age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education for children and youth. Comprehensive sexuality education directly contributes to preventing campus sexual violence and sexual assault by equipping young people with the skills to consider sex, gender and reproductive health. Write your representatives and urge them to support the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act. Urge the White House to do the same.

Some criteria? Good sexuality education for young people sends the message that sexual health is important. Bodies are worth caring for. Each person deserves sexual autonomy--the right to make decisions for themselves about sexual activity and reproductive health. Better sexuality education can go even further, helping young people to think critically about gender and sexuality. This includes talking about violence, power, and problematic cultural messages about masculinity, femininity and (hetero)sexism.

The best sexuality education also invites young people to begin developing vocabularies and frameworks for discerning between positive, mutually pleasurable sexual experiences and those that abuse, exploit, or coerce. These will tools go far beyond nail polish to fight sexual violence, both on campus and in the communities where these young people live.